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Liang Xiaosheng: Show Compassion for Others and Appeal to Human Conscience

Source: Jilin Daily Date: 2020-06-20
Liang was born in the same year when the People’s Republic of China was founded. A pioneer in writing about the life of “sent-down youths”, he recounts history in literary works and celebrates the legacy of the bygone days. His stories cut out clear contours of the life of nobodies in the vastness of the plains in northeast China. He explains what connects us all as human beings and ponders on every turn life makes. The insight is sharp and the compassion is real.

In September 1949, Liang was born to the family of a construction worker in the city of Harbin. Circumstances were tough and knowledge was valued. But Liang was sheltered by his mother in a different world, where he was always encouraged to spend the remaining pennies left from purchasing daily necessities on books. Her mother was like the heroine described in an excerpt from the novel Mother in the Chinese language textbook for elementary and secondary schools. One day, the young Liang had his eyes on The Young Guards by Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev and mustered his courage to go to his mother for the money. He found her working in suffocating heat with cotton fibers flying all about in a spinning factory. Struck by the poor working conditions, which he only found out at that time, the young Liang could not make his request. She said to him, “Don’t hold your tongue. Just say it and let me get on with my work.” “I was hoping to buy a book.” Hearing this, the co-workers of his mother all advised her not to spoil the child. They said keeping him in school was already good enough. But Liang’s mother reached into her pocket and replied, “It’s not a bad thing for him to like books.” With a heavy heart, Liang didn’t spend the money on the book but instead bought his mother canned food. Little did he expect that his mother was angry to see the canned food and gave him a few pennies again for the book he wanted.

What truly shapes people is not the words in a book, but the philosophy behind them, which is found not only in books, but also in real life. That is why some understand very well the truths about life yet remain illiterate. They learn from their family, from the way they were brought up by their parents. And this could be a lasting source of inspiration throughout one’s lifetime.

According to ancient Chinese wisdom, benevolence and humility must start from families before it can reach the whole nation. Recalling his upbringing, Liang said his parents, though not much of a man and woman of letters themselves, set the tone for his life with their own examples.

Liang’s father was a man of strong-character from China’s Shandong Province. In his teenage years, he left Shandong for the northeast to make a life of his own. In him, one finds both the straightforwardness of a Shandong local and the toughness of a northeasterner. He herded cows for landlords, worked as a street vendor, sold hard labor to the Japanese, and when the New China was founded, he became one of China’s earliest construction workers. He was firm in his belief in the Party and the country, laying bricks and building houses with pride and a sense of great honor and duty.

Liang’s novel Father opened with this line, “Never ask for favors--this is a golden rule in my father’ life.” Liang himself inherited this principle. To him, his father was a source of strength: he does not complain about or bow to the pressure of life; he jealously protects his reputation and would not go after fame and wealth. In 1963, when Liang’s brother was admitted into university and Liang himself was a secondary school student, expenditures increased and his father, a plasterer, was the only source of income. He was taking on more than he could support. Union leaders at his company would visit their family and encourage him to seek special allowances from the union. But Liang’s father always saved the opportunity for his co-workers.

Liang is his father’s son. He never asked for favors for himself. When his little brother and sister lost their jobs, he was advised by a friend to pull some strings with his former schoolmates and comrades in the military. But he refused. For Liang, it is his duty to fight and speak for the voiceless and help them battle the difficulties in life; but it is a no-no to seek his personal gains.

A family must be kind to be happy. Liang’s mother was the lamp that lit the house and kindness was her wick. To put food on the table in the tough days, the family raised rabbits but was troubled by a stray cat that always preyed on the furry creatures. Liang’s father made a steel-wired trap. One day when they were eating at the table, a big cat was caught. It fought desperately and made a mess of the wood fences. Liang’s mother was very sympathetic and tried to free the cat. Her shirt was torn and her chest was scratched by the cat when she was helping it out of the trap. Without any medicine at home, they had to ask for some gentian violet from a neighbor. But she was happy for saving a life. All those years, seeing her mother giving a helping hand to neighbors, classmates of his siblings, and even strangers begging for food, Liang was determined to be a kind person himself.

Patience from the bottom of the heart, self-awareness without warnings from others, freedom within boundaries, and a heart for others--this is how Liang defines a cultured man.

The 1980s was a prolific time for him. His works, This is a Magical Land, Snowstorm is Coming Tonight, Snow City, came out one after another, winning awards and being adapted into movies and TV series. Snowstorm is Coming Tonight was regarded as a milestone piece in the literary works about “sent-down youths”. Liang ventured back into the passing days to present a real and rich picture of the life, emotions, heroism and sense of mission that characterized the special period in China’s history, opening the heart of a whole generation.

He said his hard work “was worthwhile”. As the cultural revolution was brought to an end, the army formations that defined the youths began to disband. Young men and women left the villages for their home cities; many social issues emerged. From cities to the countryside and now back home, the young people gave their youthful energy to farming life and the people. They challenged their destiny and were reflecting on the times. Becoming a spokesperson for “sent-down youths” was what first prompted Liang to pick up the pen and write. These young people needed jobs in the cities; but opportunities were scarce and prejudice was prevalent. Liang spoke on their behalf and his voice reached those making employment decisions. Many employers embraced former members of military formations because they were believed to be more mature and responsible as a result of their tough life. Liang was proven right. He sees it as an inherent mission of literature to appeal to the kindness and justice in human nature. Fulfilling this mission is far more important for writers than a few literary awards and some favorable critiques.

Liang later turned his attention to the wider population, writing about the challenges and good nature of the ordinary Chinese. In many works, he conveyed his concern for social issues and shared his reflections. It is his mission and duty to focus on and present reality. Simply put, it is a concern for others. This is the underlying philosophy of his writing: to look at the unremarkable, to look into human hearts, to be moral and responsible, to be strong and caring.

“I think this is my duty.” At the age of 35, Liang diverted his pen to write about “others”. In a string of works, Dragon Year 1988, Reflections on 1993, Gaze at 1997, and Analysis of China’s Social Classes in 1997, he commented on the social life and made appeals with compassion and care.

In August 2019, his novel In The World, hailed as a brilliant record of the ordinary Chinese life over the past 50 years, won the 10th Mao Dun Literary Award. The 70-year old Liang drew up a picture of ordinary Chinese living with the changing times and looked behind doors for the real stories. Returning to ground zero, he set out to realize his literary ideals with the utmost honesty. Realistic writing is his calling. He sees his works as filling in the gaps of history uncovered by chronicles, to inform today’s younger generation about the past. In those days when youths were sent to the countryside, it was always the oldest child of a family who left while the younger ones stayed. Literature makes little mention of these younger brothers and sisters. Their experience and reflections is a gap. There are others: the workers like Liang’s father, the government workers and intellectuals who were freed from the tethers of a leftist movement, interactions between people from different social strata. There have been many works about life in the countryside, but few about the cities, workers, and ordinary people. Liang wishes to look deeper into the experience of different groups to complete an account of how the whole of China has traveled its journey. He digs out personal stories from forgotten times, distills information from crude memories and arranges it in way that makes sense of the world and our history in its various facets.

In the World tells the story over 50 years of three siblings from a worker’s family, Zhou Bingkun, Zhou Rong, and Zhou Bingyi, and their friends. The life they built for themselves crystallizes the social changes in China in the past five decades. One finds in it the difficulties and complicated realities as well as the glory and dreams. It is full of idealism, and yet a nod to realism and the style of literary writing in the 1980s. To Liang, the most important question for literature is humanity education, revealing and bringing humans back to what lies deep in their heart.