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Celebrated Chinese author discusses writer’s life

In the early 1980s, Yu Hua was a dentist in a small town in southern China, extracting teeth for eight or more hours a day in a government-run hospital.

Today, as the author of To Live , which was adapted into an award-winning film directed by Zhang Yimou, he is one of the most popular contemporary writers in China. Yu also is the first Chinese writer to receive the esteemed James Joyce Foundation Award.

On Thursday afternoon, in a talk at Whitaker Laboratory, Yu told an appreciative and knowledgeable crowd of about 90 graduate students and undergraduates—many of them from mainland China—how he made the transition.

With Kutztown English professor Guiyou Huang as his translator, Yu explained that in China, dentists were similar to barbers or shoe repair shops. They would display their tools and customers’ extracted teeth on the street to attract business. He related how after five years as a dentist, he grew discontented with his profession and wanted to seek a more appealing career.

“Nothing is less interesting than the human mouth,” Yu said.

The write stuff

About that time, Yu noticed the people who worked in the nearby cultural museum walking the streets outside his dentist office window. They didn’t seem to have much to do, and Yu was envious of them. There were three paths to a job at the cultural museum: composing music, art, or writing.

“So I decided to write, hoping that some day, I’d be able to work in a place like that,” he recalled.

Yu had to appeal to the Chinese government to change professions because during the early 1980s, workers were not permitted to look for their own jobs, but were assigned to them by the government. In 1983, when a literary agent from Beijing asked Yu to revise a novel he had submitted, his request was granted and he began work at the museum shortly afterward.

On his first day at the museum, Yu intentionally arrived two hours late, but discovered that he was still the first person there. He said he knew immediately that the museum was the right place for him. He now had a job in which he could earn the same poor wages as a dentist, but by sleeping until noon, strolling the streets, and then going home to write. He was enjoying his easy-going work and no longer felt the emotional stress he had as a laboring dentist.

In 1993, 10 years after launching his writing career, Yu felt he was able to sustain himself as a writer. He quit his job at the cultural museum and moved from his small town to Beijing, supporting himself as a freelance writer. Today, writing is his way of life.

Imagination and reality

Yu said writing enables him to live two lives: a fictional life that he describes as colorful and rich, and one that is real and more boring. But he admits that when one life is strong, the other will decline. The two lives will often conflict as he sinks deeper into his fictional world and reality becomes more and more remote, he said.

He enjoys living his fictional life because everyday existence can be tedious and uninteresting. After some time, it becomes difficult to separate real life from what is imagined, he said.

But his imagination is a part of his real life, Yu said, and that’s what he likes writing about. He believes that writing is good for one’s health and makes life more complete.

Yu’s writing career began with a desire to secure a freer existence. And today, he enjoys that freedom through his writing where he can express himself through the stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances.

He related how a reporter once asked him if he was afraid his talent would one day be exhausted.

“Only life can be exhausted, not talent,” Yu told the reporter.

Following his talk, there was a lively question-and-answer session, with many of the students asking Yu questions in Chinese. Thursday evening, the film version of To Live was shown, and Yu stayed around until 11:20 p.m. discussing the film and his novel.

His appearance at Lehigh was sponsored by the Office of Graduate Student Life, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Asian Studies, English Department, International Students and Scholars, Modern Languages, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

--Laura Fonte

Posted on Friday, March 05, 2004

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