ZHANG WEI (1956— )
ZHANG WEI (1956— ). Novelist. Born in Longkou, a coastal town in the eastern Shandong peninsula, Zhang Wei has made his hometown and its surrounding area the central location for his creative endeavors. He adopts a lyrical voice in his short stories about the disappearing natural rural life, while his social novels are narrated in a somber tone. A prolific writer, he has won numerous awards both on the mainland and in Taiwan.
Zhang rose to fame in the 1980s with the publication of several influential novels dealing with reforms taking place in the countryside. Gu chuan (The Ancient Boat) focuses on how the new policies have changed the lives of a former landlord’s children. Qiutian de fennu (The Wrath of Autumn) is about a lonely battle fought by a young man, also a former landlord’s son, against the tyranny of the village’s Communist Party secretary. Zhang’s humanistic inclinations made him a natural heir to the May Fourth iconoclastic legacy, which called for the enlightenment of the ignorant populace. His writings in this period tend to be critical of the peasants’ ignorance and slavish subservience to authority, which make modernization a difficult process in rural communities. He also explores the conditions that allowed totalitarianism to continue its dominance into the 1980s. As Deng Xiaoping’s reforms led China further and further away from its agrarian past, and as modernization left behind a devastated environment, Zhang began to turn his critical gaze toward the alienating effects of modernity and commercialism, expressing an aching nostalgia for the lost pastoral landscape.
Beginning with Jiuyue de yuyan (September’s Fable), and later in Huainian yu zhuiji (Yearnings and Remembrances), Mogu qizhong (Seven Kinds of Mushrooms), Baihui (Baihui), Waisheng shu (Letters), and Neng bu yi shukui (Remembering Hollyhock), Zhang explores the dichotomy between the countryside and the city, representing not only different lifestyles but also different worldviews. The old intellectual in Waisheng shu leaves his life in Beijing to find his ancestral home in a fishing village, leaving the center—the capital—for the fringe—the province—in order to cleanse his soul. The artist in Neng bu yi shukui is ruined because of his insatiable desires stimulated by a commercial culture; and only the hollyhock grown in the field can restore his health and creativity. By returning to the pastoral, Zhang’s characters discover their “home,” their spiritual anchor, in the villages and towns on the eastern coast. Similar themes can be found in his most recent novel, Ciwei ge (Song of a Hedgehog), which continues to explore the sense of loss felt by the individual when faced with the encroachment of modern commercial culture and the feeble but valiant resistence he puts up in order to find a place where he can lead his dream life and nurture his soul. The novel places the protagonist’s life against the century of history of a seaside region. The protagonist, a man of traditional sensibilities, finds a farm by the sea and lives there as a self-sufficient gentleman farmer. In his spare time, he works on a historical book on his ancestors and their relationship with the land. Reality, however, eventually dashes his dream with his farm gone and his family succumbed to the pressure of modernity.
Forever an idealist, Zhang laments the loss of values in contemporary Chinese life. In his writings, he consistently tries to retrieve these ideals from the past. With his expression of the discontent of the modern world, Zhang is considered an important voice in the root-seeking movement. He has also written stories based on ancient historical events and figures, another persistent effort of his to reconstruct the moral values of Chinese culture by re-creating the local history of his hometown, the Shangdong Peninsula. Among these historical tales, Yingzhou sixu lu (Record of Thoughts on Yingzhou) and Dong xun (Inspection Tour to the East) are best known.