ZHANG CHENGZHI (1948— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

ZHANG CHENGZHI (1948— ). Fiction writer, essayist, and painter. Trained as an archeologist and a historian at Beijing University and the Chinese Institute of Social Sciences, Zhang has made a successful career in creative writing. This multilingual, multitalented scholar-writer rose to fame in the late 1970s with the short story “Qishou wei shenme gechang muqin” (Why Herdsmen Sing “Mother”), a romantic tale based on the author’s experience as an educated youth in Inner Mongolia between 1967 to 1972, which informs many of his other stories, including his best-known novella, Hei junma (The Black Steed). Set against the background of the Mongolian grassland, Hei junma revolves around the life of the hero and his relationship with a young girl and an elderly woman who has adopted them. It is a simple love story that reaches into the deep layers of traditional practices as they come into conflict with modern beliefs. The hero’s profound love for his land and his people transcends his frustration with and disappointment in some of its ancient practices, which he has come to understand as sources that have sustained their traditional way of life. Other noteworthy works originating from Zhang’s life as a herdsman include a novel, Jin muchang (The Golden Pasture), and some short stories. Zhang studied the history of China’s northern ethnic minorities as a graduate student and apparently identified with many of the traits that define their characters, such as honesty, fortitude, and friendship. Beifang de he (The River in the North) represents his understanding of the spirit of the nation, as embodied in the river in the north—the Yellow River—with its energy and vigor. It is less a story than a long poem, largely carried by the stream of consciousness and subjective ruminations of the narrator, a college graduate who has spent years as an educated youth in China’s northwest and who is preparing to take an exam for a postgraduate program in geology.

After Hei junma and Beifang de he, Zhang wrote an unconventional novel entitled Xinling shi (A History of the Soul), his most important work, which mixes fiction with poetry, history, and memoir. The main events of the narrative took place in the reign of Qianlong, emperor of the Qing dynasty, who launched successive brutal attacks on the Jahreyes, a subsect of Islamic Sufism, resulting in the latter’s fierce rebellious uprisings and suicide missions against the Manchu empire. As the violent past casts a long shadow across this emotional account of the narrator’s encounter with the Jahreyes, the author/narrator increasingly finds himself drawn to his ethnic and religious roots. Born in Beijing to a Muslim family, but raised in an atheist environment, Zhang was not encouraged to practice his religion. Considered a work of pain and love by the author, the book culminates Zhang’s long journey in search of spiritual sanctuary, not just for himself but also for the Chinese nation. In his rigorous defense of the heterodox, Zhang denounces mainstream Chinese culture for the collapse of its moral order and its lack of spirituality. He vehemently proclaims that only the heterodoxy has what it takes to pump new blood into the decayed body that is the Chinese culture. A consistent theme that runs through all of Zhang’s creative works is the defense of “the people.” He identifies with the underprivileged and feels affinity with poor peasants and herdsmen who are marginalized in society. He sees himself as their champion. In middle age, Zhang appears to have lost none of the youthful idealism of his Red Guard days. A lonely fighter most of the time, he has been waging a war against materialism and moral degradation since.

Other than his creative works written in Chinese, Zhang has penned several poems in Mongolian, and three scholarly books in Japanese, dealing with nomadic life in Mongolia, Islam in China, and the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. See also ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE.