WHEN Diane Wei Liang sits at the computer in her house in Notting Hill, London, memories of Beijing come flooding back to her. Although she left China 19 years ago, the images of Beijing spring to mind as if she had seen them yesterday. ‘‘ When you grow up in a city you remember what the streets are like and how the lotus flower blossoms by the bank in summer,’’ says Liang, whose first novel, a thriller called The Eye of Jade , recently was published in Australia.
The book introduces Wang Mei, the owner of a detective agency, a guarded, lonely young woman whose experiences of China’s convulsive recent history parallel some of Liang’s experiences. Liang was born in 1966, the first year of the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was a university professor of literature and her father was in environmental preservation: as members of the intellectual class they had been banished to a labour camp in the mountains near Sichuan province in southwest China by the time Wei was three.
Her parents and the other adults surely suffered, leaving before dawn to work on construction sites in the valley, where they stayed until climbing back up the mountain when they finished work after nightfall. But the little children were in kindergartens run by grandmothers who were in the labour camp with their families. ‘‘ We basically had a free run. Besides, we didn’t know that other children had candies to eat,’’ she recalls.
When the family was permitted to leave the labour camp after several years, her mother went to live in Beijing with Wei and her little sister. Ordered to live in Shanghai instead, her father was able to visit his family only twice a year. Whatever Liang felt — and feels — about it is exorcised, in a sense, in her writing.
There was a time in her life when she thought she would become a psychologist. Now she concerns herself with the psychology of her characters. ‘‘ Part of the reason I love to sit down and write is that I’ve just got so much in my life I need to work out,’’ Liang says.
A petite, graceful woman with long hair, Liang, 41, still looks young enough to be a student rather than the professor of business administration she was until last year, when she quit to write full time.
Much as she loves Beijing — a love that deepens as she writes of the place — she can also look back on a childhood marked by intense privation. ‘‘ When I was growing up we really didn’t have much to eat,’’ she says softly. ‘‘ The family had two kilos of meat allowance a month for the whole family.
‘‘ I’m positive I’d have turned out a different person if I hadn’t gone through what I went through as a child. I was bullied at school because my parents were not peasants but intellectuals.’’ From the time she was five or six, other children chased her and threw stones at her every day. ‘‘ No matter how late I left school, the gang always seemed to be waiting for me,’’ she wrote in her first book, Lake with No Name, a memoir. Being persecuted as a child left her feeling that no one could protect her and that she had to guard every word.
Yet such hardships were mixed in with a life of intellectual privilege. When Liang was 12 she won a scholarship to boarding school, the first person in her district to do so. There were teachers and students from overseas at her school. ‘‘ What a privilege for a Chinese girl, when the whole society was so closed.’’
She went on to university and, in 1989, was at Tiananmen Square holding hands with her fellow students who had formed a human ring around the square in the hope of stopping the soldiers they were sure were coming.
Liang still remembers how scared she was, even though the students did not anticipate that eventually the tanks would roll in and mow down the crowds, an event Liang and her old friends still find too painful to talk about much when she visits them.
Nothing was the same after Tiananmen. Liang lost touch with her boyfriend; her first love, she calls him. In her memoir, she tells of returning to China many years later to search for him. Life had moved on for both of them.
But in a sense Liang was one of the lucky ones. As she had already secured a scholarship to a US university and had therefore been given a passport, she went overseas soon afterwards. Liang met her husband, Andreas, a student from Germany also studying at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had switched from psychology to business studies, obtaining a doctorate in the subject and going on to teach it after deciding her English wasn’t good enough to become a psychotherapist.
Though her English is now fluent, the language in The Eye of Jade is sufficiently exotic to evoke the way modern Chinese think and speak. When she is writing dialogue, she says she first hears her characters in her head speaking in Chinese, then translates it into English. Her mother had imbued her early on with a love of literature.
‘‘ When they allowed books from the West to be translated into Chinese, my mother basically bought out the whole bookstore. I grew up with Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy. I just loved reading and I wrote as well,’’ she says. ‘‘ But because my mother had gone through the Cultural Revolution as a professor of literature, she thought that was a crazy thing for anyone to want to do in China. A lot of writers died in the Cultural Revolution.
‘‘ My mother said: ‘ You can’t be a writer.’ She also felt at that age I wouldn’t know about life . . . and she was right.’’
Now Liang has found her voice and her subject. The response to The Eye of Jade was so strong that the sequel is to be published in 25 countries in 22 languages.
The first novel brings the dizzying pace of modern Beijing vividly to life. Liang sees enough material there to occupy her for years.
‘‘ It’s full of riches and conflict and questions. Everyone’s got so many stories to tell. If you had asked me when I was 15, I could never have been able to imagine China as it is today,’’ she says.
‘‘ It would have been inconceivable. I think that’s why I feel the urge to write: to understand what happened to me and what happened to the other people.’’