Chinese Novel A Hit, But Who Wrote It?

Foreign publishers have rushed to buy the rights to a blog-turned-novel by an anonymous Chinese author living in America, some before even reading a translation. From The Guardian:

Under the Hawthorn Tree, a tragic love story set during the Cultural Revolution, is written under the pen name of Ai Mi. All that is known about the author is that she leads a reclusive life in Florida, having gone there to study. She is thought to be in her fifties or sixties, if only because her insight into the Cultural Revolution suggests someone who experienced first hand the political and social persecution of Mao Zedong’s last decade. She tells her readers that it was inspired by a true story. Her central character – a young woman from a “politically questionable family” who falls in love with the son of a general – is based on a real person with names and places disguised.

In a publishing world where an author’s identity is often more important than their talent, it is striking that publishers as far afield as Italy, Norway, Brazil and Israel have responded to the writing alone. Lennie Goodings of Virago bought it without knowing a word of Chinese – and was relieved to discover that it lived up to her expectations when she commissioned an English translation. She said: “It’s a beautiful love story, almost like a Romeo and Juliet. It has that real simplicity about people trying to love each other across class. [Set] against the Cultural Revolution, it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period [which] even affects – and infects – their love.”

Goodings asked someone from Shanghai who works in Virago’s accounts department to read it: “Her face fell and she said, ‘I’m not interested in the Cultural Revolution. It’s my parents’ generation.’ The next day she was at my shoulder, eyes brimming, saying ‘it’s so wonderful and I cried’. On the basis of that, I bought it blind.” Although the original blog was serialised on a website that was blocked by the Chinese authorities, an admirer had passed it to one of China’s state-affiliated publishers, which has been overwhelmed by its sales.

The article notes that Zhang Yimou, whose work on the just-released Flowers of War generated criticism for sticking too close to the party line, has directed a film version of Under the Hawthorn Tree which was released last year.


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