Catholic girls and ladies of the night

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Yan Geling tells Ysabelle Cheung about her powerful historical novel as it hits Hong Kong in cinematic form

"I write about what moves me – and I hope to reach people who feel the same way,” American-Chinese author Yan Geling says of the ideology behind her explosive second Sino-Japanese War novel The Thirteen Girls of Nanjing (retitled The Flowers of War for its English language release). This mission statement, in fact, pretty much sums up the philosophy of the gifted author’s writing aesthetic. And that’s humbling, given the astronomical success she has accumulated over the past year. The story has been made into an epic film, which has been released internationally and is hitting Hong Kong cinemas now (directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale).

The Flowers of War exemplifies Geling’s ability to paint a microscopic picture of humiliating conflict from the viewpoint of its ultimate victims: the women. The book tells the story of a ‘united stand’ in Nanjing during the Second World War shown by 13 sex workers, an American priest, a deacon and a group of Catholic schoolgirls in the face of rape and murder by the Japanese soldiers. “For the conqueror, to conquer the enemy’s women is the ultimate conquest,” says Geling. “The Flowers of War is about a group of women who reject this conquest.”

The movie has put Geling’s name on the international literary map. Zhang Yimou read her original novella several years ago and immediately optioned it for film rights. “I was pleased that he was interested. He is a great director,” says Geling. “The director’s creation is a different artistic work from the author’s creation, but I am glad he likes my work – and I certainly admire his.”

Despite the novel being so recently propelled into the limelight, Geling has been a recognised award-winning name on the Chinese literary scene since her debut text Green Blood was released in 1985. Born in Shanghai in 1958, she bore witness to the vast historical events that swept China during the last quarter of the 20th century. At 20, she worked as a Sino-Vietnamese war correspondent with the People’s Liberation Army and was invited to America in 1988 to study a master’s degree in fiction writing.

Twenty-four years, countless novels, short stories, essays and several films later, the Western market is beginning to sit up and take notice of this Chinese literary heavyweight. She writes in Chinese and English, which she describes as akin to working with an ‘entirely different media, like sculpture versus painting’. She also has much to say on the development of Chinese literature. “The most significant change,” she says, “was the switch from writing in classical Chinese to writing in the vernacular (bai hua). A vast amount of foreign literature was translated into Chinese quite literally, even to the point of using foreign syntax.”

Polarising opinions about the effect of Chinese literature on the Western scene have been plaguing the publishing market. Some are against the perverse ‘orientalisation’ of Chinese literature. Last year, Jo Lusby of North Asia’s Penguin group, said that choosing Chinese fiction was wholly dependent on ‘what piques the interest of the Western reader’. But Yan Geling speaks as an informed authoritative figure. “The Frankfurt Book Fair,” she tells us, “focused on China two years ago, but there was no major change in the acceptance of Chinese literature in the West. So far, Chinese literature has had little influence abroad.”

Many of Geling’s novels result from extensive research into China’s past. “The West has better knowledge of events that affected them more directly, from the attack on Pearl Harbour to the Holocaust,” she says. “But I do hope to raise awareness of this particularly terrible disaster that befell China.” We do too.

The Flowers of War is published by Random House, priced at $170.

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