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 Name (2009)
What inspired you to write Lake With No Name?
My children. I wanted them to know about my history and about China.
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 these moments?
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 honestly.
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 Revolution?
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 identity cards.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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