Tie Ning, In Her Own Words

February 27, 2008
By ZHAO NINGEditor: yf

writer Tie Ning [image.baidu.com]
Writer Tie Ning is president—the first woman to hold the position—of the Chinese Writers' Association. In May, 2007 she granted an interview to Women of China.

Tie Ning is an extraordinary person.

Women of China contacted her secretary—at the end of 2006, just after she had been elected president of the Chinese Writers' Association—seeking an interview. At that time, the request was rejected, as Tie, the third person to head the association, was busy working on a writing project.

The news arrived, almost half a year later, as Women of China was preparing to submit a new request for an interview: Tie, the middle-aged woman who had remained single, had secretly married Hua Sheng, President of Yanjing Overseas Chinese University. Nevertheless, Tie finally granted the interview, during what should have been her honeymoon. She also sent wedding candies back to the staff at Women of China. The following is the interview, in question-and-answer format:

Women of China (WOC): On November 12, 2006, you were elected president of the Chinese Writers' Association, during the Seventh National Congress of the Chinese Writers' Association, to become the third president, and first woman president, in the association's history. At that time, what kind of mood were you in?

Tie Ning (Tie): Actually, I had mixed feelings then. In other words, I felt not only joyous, but also frightened … meanwhile, I sensed pressure and responsibility.

First of all, I felt joyous. Since the late 1970s, China's literary world has been one vast scene of splendor, while large numbers of excellent writers have emerged. Currently, the Chinese Writers' Association has about 8,000 members, so it is a tremendous honor for me to be chosen as its president from among so many excellent writers. I have been (writing) for 32 years, during which I have never tired of writing … Fellow writers noticed my great concentration … they believed that I am a writer, in essence, and could stand for writers, to a certain extent, instead of leading writers. For those reasons, I think, fellow writers gave me their tolerant, and generous, approval.

I felt frightened because of my predecessors––Mao Dun (1896-1981) and Ba Jin (1904-2005). In my view, it isn't nearly enough if we just regard the two … as "writers." Actually, they have, respectively, become part of the Chinese nation's spiritual wealth, with their landmark thoughts, personalities and literary works. During those years, when Mao Dun and Ba Jin, in succession, assumed office as president of the Chinese Writers' Association, their personal influences covered the whole literary world. Following their lead, I come today, as neither a great master, nor having enough personal influence, to cover the whole literary world. As a result, it has brought us not only a decline in the president's age, but also a decline in all other aspects of the association. In other words, the literary world of modern China may be experiencing an era without any authority.

Even so, I believe, I am an excellent writer. I am one of many excellent writers in modern China. But, I am not the only one. That fellow writers elected me, instead of anybody else, has brought me huge pressure and responsibility. While the literary world is looking at me with expectant eyes, I do have expectations of myself, too.

WOC: As a successful writer, you have vividly portrayed various characters in your literary works. Can you describe, to readers of Women of China, what kind of person you yourself are?
Tie: I have difficulty talking about this topic, though I like to talk about it. There is an old Chinese saying: "The spectator sees most clearly." Indeed, people least understand themselves. So, it is better for me to describe what person I hope to be rather than what person I am exactly, I think.

Basically, I hope that I can keep an optimistic––in other words, a positive and bright––attitude towards life. In fact, troublesome things, unlucky things, gloomy things, sorrowful things … often occur during our transient lives. When a situation faces me, I don't like to oppress myself, but I dare to get angry, though I usually do it for a limited time. I hold that I should follow a correct path, no matter how crooked this world can be. The brightness, which has passed through all turbid things, is my lifetime pursuit.

According to my personal experiences, keeping an optimistic (positive and bright) attitude towards life also requires some manipulation.

For example, fostering an ability to appreciate others' kindness, including those who don't like (a person) and those whom (a person) doesn't like. It will enable one to feel grateful––to others and to life––instead of (feeling discontented), complaining and worrying. Then, one may enjoy a life of high quality. On the contrary, if one cannot understand others' kindness, but regard it as a matter of course … one's sufferings will be without end.

Examining oneself regularly. I have a trivial habit in this respect. Every evening, I sit quietly for 15 minutes and examine myself: "Do you assume who you are?" This helps me keep a sober estimate of my situation, as well as help reduce my impetuosity and anxiety. One may be proud of oneself, I think, but one may not grow dizzy with success. That's why I am also grateful to those who voted against me during the election; they reminded me that I am merely "one," not "the only one."

Nothing is impossible in life. In 1995, I traveled in the United States for more than one month, at the invitation of the Government of the United States. One of my hosts was an elderly woman from France. During my stay with her, I learned about her unfortunate past––her husband had often beaten her and she finally divorced him. I also witnessed her substantial new life––running a bed and breakfast, going to university, dating an elderly Irish man, and collecting and plucking harps. Her parting advice to me was, "Please don't say impossible to life forever." That boosted my confidence.

Working in a down-to-earth manner. As I see it, people usually have one of two completely different attitudes when they conduct their business. One is "how will I conduct the business." The other is "how will I look when I conduct the business." I admonish myself to choose the former, never the latter, as the former enables one to do a deed with single-hearted devotion, and to do a deed as well as one can, but the latter makes one's life gaudy and affected.

Enjoying eating and sleeping. Writers, more often than not, are looked upon as mental workers. In my opinion, however, writing is a drain, even an intensive drain, on one's physical strength … especially when creating a novel. It was an unforgettable day during my work on the novel Rose Phylum. I finished writing … 9,000 characters that day … and I became so exhausted that I lost my voice in the evening! Therefore, I really hope to keep myself in good health. Fortunately, I usually eat well––feeling much enthusiasm for food and not being choosy about what I eat—as well as sleep well. I seldom suffer from insomnia, even if I run up against unpleasant issues.

Treating oneself well. There was an interesting detail that arose during the Seventh National Congress of the Chinese Writers' Association. At noon on the day of the election, my colleagues were looking for me all over the hotel … as they assumed I might be on tenterhooks. Actually, I was with a woman writer and we were each eating a big bowl of noodles at a Japanese-style dining hall inside the hotel. After lunch, I returned to my room to have a 20-minute nap, as usual, though there were only 40 minutes before the election.

WOC: How did you become a writer? How did your first literary work come into being?

Tie: When I was a child, I became interested in the written language, and I desired to write characters to express something. In Grade 2 … our teacher instructed us to practice writing several diaries during summer vacation. But, I enjoyed writing a diary each day, as I wanted to write and I had much to write about after observing … Since then, I have kept a diary.
I entered middle school during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when China was abnormal, in politics, barren in culture and rusty in education. At school, all the courses of Chinese, politics and history just taught quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976); mathematics, physics and chemistry were not required courses; and there were no examinations. Sometimes, however, the school organized students to travel to some factories or rural areas and then practice writing a composition … I developed my ability to write while I gradually abandoned mathematics, physics and chemistry, because I had no interest in them. For example, I often wrote an extra composition for the classmate sitting beside me. However, my assignments in mathematics, physics and chemistry were usually done by the classmate.

I have to thank my parents for their help … As intellectuals, my parents' lot was hard in those years, but they still showed some solicitude for my interest and zeal, in terms of writing, and they managed to keep several notebooks of my early diaries, and they assisted me at the right moment.

Once, I finished writing a very long composition––more than 7,000 characters and a full notebook––entitled Flying Sickle. Teachers were so amazed, and they used it as a model composition. At home, I proudly read out the composition to my parents, which pleased them very much.

This event got my father thinking. He decided it was necessary to invite a writer to appraise my writing and my talent for literature. Hence, two of my compositions, including Flying Sickle, were introduced to the writer Xu Guangyao, a friend of my father's.
At that time, Xu was unemployed, and he did not have the right to publish anything, since he had been deemed to have the political question. But, Xu resolutely affirmed (my talent) … "How can I become a writer?" I asked Xu. "You need life," he told me. "Where is life?" I asked. "Life is in the countryside."

In 1975, I finished middle school. According to the policy of the day, I should have remained and worked in the city where my family lived, as I was the oldest child. For the sake of literature, however, I chose to cancel my permanent residence registration in the city to become a farmer in the countryside of Boye County, Hebei Province … My family backed my choice.

That same year, my maiden work, Flying Sickle, was published as fiction, which was a great encouragement to me. After that, I sincerely observed and learned from real life in the countryside, while doing my farm work. Meanwhile, I began to create and publish short stories. As a result, my works, and myself, gradually caught the attention of the literary world.

My gift and opportunity have enabled me to begin to travel the literary road. But, the literary attainments of lifetime must depend on diligence, I think.

WOC: You have published literary works that have contained, combined, more than four million characters. Of those, which are your favorite works? Why?

Tie: In terms of my novels, I like Rose Phylum and Local Cotton.
Rose Phylum was my first novel. It took me six years to write, and it was published in 1988. In the novel, I portray a woman … living in Beijing, and I depict her personal life and spiritual struggle, from age 18 to age 80, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Critics say I have created a "rose war," a war between women, and added a new and unique image to Chinese literature, to make the novel significant, in terms of feminism, sociology and literature. Rose Phylum has been very important to me. Published in 2006, Local Cotton also took six years to write. I value the novel highly, as it is quite different from my other novels and stories: Its important leading character is a man, rather than a woman, and it tells a historical story set between the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the victory of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945). Without personal experience, it was really an exciting challenge for me to reproduce the complicated and changing period, as well as its common customs and daily life, through my own understanding and imagination.
Of my short stories, I still like the early work Oh, Xiangxue, which was published in 1982. A good many readers got to know me because they once read this short story. Like a cool breeze in the literary world, the story makes people feel more pure and fresh, lucid and lively, as well as hopeful, although there is also a little sorrow in it. The fact the story was published indicates that it is not necessary for literature to be so heavy all the time. Besides, I like my short stories Pregnant Woman and Pregnant Cow, published in 1990, and An Delie's Evening, published in 1997.

Among my medium-length novels, I like the three works: Red Shirt without Buttons, published in 1983; Opposite, published in 1993; and How Far Is Forever, published in 1999. The latter two have women as leading characters, and they tell stories about urban life.
The rest are my essays and jottings. I have never looked down on essays and jottings, even though I am a novelist; on the contrary, I have finished writing a lot of essays and jottings in recent years. Recently, I compiled and published, by myself, a series of my works, composed of more than two million characters and nine volumes. Two volumes of the series are my essays and jottings, including some of my views—as a laywoman—on painting.

WOC: Under what circumstances are you able to feel perfectly relaxed, in terms of body and mind? What do you like to do when you relax?

Tie: There may be two aspects––career and life.
As a career writer, I often feel relaxed by the joy of writing. When creating a novel, for example, I may become very relaxed and happy, even though I am working … provided a chapter or a section is designed well, written without a hitch and accomplished satisfactorily. Of course, I also have to go through some hard times, and cannot write a single character … but being tired, nervous and helpless. Suddenly, in that state, I may be enlightened and find a way out … then I get a light heart, as if it's clearing up.
In life, I always enjoy staying with my friends, family members, or a person with whom I'm on intimate terms. In many cases, a petty thing, which has nothing to do with literature, can relax me. For leisure, I usually enjoy myself by chatting … seeing an excellent film, going window-shopping, or doing household chores. Because I like cooking and cleaning, I am really in a cheerful frame of mind whenever I finish preparing a tasty meal or make my house clean and tidy.

Reading is important to me, too. Good reading can bring peace, ease and joy, but it is not necessary to include literary works only, I think. Generally speaking, I like to read … memoirs, biographies and popular science books, as they can take me into many new fields.
To a great extent, one's mood depends on oneself. In other words, if one feels happy, one is exactly happy; if one feels unhappy, one is exactly unhappy. For this reason, I would rather create joy for myself than expect others to offer joy.

WOC: Please explain the situation facing modern Chinese women writers. In your opinion, what are their advantages and disadvantages, especially compared with men writers? What expectations do you have for women writers?

Tie: Definitely, modern Chinese women writers (compose) a brilliant and star-filled group. For each (age group) … we can cite a string of outstanding women writers who are now active in China's literary world. This excellent group … has been generally accepted by men writers and readers in society, not due to their gender, but to their excellent literary creations. I am proud of women writers very much.

Your question about women writers' advantages and disadvantages, as compared with men writers, reminds me of a literary-therapy project I once saw in Washington DC, the United States. Sponsored by a literature foundation, the project invited some volunteers, from among young women writers, to treat people for psychological problems, making use of their own literary experiences. The therapy usually included getting together, discussing and writing about a given subject … I unexpectedly discovered that all of the participants who came to receive the literary therapy were women! Didn't men have any psychological problems at all? Yes, but they were not so frank and open as women when expressing themselves, and they concealed—by instinct—their own worries and weaknesses. Women are characteristically frank and open. When they begin writing careers, this common characteristic will then become a common advantage. That's why women writers are generally enthusiastic about and good at voicing their personal emotions and telling minute stories through their writing.
On the other hand, however, if women writers fall into self-admiration and self-adoration and cannot extricate themselves … their talent and their works' scope and depth will be greatly limited. Being a woman, I often warn myself to avoid this disadvantage … As a result, I have got a higher angle of view, transcending both men and women, to observe and portray a woman, beginning with the novel Rose Phylum.

There is a term about a woman writer––"beauty writer"––in society now. Some women writers are disgusted by it, and some accept it. In my view, if a woman writer is regarded as a "beauty writer," more often than not, people will focus less on her literary talent and beautiful writing, but will pay some attention to her appearance. This situation will result in a loss in literature, I think.

While men writers show solicitude for the whole of society or the universe, women writers like to get a start by writing petty things. It doesn't matter. Pluralistic life and pluralistic literature have given both men writers and women writers the platforms to put their … talents to good use. But, women writers shouldn't be content to write a thing as it stands. It is sincerely hoped that women writers will have the ambition, spunk and ability to depict the vast reality, convey the morale of our age and reflect the essence of life—for readers.

WOC: What have you thought about most since being elected president of the Chinese Writers' Association? In the face of challenges and opportunities, how will you lead China's literary world?

Tie: The new leading body, which came into being during the Seventh National Congress of the Chinese Writers' Association, doesn't consist solely of me. Actually, it includes 13 vice-presidents and a presidium with quite a few excellent and pragmatic writers. As the current president, I am just a person … much lower than the two former presidents, in terms of my personal influence. The new leading body, however, is full of vitality and can bring the literary world a fresh and dynamic atmosphere. Recently, the new leading body held a meeting at Nantong, Jiangsu Province. Participants reached an important common understanding—on the basis of the collective talent, experience, scholarship and intelligence of the new leading body, including my personal proposals—that the Chinese Writers' Association should focus on stimulating modern Chinese writers' creative power, constructing a more lenient, harmonious and friendly atmosphere for creation, and effectively rallying writers of different ages, different ethnic groups and different artistic pursuits … As a leader of the association, I need to ponder these tasks every day.

The most important and valuable resource the association possesses is the writers. Recently, the new leading body invited some "after-1980 writers" to be guests at an informal discussion at the association. Born in the 1980s, these writers are quite active and have a large readership, even though they are very young and most have not joined the association. The activity was successful, and the face-to-face exchanges promoted mutual understanding between the association and young writers. In the future, the association will take vigorous action to develop friendships with more writers, including those who write on-line.

In addition, the international community has responded positively to the new leading body. In the past several months, many countries have contacted, directly, the association to convey their desires to have exchanges and cooperation with us. Meanwhile, we have received many cultural officials from different countries. The association should … promote international cultural exchanges, I think, since literature is a part of culture.

Chinese Writers' Association

Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the Chinese Writers' Association is a professional mass organization that integrates Chinese writers, from different ethnic groups, of their own free will. Its highest organ of power is the National Congress of the Chinese Writers' Association.
In October 1953, the Chinese Writers' Association grew out of the All-China Literary Workers' Association, which had been founded in Beiping (today's Beijing) in July 1949.
Literary Giant Mao Dun (1896-1981) was the first president, from 1949 to 1981.
Literary Giant Ba Jin (1904-2005) was the second president, from 1984 to 2005.
Tie Ning was elected the third president in November 2006.

About Tie Ning

Tie Ning, a woman, was born in Beijing in September 1957. She is married. Her father is a painter. Her mother is a professor of vocal music.

Tie Ning graduated from senior middle school in 1975, at which time she moved to the countryside to become a farmer, Boye County, Hebei Province. Also that year, she began publishing her works.

Tie Ning was transferred to Baoding, Hebei Province, to become a fiction editor in 1979. She joined the Chinese Writers' Association in 1982. Her published works, combined, contain more than four million Chinese characters.

The Fiction

Rose Phylum (1988)  Si Yiwen, an 80-year-old woman, finally ends her lifelong fighting for women cause, having been confined to bed for five years.
Local Cotton (2006)  Local cotton is called "ben hua" and foreign cotton is called "yang hua." Benhua Village, from 100 years ago is famous for its local cotton.

Short Stories
Oh, Xiangxue (1982) The railway finally opens through the small village in which schoolgirl Xiangxue lives.
Pregnant Woman and Cow (1992) A woman and her cow take care of each other after they both become pregnant.
An Delie's Evening (1997) The name "An Delie" reminds people of the friendship between China and the Soviet Union in 1950s.

Medium-length Novels
Red Shirt without Buttons (1983)  A red shirt without buttons not only makes An Ran, a girl in senior middle school, prettier, it also causes her trouble.
Opposite (1993) Through the window, a young man gets to know the woman who lives opposite him, and he gets to witness her private life.
How Far Is Forever (1999) Bai Daxing grows up in a hutong in Beijing. Her love stories reveal how far forever is.

(Source: womenofchina)

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