DENG YOUMEI (1931— )
DENG YOUMEI (1931— ). Novelist. Though a veteran writer, Deng Youmei did not come to prominence until the early 1980s when he published a series of stories based on folklore and old traditions of Beijing. “Huashuo Taoran Ting” (Talking about Taoranting Park), Nawu (Nawu), Yan hu (Snuff Bottles), and “Xunzhao Hua’r Han” (Looking for Han the Forger) are among his best-known works. Thematically and aesthetically, these stories opened a new direction for post-Mao literature. Instead of writing directly about the destructive Cultural Revolution, a popular literary trend that was later given the name scar literature, Deng found inspiration in the old customs of Beijing formed by centuries of history as the political and cultural capital of the country, and particularly through the Manchu influences of the Qing dynasty. The main character in Nawu is a descendant of Manchu nobility who is an expert in many things, from cockfights and dog races to Peking opera and ancient art, everything except for the basic skills that could help him make a living at the time. “Xunzhao Hua’r Han” portrays the vicissitudes in the life of an antiques connoisseur. “Huashuo Taoran Ting” is set against the political backdrop of the 1970s, but the focus is on four old men practicing tai chi in the park. Deng makes good use of traditional institutions and objects, such as theaters, old academies, antiques, paintings, and calligraphies through which his characters interact with one another to form social connections. For his effort in searching for the old ways of life characteristic of a specific locale, Deng is considered one of the forerunners of the root-seeking movement in the post-Mao era. He took as models classical Chinese literature and art, such as Hong lou meng (A Dream of Red Mansions), Shuihu zhuan (The Water Margin), and the painting “Qingming shanghe tu” (The Scene of the Upper River at Qingming), which focus on presenting multiple facets of life in a particular place with attention to details that carry significant relevance to history.
Deng is a self-educated man who learned to write in the Communist army, which he joined in the early 1940s. After he left the army in 1949, he worked as a playwright in the Beijing People’s Art Theater. Like many of his contemporary writers, Deng followed the dictates of the party and wrote stories and plays to serve the socialist cause. In 1957, when intellectuals were purged for having criticized the party bureauracy, Deng was labeled a rightist and was dismissed from his job. The difficult years he had spent before being fully cleared in 1976 gave him many opportunities to get to know people from all walks of life who became material for his most memorable works.