Two separate interviews with Diane Wei Liang in which she discusses her memoir,
Lake With No Name, published in the UK in 2003 and in the USA in 2009; and her first novel, The Eye of Jade (2008) - the first volume in the Mei
Wang mystery series.
A Conversation with Diane Wei Liang
about Lake With No
What inspired you to write Lake With No Name?
My children. I wanted them to know about my history and
What were the reactions of your family and friends when you told them you
were going to write Lake With No Name?
My family was not enthusiastic. My mother thought that it
would be a dangerous thing to do.
Lake With No Name is an intimate account of both
your personal history and the history of China during a vital turning point. Was
there a passage that was difficult to write? How did you approach writing about
Many sections of the book were difficult to write, and are
difficult for me to read today. What helped me to complete the book was a
decision that I made early into the book that I would write truthfully and
What was it like growing up during the Cultural
Revolution? Has that affected your view of government?
Growing up in the Cultural Revolution was like growing up
in a hot house of fear. The world was twisted by terror imposed by the
political climate and by people who had to survive within that kind of world.
As a child, I was made to see everything through a distorted lens of revolution
and hate. It did not only affect my view of government but also of the
fragility and preciousness of humanity.
You, as well as other students, often spoke about
leaving China to study in the West. What was the allure of the West? And why
were some students passionate about staying in China? Does this still exist?
In the 1980's, China was going through a relatively dark
period. Economic reform had offered opportunities but those opportunities had
been limited. Politically the country was repressed. The West represented to
many Chinese students a brave new world of opportunity and freedom. Having said
that, there were also students who wanted to stay in China and build the
country. Such passion was the motivation behind the 1989 Student Democracy
Movement. Today the same tendencies exist, though the majority now sees China as
the place that offers opportunities.
At the time, did you and your peers realize the greater
political implications of the demonstrations and protests?
Absolutely. Having grown up in China, one was always aware
of the political implications of one's actions. Even if we didn't, the People's
Daily had reminded us, daily. Yet at another level we were surprised by the
scale and the impact of the demonstrations, as well as the support that we
received from around the world.
In the introduction to Lake With No Name, you
write that "China changes every time I see her. More and more of her past are
being erased to make space for the future." What are some of the biggest
changes that you see between the China you grew up in and present-day China?
Are there any similarities? Do you see any holdovers from the Cultural
Physically China has change tremendously, the landscape of
cities and towns had been reconstructed. Daily lives for ordinary Chinese have
improved. Twenty years ago Beijingers shopped in street markets. Today they
buy from supermarkets and department stores. Twenty years ago a few people
owned cars and no one owned property, today most households in Beijing own at
least one car and their homes. When I was growing up we denounced the
capitalistic West, today capitalism is the new religion in China.
The past and the present, as different as they are, share
some common elements, for example the Chinese culture and our history. The Cultural
Revolution still holds an impact on people's lives the fear is still there. When
I am in Beijing to research for my books, most people who are willing to speak
in private are not willing to go on record. Much is still censored in the
press, including the Tiananmen events of 1989.
How do you view the future of China?
China has made impressive leaps forward in the past twenty
years and I hope it will continue to do so for the next twenty years. Economic
development has given the Chinese people prosperity and more freedom than they
had been afforded under Mao. The political climate has relaxed in some areas,
though not in others. As long as China can continue its development with
the steadfastness it has for the past twenty years, I see a bright future for the
country and its people.
In Lake With No Name you write about the system of household
registration known as hukou. Does this still exist?
Hukou was abolished a few years ago and replaced by
Do you still keep in touch with Eimin and Dong Yi? What
are your relationships with them like now?
I am not in contact with Eimin. I keep in touch with Dong
Yi regularly and last saw him in London when he was on a business trip.
You are also the author of the critically acclaimed Mei
Wang mystery series, what were the differences you found between writing fiction
and a memoir? How does your past influence your heroine Mei Wang?
I have found writing memoir very difficult because it is a
process of exposing oneself. It is a draining, self-examining exercise. There
isn't a screen behind which one can hide, to cover up emotions or justify
actions -- everything is raw. For this reason, I would rather not go back to
writing memoir again.
Writing fiction is slightly easier in this sense, but only
slightly, and fiction has its own difficult heights. I had to constantly ask
myself when writing the Mei Wang series whether I have been honest about my
characters and whether I have observed them carefully and rendered their stories
well. The creative process of writing fiction can be rewarding and frustrating
at the same time.
I draw much from my experiences and observations for Mei
Wang. She has a lot of qualities that I admire -- her fierceness, determination
and honesty. I also learn and grow with her with each book.
What are you working on now? Can you share a little
about that with us?
I am working on the third installment of the Mei Wang
series. All I am going to say at this point is that the next book will be
darker and more complex than the previous two. Mei will face life-threatening
perils when a private detective was found murdered.
An interview with Diane Wei Liang
about The Eye of Jade (2008)
Why did you decide to tell your story of modern China through
the lens of crime fiction?
Because crime fiction brings together different elements of a society and
exposes their frustrations, conflicts and desires. I found it an ideal format to
examine the social and economical changes that are at the center of modern life
in China. I also wanted to paint an honest and authentic picture of life in
Beijing. The Eye of Jade gave me such an opportunity, allowing me to move
among its different neighborhoods and varied social and economical groups, to
explore the inner life of that fascinating city.
Your heroine, Mei Wang, is a private investigator in Beijing. Is that an
unusual profession for a woman in contemporary China?
Yes it is, not only because it is a profession traditionally dominated by
men but also because privation investigation is officially banned in China. But
the situation is changing. As women are gaining more confidence and success in
the work place, they are moving into the business of private investigation. One
of the best known private detective agencies is founded and run by women,
specializing in investigating extramarital affairs. After all, women possess
many traits that could make them excellent detectives: they are intuitive and
observant. They are sympathetic to people's feelings. They are good at
networking and they are non-threatening.
The mystery at the center of the novel blends China's heritage in the form
of two Han Dynasty artifacts with the forward looking culture of contemporary
China. Do modern Chinese care about the past?
Yes, they do now. Ten or fifteen years ago when China was at the beginning
of its economic development, most people preferred to westernize and forget the
past. But today the Chinese want to reconnect with their heritage and identity.
People are beginning to appreciate history. For example Chinese antiques are now
selling at record levels, many of them acquired by Chinese collectors.
You fled China in 1989 after taking part in the Tiananmen Square student
protests. Have you gone back? How recently?
Yes, I have been back to China every year since 1996. I was there most
recently in July 2007.
How has China changed since you left?
The changes have been remarkable. China today, in many ways, is a different
country than the one that I grew up in. City landscapes are altered beyond
recognition and changing all the time. Living standards have risen dramatically
- bicycles are no longer the preferred form of transport, instead cars pack the
roads. In Beijing, many families own two cars. Changes have also occurred in
China's political climate. The country is more open. People no longer fear being
sent to prison for speaking their dismay towards the government and the Party.
The Eye of Jade depicts everyday life in Beijing how is life in the
capital different, or the same, from that in other places in China?
In many ways life in Beijing is similar to that in any other city in China.
People have the same desires and needs they try to make a living, they search
for love and prosperity. But Beijing is a special city. It is the capital where
the power of the nation resides. It is also the center for tradition, art and
culture. Beijing's historical old city hutong is beautiful. There
people still live in the same surroundings and traditions as they had done for
hundreds of years. All these make life in Beijing a rich experience once you
understand Beijing, you understand the soul of China.
Like Mei Wang, you spent part of your childhood in a labor camp. What
memories do you have of that time?
I was there from the age of three to six. As a young child, I was oblivious
to the harsh conditions of the camp and the difficulties my parents had to
endure. Most of my memories were of other children in the labor camp, the beauty
of living in the mountains, swimming in the river that ran in the valley. But I
also remember having little to eat three kilograms of fruit a year per family.
When I was five, a hepatitis B epidemic hit the province. Everyone fell ill. My
younger sister who was two at the time almost did not survive it.
The book is set just before Hong Kong was returned to China. Why did you
choose that particular time period?
I set the book at that time because it was a significant landmark in China's
recent history. To this day I remember the giant clock in Tiananmen Square
counting down to the hour of Hong Kong's handover. That event marked the
beginning of a new era for China.
One fascinating and central concept in your story is Guanxi. What is
this particularly Chinese system?
Guanxi is loosely translated as connections and networks of relations.
But it means much more. Guanxi is a corner stone of Chinese culture, as the
society is operated according to it people are introduced, things get done
or not based on who they know.
The Eye of Jade gives readers a glimpse into the complexities of
Chinese culture. Do you think Westerners can ever fully understand that culture?
I don't believe I'll fully understand Chinese culture. It is so rich and
complex that all one can hope for is to gain some kind of insights and perhaps
to understand it a little better over time.
Readers are well versed in the traditions of American and British mysteries.
Does China have its own tradition of crime fiction?
No, crime fiction is not a traditional genre in China. When I was growing
up, the popular mysteries were books by Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Today,
in China, people read popular American and British crime novels, such as John
Grisham and P.D. James. In recent years, however, Chinese writers have begun to
produce their own detective fiction.
Your university studies were in psychology and business. What made you turn
to writing fiction?
I had wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager. My mother who was a
Chinese literature professor discouraged me because writing was a dangerous
profession in China. Writers had been the first group to be purged in every
political movement under Mao's rule. Eventually she persuaded me to study
psychology. When I moved to the US, I studied business. It was in Switzerland
five years ago that I decided to try writing again. Now I write full-time.