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A gigantic talent

By Chitralekha Basu and Zhao Ruixue (China Daily)

10:39, May 09, 2012

Zhang Wei attends a seminar in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, talking about his pursuit of a noble spiritual realm. Sun Xinming / For China Daily

Zhang Wei's writings reflect an amazing stamina. The author who prefers solitude shares the secret of his vigor with Chitralekha Basu and Zhao Ruixue.

In ethos, the writer Zhang Wei is a bit like the Great Wall of China. His feats are spectacular, for others to marvel at, while Zhang himself remains unruffled by the fame and adulation. The body of work Zhang has amassed in a literary career of nearly 40 years (he is 55 now) beats his contemporaries in terms of scale and the sheer energy that went into writing these up.

He probably has nothing left to prove: Zhang is, after all, the author of 19 rather long and 13 medium-length novels, 130 short stories, four poetry collections and the humongous 10-volume, 4.5 million-words of You Are on the Highland. The latter is the longest Chinese novel ever, for which he co-won the prestigious Mao Dun Prize last year.

But Zhang keeps at it, relentlessly working on the next project and the next, like a sculptor, trying to hone an artwork that's already chiseled and acclaimed.

Awards come his way, often enough. With over 60 of these in his kitty, the big Mao Dun win, although "prestigious", is probably not much more than a new feather in Zhang's cap. "Awards indeed encourage writers to write better, but they cannot be the yardstick to judge the quality of a novel. Only time will tell if a novel has any value," Zhang says.

If public reception is anything to go by, You Are on the Highland has surpassed Zhang's expectations. A state-of-the grassroots-China novel spanning 100 years and four generations - parts of which read like inscrutable tracts of poetry - the novel ran into 10 editions in less than two years and has sold over 800,000 copies.

Given that a novel as gigantic as You Are on the Highland would take some enterprise and resilience on the part of the reader to sail through, Zhang was particularly moved when an 82-year-old retired professor made the effort. "He said reading the book was like going on a five-month long journey and that really made me happy," Zhang says.

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