Lit­er­a­ture’s 1980s golden age lives on in “Heilan”精神力量与文字之美:对话黑蓝文学作家陈树泳

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)


The 1980s was a “golden age” for artis­tic youth in China. The early years of re­form and open­ing up saw many po­ets, writ­ers, artists, mu­si­cians, and film­mak­ers thrive. Arts and lit­er­a­ture were prom­i­nent in the lives of a whole new gen­er­a­tion—the “good old days” be­fore mod­ern-day pres­sures, such as mak­ing money and ba­bies, took hold.

Heilan Lit­er­a­ture was founded shortly af­ter this re­nais­sance, in 1991, by then 19-year-old writer Chen Wei (陈卫) and his col­lege class­mate Shen Lim­ing (沈 黎明), who now works as a teacher. Chen's fa­vorite color was black, while Shen pre­ferred blue; thus “Heilan,” or “Black and Blue.”

In 1996, Heilan started to pub­lish print mag­a­zines fea­tur­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal, avant-garde writ­ing of Chen and other like-minded writ­ers in­flu­enced by the French New Novel move­ment that had flour­ished in the mid-1950s and 60s. Cir­cu­lated mostly by mail, Heilan's words built them a rep­u­ta­tion as an emerg­ing lit­er­ary group dis­tinct from the main­stream. Heilan magazine also claims to have been the first to use the term “post-70s” to ad­vo­cate its fresh style of writ­ing, which later spun off into the “post-80s” and “-90s” monikers that have been as­signed to ev­ery gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese youths since. How­ever, their un­der­ground pub­li­ca­tion only ex­isted for five months be­fore it was shut down, os­ten­si­bly for lack­ing a pub­lish­ing li­cense.

But Heilan found a new voice in the in­ter­net age:

Chen and his col­leagues founded a web­site in 2001, then an on­line fo­rum in 2002, and be­gan pub­lish­ing dig­i­tal mag­a­zines in 2003. Heilan has now won the recog­ni­tion of the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity and, over the years, been pub­lished ex­ten­sively by of­fi­cial pub­lish­ers: To date, there have been 15 vol­umes of the “Heilan Se­ries,” an­tholo­gies of short sto­ries by var­i­ous group mem­bers. In­de­pen­dently, the group has pub­lished over 60 e-books and a dozen pam­phlets. TWOC spoke with core mem­ber Chen Shuy­ong (陈树泳), also the chief ed­i­tor of Heilan's dig­i­tal magazine, about their lit­er­ary world.


In 1996, minkan (“civil­ian pe­ri­od­i­cals,” as op­po­site to of­fi­cially pub­lished pe­ri­od­i­cals) was an un­der­ground scene, but was very pop­u­lar among read­ers. Heilan was a sen­sa­tion. Each magazine was a beau­ti­fully de­signed small col­lec­tion, con­tain­ing the work of a poet and two fic­tion writ­ers. Heilan's style was rare back then; not many peo­ple re­ally un­der­stood it. Nev­er­the­less, they re­ceived it with en­thu­si­asm. There were, of course, au­thor­i­ties who mon­i­tored Heilan. They saw its pop­u­lar­ity but did not re­ally un­der­stand its con­tent, there­fore be­came sus­pi­cious of Heilan con­duct­ing some kind of “coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary” ac­tiv­ity. It got quite se­ri­ous, and Chen Wei was called in and ques­tioned for eight hours. Po­lice also called Chen's pro­fes­sors at school to in­ves­ti­gate his back­ground. For a young man in his 20s, it was a scary ex­pe­ri­ence.


It was in­deed a set­back, but writ­ing is some­thing that we all want to pur­sue no mat­ter what. Heilan is avant-garde, but there's no po­lit­i­cal in­nu­endo to it. Its aim is not to run against the au­thor­i­ties—it's main­stream lit­er­ary taste that Heilan has a prob­lem with. Back then, Heilan writ­ers pro­duced a lot of work but would not bother to seek open pub­li­ca­tion— there was no suit­able of­fi­cial out­let for them, not in the es­tab­lished lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. Heilan's style rep­re­sented the writ­ing style of a fresh group of writ­ers and the new taste of read­ers. So, we had to build a plat­form for this kind of writ­ing.


Main­stream lit­er­a­ture in the early 1990s was dom­i­nated by xi­angtu (乡土, “home soil,” na­tivist) lit­er­a­ture, as well as con­tin­u­ing the “scar lit­er­a­ture” tra­di­tion af­ter the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion; all have too close a tie with re­al­ity. There's also the tra­di­tion of “lit­er­a­ture for moral in­struc­tion” (文以载道, pro­posed by 11th cen­tury neo-con­fu­cian philoso­pher, Zhou Dunyi). Ac­cord­ing to these tra­di­tions, any lit­er­ary work has to be closely based in re­al­ity in or­der for it to be taken se­ri­ously.


Di­ver­sity is cer­tainly one as­pect. We are also against for­mu­las and modes. With main­stream lit­er­a­ture, af­ter read­ing the be­gin­ning, you may eas­ily form an idea of what's to come and how it will end, but our writ­ing re­fuses to meet the ex­pec­ta­tion of read­ers. We also be­lieve there's more to lit­er­a­ture than just show­ing con­cern for the bot­tom of the so­ci­ety, strug­gle against au­thor­i­ties, or de­fy­ing tra­di­tional morals. We value the “use­less­ness” as­pect of lit­er­a­ture, like beau­ti­ful mu­sic that's pleas­ing to the ear. There's a line about fic­tion we put on our web­site: “Fic­tion is not to nar­rate an ad­ven­ture, rather, it's an ad­ven­ture of nar­ra­tion.” The same story can be told very dif­fer­ently by dif­fer­ent writ­ers, and we pur­sue the art of sto­ry­telling.


Cur­rently, our core mem­bers are writ­ers Chen Wei, me, and Sheng Tie (生铁), and poet Zhang Qian (张虔). Heilan is like an iron bar­racks where sol­diers flow in and out. Many peo­ple go through a phase of “artis­tic youth,” but less of­ten do they com­mit and make writ­ing their life­long ca­reer. Writ­ing can seem easy— all you need is a lap­top and some free time to type, but if you are liv­ing with a cer­tain men­tal­ity or un­der

stress, it's very hard to cre­ate. There are cer­tainly ex­cep­tional in­di­vid­u­als who can man­age a day job and write, but for most, writ­ing re­quires del­i­cate con­di­tion that has to be pro­tected.


I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in fic­tion and cer­tainly have the im­pulse to cre­ate. But I knew very lit­tle about writ­ing, ei­ther con­cep­tu­ally or in de­tail. Af­ter I posted my first story on the Heilan fo­rum in 2007, I re­ceived much pos­i­tive feed­back, and I started to com­mu­ni­cate with other mem­bers on the fo­rum. Here we dis­cuss spe­cific ques­tions daily: “Is there a bet­ter word for this line?” or “Though this sen­tence may not be gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect, it casts a bet­ter ef­fect”…these ex­changes ben­e­fit one's writ­ing greatly. Many re­marked that the Heilan fo­rum is like a writ­ing acad­emy. I was as­signed as the web­mas­ter of the fic­tion sec­tion, and later ed­i­tor-inchief of the dig­i­tal magazine.


From the back­end of our Wechat ac­count, we found that 60 per­cent of our fol­low­ers are fe­male. There are also lots of col­lege stu­dents, even high and ju­nior high school stu­dents. We are quite sur­prised that these younger read­ers are able to en­joy our work, even un­der­stand them bet­ter than older read­ers. I think this might be be­cause they grew up in a more cul­tur­ally di­verse en­vi­ron­ment. They would not re­fer to our work as “odd” be­cause of the oc­ca­sional lack of res­o­lu­tion, or moral im­pli­ca­tion, but they seem to be able to iden­tify with the story and en­joy it.


I am a writer, but also a reader. I wish them the same joy I gained from read­ing. I en­joy the beauty of lan­guage. When ap­pre­ci­at­ing the po­etry of Sap­pho, or the Homeric Hymns, the lan­guage it­self is a source of great plea­sure. The pure aes­thet­ics with no prac­ti­cal value at­tached is a great func­tion to lit­er­a­ture. Read­ing can also in­crease the sen­si­tiv­ity of read­ers to cer­tain de­tails and, in turn, the world. How­ever small it is, a de­tail put down by a writer may in­trigue read­ers and arouse their emo­tional re­sponse. I also wish them to gain spir­i­tual power from read­ing. By this I don't mean “chicken soup for the soul,” or in a self-help sense. Rather, it's in­de­pen­dence of one's per­son­al­ity, in­spi­ra­tion, and the strength to face life.


Com­pared to the 1980s, when there was a cer­tain clas­si­cal sense at­tached to [the idea of] read­ing books, in our day and age, the charm of lit­er­a­ture seems weak un­der the at­tack of pop mu­sic, block­busters and re­al­ity TV. Though life's beau­ti­ful in ap­pear­ance, ev­ery­one is strug­gling un­der­neath, with their en­ergy con­sumed in all kinds of en­ter­tain­ment and liv­ing stress. But we are not pes­simistic. Heilan ex­ists be­cause this is the kind of writ­ing we want to read. And we still be­lieve it's in our hu­man in­stinct to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of lit­er­a­ture. Fur­ther­more, a cul­tur­ally di­verse so­ci­ety is es­sen­tially mak­ing our style of writ­ing more wel­come. There are also more me­dia chan­nels to share our ideas with more read­ers.


(Founder) Chen Wei is on a writ­ing re­treat and road trip. He finds in­spi­ra­tion in strange en­vi­ron­ments. Sheng Tie and Zhang Qian have day jobs and write on the side. I am tack­ling a novel full-time right now and hope to fin­ish it this year.

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