By Zhao Jun
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, on September 29, President Xi Jinping presented the Medal of the Republic, the Friendship Medal and national honorary titles to 42 Chinese and foreign individuals at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Prestigious writer Wang Meng, also former Minister of Culture, was awarded the national honorary title of “People’s Artist.”
As illustrated in the accompanying report, as an author, Wang has grown with the People’s Republic and witnessed the development of contemporary Chinese literature. With representative and pioneering significance, his writings have been translated into more than 20 languages and published in many countries. He has also discovered and cultivated a great number of excellent young writers, making an outstanding contribution to the development and prosperity of contemporary Chinese literature.
Now 85, Wang remains sharp, humorous and inspiring. “This is a graceful and lofty honor,” he asserted in an interview after winning the national honorary title. “New China is turning 70, which is exciting. The country’s experiences and changes over the past seven decades have inspired my writings and life. My work and destiny are closely linked to the growth of the People’s Republic. I cherish the vivid, profound experiences and sensations that flavor the memories of the People’s Republic.”
Inspired Passion for Writing
On October 1, 1949, 15-year-old Wang Meng, then a student at the Central School of China Communist Youth League, attended the founding ceremony of the PRC, at which he heard Chairman Mao Zedong’s announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic. Earlier, he had already played an active role in the revolutionary movement led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) at only 11 before joining in the CPC at age 14.
“When Japanese aggressors occupied Beijing, I was only three years old,” Wang recalled. “I witnessed every Chinese person passing through Fuchengmen Gate required to perform a 90-degree bow to Japanese soldiers carrying weapons, which was my worst childhood memory. New China seized a hard-won victory after countless Chinese people persistently struggled for nearly a century.”
Massive construction in various fields of the newly founded People’s Republic sparked the enthusiasm of the teen. In 1953, Wang decided to write a full length novel to celebrate the new era of the Chinese nation. Rather than innate writing skill, Wang became a confident writer due to his passion for the history of the People’s Republic, changes in people’s lives and his own extraordinary experiences. A year later, the 20-year-old completed a 200,000-character novel, Long Live Youth. Depicting New China’s first-generation youngsters embracing new lives as an ode to youth, the novel was recognized as a milestone work in the history of Chinese literature.
A year after that, Wang published The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department, a novella that changed the path of his life and the course of his future. According to the author, this story is a sort of extension of Long Live Youth—youth sated with energy and confidence but bombarded with confusion and worries. Revealing Wang’s observations, reflections and worries during the early years of New China, the book earned him fame in Chinese literary circles. Chairman Mao expressed support for Wang Meng on many occasions as an anti-bureaucracy vanguard and a talented writer with a promising future. However, in an ironic twist, appreciation from the top leader did not save the young revolutionary from being labelled “an anti-Party rightist” just a few years later. Long Live Youth was consequently shelved.
After four years of labor in the countryside, Wang became a teacher at a university, where he read, pondered and regained peace in mind. From Wang’s perspective, his personal struggles were paltry considering the ups and downs of history, and he accepted the period as a life test.
Soon, Wang’s political savviness allowed him to acutely sense an imminent political movement, so he volunteered to work in the far west region of Xinjiang.
Alongside his family, 29-year-old Wang moved to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, after a five-day train trip. He spent the following 16 years in the region, which enabled him to escape the later political movement. His daughter was born there, and another person in his family died there. Xinjiang was an unforgettable chapter of his life.
During this period, he spent six years laboring in the countryside of Ili Prefecture, far from the regional capital. There, he joined local Uygur people residing in adobe houses, using kantuman(an iron farming tool) to tend fields, patrolling canals on horseback, drinking milk tea and eating nang (baked pancake) at dinner. He participated in local weddings and funerals, sharing joy and sorrow with the Uygurs, mastered the ethnic language and tied close bonds with locals. “Those years of living among minority ethnic people in the frontier region tempered my weak soul,” revealed Wang.
Xinjiang’s culture nourished him and enriched his creation. After authoring a 700,000-character full-length novel in the late 1970s to capture the flavors and lifestyles of Xinjiang during that historical period, he poured his memories of the local people into a fictionalized series titled In Ili. During hisstay in the United States as a visiting scholar in 1980, Wang captured his memories of the vast grassland of Xinjiang in the novella Miscellaneous Colors: “Riding a multi-colored aging horse, a humble young scholar is overwhelmed by myriad thoughts and ideas… amid thunder and lightning as well as hunger… A bowl of horse milk wine from an old Kazak woman hits the spot, and the hint of drunkenness transforms the old horse into a gallant steed carrying him on a glorious adventure.” These lines vividly mirror the author’s concern, passion and sentiment while in Xinjiang. “I will always love Xinjiang, miss the frontier area and cherish the beautiful memories of my years living on the vast sunny land despite some bitter trials.” Wang asserted. Just as he wrote at the end of the novel, “there remains a great ambition for success.”
Setting the Pace
In 1978 at the age of 44, Wang returned to Beijing to embrace the spring of reform and opening-up.
After hiding on the shelf for more than 20 years, Long Live Youth eventually went to press and was adapted into a hit film. Wang’s long-repressed inspiration and passion flooded out.
“National prosperity led to happiness of the people, and then to the happiness of Wang Meng,” concluded the author, who realized that when China prospered, his writings gained wider popularity.
Wang remained at the forefront of the great tide of Chinese literary reforms in the 1980s. With razor-sharp perception, he wrote a number of influential fictional works including Bolshevik Salute, Butterfly, The Eyes of Night, Dream of the Ocean, Kite Streamers and Voices of Spring. His fame swept across the Chinese literary community. The author endeavored to take readers into the spiritual world of the people during changing times, depict contradictions, shine light on problems, convey sentiments and herald hopes through multidimensional explorations of history and culture. These publications incorporated Western modernist approaches but maintained typical Chinese expression mixed with his personal voice, culminating in unprecedented prose that struck a chord with readers and triggered discussion on concepts such as “stream of consciousness” and “modernist school.” His 1986 work The Man with Movable Parts, which presents deep and relentless cultural reflections on his father’s generation through his own family, is still considered an influential masterpiece that leaves a powerful impact on readers.
In the fast-changing period, Wang Meng attracted considerable attention and sparked wide debate. His bold exploration inspired and drove literary creation, cementing his position as a highly respected trendsetter in the literary community. With unique artistic insight and an inclusive attitude, Wang enthusiastically encouraged young writers to engage in literary creation and pioneered innovations and progress for contemporary Chinese literature, which exerted influence around the world.
‘Writing to Participate’
In the early 1980s, Wang Meng successively served as editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine, vice executive chairman of the Chinese Writers Association, Minister of Culture and a research fellow at the Central Research Institute of Culture and History. During his tenure as Minister of Culture, he opened commercial ballrooms, launched the China Art Festival and carried out other innovative projects. However, feeling more like a “devoted and persistent literary writer,” Wang resigned the minister position after three years at the age of 55 so that he could concentrate on writing.
That move heralded a new stage of creation. His four-volume series Season was hailed as a highly valuable epic for its vivid depiction of the fates and ideas of intellectuals from different stages of the People’s Republic.
Wang is a versatile writer with works in a wide range of fields from criticism to prose, essay, travelogue, poetry and autobiography. He has also delivered many notable speeches. Around the turn of the 21st Century, Wang began focusing on traditional Chinese culture and published several books on the four eminent Chinese philosophers Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mencius and Chuang Tzu, and their classics. His publications in recent years have been mostly on cultural confidence. “The people’s spiritual space and cultural space have expanded greatly, which has strengthened cultural confidence,” he opined. “But culture sees no boundaries. I hope that more people will become aware of the considerablepotential to be tapped in Chinese cultural fields.”
Still a serious writer, Wang remains committed to conveying his observations, discoveries, criticism and philosophies to readers through multiple conduits with a sage’s acuity, dialectics, broadness and profundity.
“Wang Meng’s charisma is fueled by his lifetime attachment to China’s political ups and downs and cultural ecology,” remarked one critic. “His words and deeds mirror the contradictions and hardships of the times, radiating vigorous vitality.”
“Writing is my way of participating,” asserted Wang. “Through writing, I am connected with the country, the people, truth, history, culture, the Earth and the universe.”
Wang has been tending his literary garden for 67 years yet maintains exuberant creativity. For this reason, famous writer Tie Ning dubbed him an “aging child.”
“This year inspired a small upsurge in writing,” Wang smiled. In the first half of this year alone, he published four works of fiction. Among them, Love Unto Death is set in an age in which the general public no longer believes love against which the author expresses faith in love. Postal Affairs recounts the development and changes of China’s postal industry over the past 70 years, reflecting deep-rooted nostalgia and the country’s embrace of new technologies. He plans to publish a book on Lieh Tzu by the end of this year alongside a book on Hsun Tzu, on which he is working now. The latter will be the largest of his volumes on ancient Chinese philosophers— a project that has consumed his focus in recent years.
Wang turns 85 this October. “I’m proud to be able to stay relevant,” he grinned.
To cope with the aging process, he makes sure to walk at least 7,000 steps every day and often posts the step count recorded by his electronic bracelet on WeChat Moments. He also swims twice a week.
Some say “youthful mentality” is key to understanding Wang Meng, and many have repeated “Long Live Youth for Mr. Wang Meng” to wish the beloved writer well, inspired by his novel Long Live Youth which still remains popular in new editions decades after it first hit bookshelves. Some lines from the poetic prelude he composed for the novel are still often recited by readers of all ages: “Every day, come here. Let me weave you with the golden threads of youth and gems of fortune.”
Wang realized at a young age that the best days do not last long, but literature can live forever, so he just kept writing. Today, he remains committed to writing even more, with hopes that literature can nourish the lives of all.