File photo of Alai (China.org.cn)
In the world of Alai, a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large.
"The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times," says Alai, author of the six-volume Hollow Mountain.
Over the weekend, Alai won the title of Outstanding Author of 2008 from the Media Award for Chinese Language Literature. Last year, he published the last installment of his magnum opus. But the award, notes Xie Youshun, one of the judges, is more for the complete work than for the denouement.
The book's publisher calls it "six petals of a flower", referring to its unique structure, and the author himself objects to the use of word "epic". He also admits that it won't sell as well as "Red Poppies." But "Hollow Mountain" has taken more of his energy and resources.
"I won't touch the same subject matter again. Unless China's countryside undergoes more fundamental changes than it is going through today, I don't think I can come out with something better than this."
Alai burst on the scene in 1998 with his debut novel Red Poppies, now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is The Dust Settles, and it's set in the dying days of the chieftains. The reading public began to notice this writer from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. But actually his writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then shifted to fiction. "I voluntarily put myself, for a long stretch of time, into the position of an amateur writer," says Alai, now president of the Sichuan Writers Association, who has won numerous awards in the recent decade.
Both Red Poppies and Hollow Mountain are stories about Tibet. They have taken on an extra level of authenticity because the author is ethic Tibetan. But Alai downplays it, explaining that the label "puts me down". He insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China.
"Our urban development comes at the cost of the rural area. An increasing burden is imposed on the countryside, something it has to bear. Things have turned for the better in the past 30 years, but fundamentally farmers' living conditions are less than ideal and their fate is one of tragedy."
Alai says he is not a "brave man" and adds that he should not pretend to be one. "I take history and literature very seriously," he reveals. "I write about the dark side not because I want to expose it, but because it is the truth. The value of charting the sad course of history is to make people think. If something like that happens again, people will be vigilant. If we all forget, in a generation or two nobody will know anything about it, and that'll be our tragedy, just like building on a fault-line even though you know it's there."
As a Sichuan writer of Tibetan ethnicity, Alai has an acute awareness of two of the biggest events of 2008. The earthquake made him realize "the randomness and universality of crisis". The Lhasa riot, on the other hand, exposed what he calls "the beautiful misunderstanding rampant among the rest of the world, including China". This "beautiful" misunderstanding, he says, has sown the seeds of mistrust among people of different ethnicities.
Alai says the outside world has a romantic version of Tibet that has little to do with its real history. They imagine Tibet to be "a cradle of myths", which epitomizes the opposite of all undesirable things in a material world. They choose to be oblivious to the fact that most people in Tibet lived in ignorance and life did not improve for hundreds of years.
Alai takes upon himself the task of "demystifying" Tibet. "The Tibetan people are a member of the human population, and what they need is not how to be the servants of god, but to be human beings."
He takes care not to see himself as a spokesman for all Tibetans. "Nobody - not a monk or any other person, or myself - has the right to take the place of all the people in this region. Only individuals who form this whole can present the whole picture of this race and this culture."
(China Daily April 15, 2009)