The voice of a generation

Updated: 2012-06-26 10:18

By Yang Guang (China Daily)

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The voice of a generation

Beijing-based writer Xu Zechen reveals the lives of the underprivileged struggling in Beijing's Zhongguancun, known as the country's "Silicon Valley". Wang Jing / China Daily

Xu Zechen discovers his niche as a writer, distancing himself from the shadows of his predecessors and successors. Yang Guang finds out more in Beijing.

Post-1970 writers have long been considered a shadow generation, falling behind both the literary quality of their predecessors born in the 1950s and 1960s, and the market influence of their post-1980 successors. Praised by literary magazine Master as "the glory of the post-1970 writers", Xu Zechen says his embarrassingly sandwiched cloud has a silver lining. "Being the antagonists of the literary scene renders us more patience to toil in silence," the 34-year-old says. His silent toiling has given voice to the equally silent social classes struggling on the boundaries of the country's urban landscape.

The main characters of his novel, Running Through Zhongguancun, which propelled him into a recognized writer, are pirate DVD peddlers and fake certificate makers in Zhongguancun.

Zhongguancun, the electronics area known as the country's "Silicon Valley", has become a literary landmark due to his "wandering in Beijing" story series.

Running Through Zhongguancun, his 2006 novella about the love story of pirate DVD peddler Dun Huang, will soon be available in English.

The voice of a generation

Despite the pedigree of having obtained a master's degree from Peking University and working as an editor with China's longest running literary magazine People's Literature, Xu says his rural background connects himself with the underprivileged in his stories.

Growing up in the countryside of Donghai, Jiangsu province, he spent his childhood pasturing cattle, planting rice and running around in the fields.

He began reading seriously only after attending middle school, where he rented books from bookstores and borrowed from classmates.

Xu recalls reading over and over again Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

His first ambition was to become a lawyer but his dream was shattered because he didn't perform well in the college entrance examination. When he ended up studying Chinese in a small town college, he felt "tragically frustrated".

"I read voraciously in the library day in, day out, but still I didn't know what I really wanted to do," he recalls.

The idea of being a writer struck him one afternoon in the summer vacation of 1997, when he finished reading Zhang Wei's novel Family Clan. (Family Clan was later included as the first volume of Zhang's 10-volume Mao Dun Literature Prize-winning novel You Are on the Highland.)

"I was excited to realize that it was so wonderful being a writer," he says. "A good writer can convey all you have to say, in a more exact and beautiful way."

Xu started writing and publishing, while staying in college to teach after graduation. He weaved the small town into the literary world he created in the "Flower Street" story series.

Built with blue stones on the bank of a canal, Flower Street is a fictional street where the series of idyllic stories took place, similar to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Garcia Marquez's Macondo.

In 2002, Xu quit his job and went to Beijing to further his studies. "I made the decision because the idea of leaving and exploring the world had been sizzling in my mind all those years," he says.

He got to know a group of pirate DVD peddlers and fake certificate makers, running their business furtively in Zhongguancun, so he started writing about them and their peers from across the country, rooting themselves in the concrete jungle of the capital.

Xu says the more he wrote, the more he found meaning in his work.

He sees Beijing as an example of urban centers confronted with the problems of urbanization, modernization and globalization.

"My writing has become a means for me to probe into these issues, in which I have great interest," he says.

For Xu, Zhongguancun bears the characteristics of a perfect specimen, inhabited by people from all walks of life. "It's no exaggeration to say that once we understand about Zhongguancun, we understand about Beijing and the rest of the country," he says.

Xu says the dramatic social reality unfolding each day in China provides writers with exciting issues to ruminate.

"As a faithful and humble writer, I draw satisfaction from recording what my generation feels about our era."

He is currently working on a novel portraying the confusion and anxiety confronting a group of post-1970 people, and their pursuit of security and inner peace.

Contact the writer at

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