THE FACE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - ELIS­A­BETH WYN­HAUSEN meets DIANE WEI LIANG Au­thor

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.’’

Pic­ture: Peter Eve

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