JIA PINGWA (1952— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

JIA PINGWA (1952— )
The Dictionary

JIA PINGWA (1952— ). Fiction writer and essayist. One of the most prolific writers in China today and the winner of several international prizes, including the Pegasus Prize for Literature, Jia has been active in the contemporary Chinese literary scene for almost three decades. A native of Shaanxi Province, Jia grew up in the countryside with a schoolteacher father and a peasant mother. The area around Xi’an boasts a rich history of having served as the capital for several dynasties in Chinese history, and vestiges of this glorious past can still be found in not only the many imperial tombs and ancient city walls in the region but also in the customs, arts, and dialects of the people. Jia has successfully capitalized on the abundance of cultural heritage his native land has to offer and has written extensively about the rural communities he knows initimately.

Jia’s Shangzhou stories established him as a serious writer of literature. Inspired by trips into the mountainous countryside where he encountered remnants of the ancient past, these pieces explore the region’s cultural as well as natural landscape. Jia places his characters in the context of the economic reforms since the 1970s in order to examine the conflict between agrarian society and the modern world due to rapid industrialization. While the themes in these stories are not unique, the style is entirely his own. Known for his “elegant prose,” a mode of expression that finds its roots in classical Chinese literature, particularly the essays of the Ming and Qing dynasties, Jia uses a language that is both rustic and archaic, reflecting the actual speech in the area and thus giving these stories a deep sense of history and tradition. Layue Zhengyue (The Last and First Months of a Year) centers on a retired village schoolteacher who stubbornly refuses to accept the changes brought to the village by one of his former students. The clash between the old and the new values each character represents is revealed through a series of events that take place around the Chinese New Year. Other novels of Jia’s such as Shangzhou (Shangzhou) and Fuzao (Turbulence) and stories such as “Jiwowa renjia” (People of Jiwowa), “Xiaoyue Qianben” (The Story of Xiao Yue), and “Guafu” (The Widow) all received critical acclaim. Among these, Shangzhou is the most innovative. The book consists of eight chapters and each chapter contains three episodes. The first episode of each chapter deals exclusively with local history, describing in great detail Shangzhou’s mountains and rivers, local conditions and customs, historical anecdotes, and social changes. Only in the last two episodes does the love story become the primary plot. This arrangement foregrounds the local history, giving it the legitimacy to stand alone without the story, and treating Shangzhou as a character.

In 1993, the publication of Fei du (The Capital City in Ruins), an exposé of high society’s decadence, thrust the author into a stormy controversy. Jia was publicly ridiculed and the novel was soon banned. Fei du is about four libertines in an ancient city whose hedonistic lifestyles remind the reader of the celebrity scholars of ancient China who spent their days writing poetry, visiting sing-song girls, and enjoying great patronage. Accused of celebrating this way of life and exhibiting undisguised sexual acts, the novel was compared to Jin ping mei (Plum in the Gold Vase), a Ming dynasty novel known for its explicit sexual scenes. After Fei du, Jia has published several books, all with limited success, including the most recent, Qin qiang (Qin Qiang: the Shaanxi Opera), which has received mixed reviews. Some hailed it as a fitting “elegy” for the disappearing agrarian life; others were critical of its structural flaws.

Qin Qiang, a local opera popular among peasants, provides the backdrop for a story about the Shaanxi peasants in the era of reforms and urbanization. The story is narrated by a madman who is obsessed with a beautiful Qin Qiang opera actress from his village. He moves among the inhabitants of the village like a ghost, seeing and hearing everything. Through the madman’s grievances against his rival, the husband of the actress, the author accentuates the contrast between the values of the city and those of the countryside and the dilemmas faced by the peasants when their traditional way of life is threatened by the encroachment of modernization. Other than the madman’s intervention, the book is a naturalistic portrayal of village life made vivid by the bawdy, earthy local dialect.

Jia is a superb essayist with strong classical literary sensibilities. He is also an avid antique collector and a reputable calligrapher. See also ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE.