Ahead of his appearance at the Shanghai International Literary Festival this month, we caught up with author Jin Yucheng to learn more about his multi-award-winning book. He'll be presenting a session on March 16 at 10am.
Creating a masterpiece that will be remembered and enjoyed by many is the goal of all writers. While a few might achieve success very early on, others often have to work for years and decades before they can taste the fruit of their labor. Jin Yucheng considers himself one of the lucky ones, but the success of his multi-award-winning book Blossoms didn’t arrive until he was in his 60s.
“It changed my life completely,” says Jin of his 2013 novel. “Almost six years after the book’s initial release, I’m still fielding interview and speaking engagement requests all around China. The continuous interest in the book, and the scale of its success, was totally unexpected.”
Set in Shanghai and spanning four decades in the second half of the 20th century, Blossoms is the coming-of-age story of Abao, Husheng and Xiaomao – three young men from different social backgrounds and neighborhoods of the city. Through alternating chapters focusing on their youth (1960s) and adulthood (1990s), readers are given vivid accounts of how the characters’ lives, personalities and socioeconomic situations changed along with the city in a turbulent political era, followed by a subsequent period of massive economic growth.
Written in a unique ‘Shanghainese voice,’ a draft of the novel first appeared on Nongtang Wang, a now-defunct web forum where people discussed and debated anything from current events to culture and entertainment in the local dialect with one another. Using a pseudonym, Jin began posting passages of Blossoms on a daily basis from May to November 2011. The enthusiastic feedback from readers across different age groups and geographic regions across the nation led Jin to give his pet project a more serious thought, and he eventually turned it into a 350,000-character long novel.
Cover of Blossoms. Courtesy of Jin Yucheng.
“When you open a book, the first things you see aren’t the plotline or characters, it’s whether the words on the page are captivating enough to draw the reader in,” Jin elaborates on the way he approached the novel. “Compared to writing in a Mandarin voice, using the Shanghainese dialect makes the language more lively. From grammar, phrasing and rhythm of speech, it’s steeped with the flavors of the city in which the story is set.”
Jin’s eloquent description of his writing and his sensitivity to the use of language is a direct result of his three-decade-long career at Shanghai Wenxue, a well-respected literary journal, where he serves as the executive editor. In addition, he also counts late-Qing dynasty masterpieces, such as The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing, as major inspirations for Blossoms. Using an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary approach in storytelling, situations unfold through a series of dialogues between the characters and a myriad of acquaintances flowing in and out of their lives, in lieu of narration and inner monologue.
“From grammar, phrasing and rhythm of speech, it’s steeped with the flavors of the city in which the story is set”
It’s easy to draw parallels between the backstories of characters in Blossoms and the author’s own upbringing. Born to what he refers to as “a family of intellects and capitalists,” the Jins were purged from their mansion in the former French Concession and relocated into a working class neighborhood of Caoyang Xincun during the Cultural Revolution – an experience that he replicated for Abao.
Between the ages of 16 and 24, Jin became one of the millions of ‘sent-down youth’ who were shipped off to labor camps in the rural parts of the country. His unit of teenagers from Shanghai was sent to Heilongjiang, where he worked on a farm until he was able to return to his hometown in 1977. The character of Xiaomao, a kindhearted working class kid with an affinity for martial arts, was loosely based on a lifelong friend Jin made during these harsh times. Husheng, on the other hand, was inspired by a relative born into a military family.
Jin’s ability to capture and reiterate the mundane everyday life of Shanghai’s regular folks throughout all these years led critics to dub the book “an exhibition of Shanghai’s modern history and cultural development.” For non-Chinese readers, an English version of the novel is due to come out “near the end of the year” via American publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG), Jin tells us. “Translating the book has proven to be quite a difficult task,” he says, explaining that the dense dialogues in Shanghainese-style Chinese is one of the major challenges. “The process has taken more than two years, but the translator will finish by August.”
An illustration from the book by Jin Yucheng.
Another thing to look forward to is Wong Kar-Wai’s film adaptation. In the preface of Blossoms, Jin compares the final scene of Wong’s Days of Being Wild (1990), where Tony Leung appears as an unnamed character (later introduced as Zhou Muyun in In the Mood for Love) counting banknotes and combing his hair for a night of gambling, to the corrupted, money-driven society that Shanghai has become since the economic boom. This ‘cameo’ likely paved the way for his collaboration with the celebrated filmmaker.
“When we first met, Wong told me he was really moved by the book, and said that the characters’ experiences reminded him of what his brother and sister had been through,” Jin says, recalling a conversation between the two men. (Wong was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in 1963, at the age of 5. His older siblings remained living on the Chinese mainland, and Wong didn’t get a chance to revisit his birthplace until the 1980s.)
If all goes according to plan, Jin teases, filming will start some time this year. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he adds, before reiterating that it might be years before viewers can see the final product, given the infamously long production time of Wong’s movies. But with his cultural roots and emotional ties to Shanghai, it’s likely to be a film worth waiting a few years for.