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Cao Wenxuan: ‘Without writing, I am not myself’

Author  :  Jin Xiaoyan, Liu Bochao     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-08-25

Cao Wenxuan, born in 1954 in Jiangsu Province, southeast China, is a famous Chinese writer of children’s literature and a professor from Peking University. He graduated from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University in 1977 and has taught there ever since. Cao’s works are typically set during the 1950s and 1960s, and the main characters are usually children and animals. His books, including The Straw House and Bronze and Sunflower, have sold millions of copies in China, and he has won most of the domestic prizes available to children’s authors. His reputation abroad is on the rise. In April of this year, he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s literature.

Though he does not consider himself to be a typical writer of children’s literature, Cao Wenxuan’s works have captivated an entire generation of Chinese youth.

His philosophy is that the eternal purpose of literature is to capture the fundamental essence of human nature. “In terms of literary traits, there is nothing unique about children’s literature. Generally speaking, the genre has the same features and elements as other types of literature,” Cao said. “Its aesthetic power is not inferior to—and sometimes it’s even stronger than— the power of thought for a writer.”

Recently, two reporters from Guangming Daily interviewed Cao Wenxuan to hear his thoughts on writing.

‘World watching China’

Jin Xiaoyan, Liu Bochao: The granting of awards to Chinese writers, such as Mo Yan, Liu Cixin and yourself, gives the impression that the world is watching China. What are your thoughts on this?

Cao Wenxuan: I have said that China should be grateful to one person: Mo Yan. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, it changed the pessimistic attitude that many Chinese have toward the literature of their homeland. We have looked down on ourselves but up to others in the past.

China’s children’s literature, in some sense, is a special contribution that the country has made to world children’s literature. China is a country that has experienced hardships and ordeals. When the Creator endows the nation such destiny, it comes with a promise that all the hardships and ordeals that you experience will one day translate into wealth.

Today is the right time for us to convert all our dreams into spiritual wealth, and we are now doing it—to convey the distinctive Chinese experience and Chinese story to children as well as adults around the world.

We have nearly lost the ability to appreciate the works of our peers. Some critics heap praise on foreign children’s literature but they are unable to extend such respect to their countrymen.

Actually, the most excellent Chinese literature ranks among the world’s best. After I was awarded the prize I felt no excitement but reassurance, the latter of which helped to validate my previous optimism about the nation’s children’s literature.

In the past two decades, the literary circle in China has been overly critical about the children’s literature of its own country. I do hope Chinese critics can be impartial in sticking to the principle of criticism, which means that acclaim should not be given to inferior works, but at the same time, we must remember to praise well-written works, which need to be treated with the same admiration shown for Western literature.

The gate of China is open to the world. But to fully appreciate the scenery inside the gate, time is needed. So just be patient with them. China’s unique wisdom will help resolve things. Let outsiders know about the real China bit by bit. I hope every Chinese citizen could stand beside the gate and greet foreigners with a smile, gesturing to them: Please come in and have a look.

‘A writer should be smart’

Jin Xiaoyan, Liu Bochao: Through writing, your childhood experiences have been preserved. This is part of what has contributed to your success.

Cao Wenxuan: A person needs to be smart. A writer should also be smart, or at least aspire to be smart.

To a Chinese writer, there are two types of resources that need to be tapped: First, he needs to know that his feet are grounded in the soil from whence he blossomed. The formation of his tastes and attitudes is rooted in the land. The raw literary materials provided by the homeland are getting richer with each passing day in a way that is unique to itself. Negligence, obliviousness and rejection of it will deprive him of many valuable things—even his genius—or the inspiration necessary for literary creation.

Such resources, to me, are like a vast expanse of sea. I would often be overjoyed upon discovering a great story in my home soil because I’m clearly aware of what the story would bring me—be it an asset, honor, happiness or the appreciative eye from the world.

However, it is far from enough to merely respect one’s own life experience. A smart writer also needs to have an international vision. Literature from China can tell a story that is universal to all mankind. The author needs to observe real human nature through the lens of each Chinese person’s individual pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, and it should always be his hope that the words could provide the intellectual basis for the refinement of human nature. To become such a smart writer is always my aspiration.

‘Through struggle, comes perfection’

Jin Xiaoyan, Liu Bochao: By distancing yourself from the goal of amusement and entertainment and mixing compassion with sadness, you are able to imbue your works with a richness of aesthetic and poetic sensibility, which makes them stand out in the field of children’s literature.

Cao Wenxuan: As far as I am concerned, if a child never understands what sadness is, his life is incomplete.

The people of my generation find it hard to look back on our formative years fondly because most of us spent our childhoods in misery, which is something that cannot be forgotten and discarded.

Today, simple and impermanent forms of happiness have replaced all profound feelings and thought. There is no doubt that literature for children is quite necessary, but such types of literature should aim to cultivate good taste and a lofty character among children.

To provide spiritual food for children, the Chinese intellectuals should be forward-looking with the audacity to draw attention from the masses. The priority is to bring children the capability to grasp both pleasure and sadness, and the sensibility for justice, emotion, wisdom and beauty.

‘Excellent writing is virtue’

Jin Xiaoyan, Liu Bochao: One thing that makes you different from other writers is that you are often around students. Your position as a professor makes many students feel they have a rapport.

Cao Wenxuan:I often tell my students that it is a virtue to be able to write excellent articles. What the article represents is both a person’s external appearance and internal activity. Newton’s books can be regarded as both scientific and philosophical. Einstein’s books, to those who know little about physics, can also be graceful prose. One generation after another has passed away but their spirit and souls can be immortal through the power of the written word.

There are no things that are unteachable, including the art of writing. Some may say that essay writing is not something one can learn in a classroom or deny the importance of writing skills altogether. But actually, great writing has based techniques, which can be handed down to younger generations. Some techniques could even become systematized into a methodology. Saying so does not mean that natural gift and aptitude is denied.

The era that we are in today may not be an ideal one. Could writing be helpful in curbing the degeneration and malignance of the times? We could not give a clear answer to this. But at least, writing is a wholesome way to cure the depression that loom inside oneself and untangle the knots to emotions that linger in one’s mind. Therefore, writing is indispensable in this era.

Since the day that I began to write, I have always hoped that my words could be eternal. Although I am quite aware that there is nothing immortal in the universe but I hoped, and will still hope so because I am not myself without writing.

Editor: Yu Hui

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