JIAN XIAN’AI (1906—1994) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

JIAN XIAN’AI (1906—1994)
The Dictionary

JIAN XIAN’AI (1906—1994). Fiction writer, poet, and essayist. Born into a scholar-official family in the southwestern province of Guizhou, Jian Xian’ai left his hometown at the age of 13 to study in Beijing. Although he only lived at home for less than four years, rural Guizhou is featured prominently in his work. Through the Literary Research Society, which he joined in 1926, he became acquainted with prominent literary figures like Zhu Ziqing, Shen Chongwen, and Xu Zhimo. Although Jian studied economics at Beijing University, he became interested in literature as a way to dispel loneliness. His first attempt was as a short story writer. Zhao wu (Morning Fog), his first short story collection, was published in 1927. It consists of re-creations of his childhood world as he remembered it. Marked by melancholy and sentimentalism, these stories capture the colors and scents of a mountain village in Guizhou and express the pathos and nostalgia of a wanderer away from home. “Dao jia de wanshang” (The Homecoming Night) tells the tale of a young man returning home only to find his family’s circumstances greatly reduced. The sorrows for the loss of a much more cheerful life palpate throughout the text. “Shui zang” (Water Burial) tells of a custom in his hometown through the death of a young man sentenced to drown as a punishment for theft. While depicting the callousness of the villagers who enjoy watching this barbaric practice, Jian focuses on the young man’s mother, who waits for her son’s return, unaware of what is happening to him, contrasting her maternal love with a cruel custom. Jian’s criticism of the traditional practice was clearly influenced by the iconoclastic positions held by May Fourth New Culture proponents such as Lu Xun, who showed an interest in Jian’s work and observed the authentic feelings of nostalgia in his writings.

In 1928, Jian returned to Guizhou and spent three months in his hometown, an experience that changed him and the style of his writing. No longer lingering over the private feelings of homesickness, his new stories sought to come to grips with the difficult life led by the working poor. “Yanba ke” (The Salt Carrier), “Zai Guizhou dao shang” (The Roads of Guizhou), “Du” (River Crossing), and other stories describe the hardships of sedan carriers, salt sellers, men and women, victims of poverty, barbaric traditions, and social ills. “Xiangjian de beiju” (A Tragedy in the Countryside), “Chouchu” (Hesitation), and “Yan zai” (Salt Shortage), all published in the mid-1930s, deal with social structure and class hierarchy, portraying a province plagued by fights among the warlords, its countryside under constant threats from bandits, rampant use of opium, an economy in shambles, and the people struggling to survive. For these hometown stories, Jian is considered one of the forerunners of nativist literature.

The two decades of the 1920s and 1930s were Jian’s most productive years. When the Japanese troops invaded Beijing, Jian gave up his job at Beijing Songpo Library and returned with his family to his hometown and lived there until his death. Finding the atmosphere in the relatively peaceful mountain province too apathetic for his liking, Jian wrote essays and poems in an attempt to galvanize the population to join the anti-Japanese war effort. As the most important writer in Guizhou, Jian also worked as a teacher, a professor, a school principal, an editor, and a government official. He was also a critic of the theater, an interest he cultivated under the influence of his friend and classmate Li Jianwu when both were middle school students in Beijing.

h 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.