Tortuous Developments: A Literary Odyssey
Zhenzhong, Wang, Qi, Wang, Connexions
Author Shi Nan never had any formal schooling, but she caught the attention of millions of Chinese with her first writing effort, a biography of the celebrated woman artist Zhang Yuliang.
The book was published in 1983 and soon became a best seller, with sales of more than 300,000 copies. The book is being filmed jointly by the Shanghai Film Studio and the Taiwan Jinding Film Corporation, and is being translated into English, French, and Japanese.
From being a librarian in the small city of Anqing in East China's Anhui province, Ms. Shi herself has become a celebrated author of nearly 100 novels, biographies and short stories portraying women artists, teachers, workers and prostituted women, in modern and ancient times. But artist Zhang's biography, seen by the author as an expression of her "own aspirations and outlook," remains Ms. Shi's favourite.
An orphan from an impoverished family, Ms. Zhang worked in a brothel and was married as a concubine. Later, she turned to painting, and her work was so good that she was appointed a university professor. As a sculptor, she became the first Chinese artist to be recognised by the Gallery of Modern Art in Paris.
Ms. Shi, who was 45 when she completed the book, shared Ms. Zhang's experiences of struggling to rise from the bottom of society. Rejected by her parents for being a girl, Ms. Shi earned her keep as a cowherd in a small Anhui village. She became literate when already a teenager, after joining a literacy class. Then she worked in a factory for more than 20 years. Having developed an interest in literature, she spent her noon breaks reading Tolstoy, Balzac and Hugo as well as Chinese classics.
Ms. Shi was 41 when she joined the Anquing Municipal Library in 1979. Finding parallels of her own experience with that of Zhang Yuliang, Ms. Shi decided to do the biography. But soon the differences loomed large to almost overwhelm her.
Whereas librarian Shi had lived all her life in Anhui, artist Zhang "saw much of life--from Yangzhou City in East China's Jiangsu province, to Wuhu in Anhui, then to Shanghai and abroad to Paris and Rome." Ms. Zhang also lived through various historic eras, from the 1911 Revolution through to the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). She underwent "tortuous developments of self" as she went from one vocation to another.
Another difficulty was that Ms. Shi never met the artist, who died five years before the biography was started. Ms. Shi had to work with second-hand information that only roughly outlined her subject's life. Neither could Ms. Shi tour the country and abroad to follow Ms. Zhang's tracks. What she did was to "travel in books," reading up history, travel notes, folklore, Roman architecture and paintings and sculpture by Renaissance artists. "Even if the biography needed only a single reference to them, I would browse among the large amount of material at hand," says Ms. Shi. For example, to familiarise herself with the layout of urban Paris in the 1930s, Ms. …