Legendary Granny: Her writing and her life

By Zhou Honghu


GUANGZHOU Xue’eryou Bookstore, Nov. 6, 2016 – Invited by International Writers’ Workshop at Sun Yat-sen University, Legendary Granny Jiang Shumei and her daughter Ailing (originally named Zhang Ailing) from Heilongjiang Province, had a conversation on writing and life with Prof. Fan Dai, founding director of the University’s Center for English-language Creative Writing.

The writing experience of Jiang is an inspiring legend in itself. Born in Shandong Province in 1937, she had been an illiterate manual laborer and housewife before she learned to read at the age of 60 and started to write when she was already 76. In her published books, she has recorded details about war time, the famine and the adversity she underwent in her life, which coincided with the course contemporary China has gone though in the last century.

At the event, Granny Jiang, white-headed and wearing a well-tailored Cheongsam, was so elegant that it was hard to imagine her illiterate past. According to Ailing, Jiang was beautiful in her youth but pined away when Ailing’s father passed away in an accident. It was writing that altered her attitude and disposition. Jiang did not have any confidence nor joy in her eyes until she started to read and write.

When it came to adversity, Granny Jiang always kept her father’s words in mind. Back in the days of the famine, her father told Jiang to find solutions rather than to surrender to difficulties and let go what was irreparable. In 1996, Jiang’s husband died from a car accident. To relieve her sorrow, she began to learn to read at the age of 60, which eventually led her to write such works as Disorderly Times, Difficult Times, Sow Thisthle & Sugarcane Bud and Slender Neck Woman. These books were well received and won several prizes.

Jiang did not use any punctuation or even paragraphs at first. But with Ailing’s encouragement and instructions, the mother student soon caught up. They shared with the audience many anecdotes from Jiang’s writing such as Grandson’s laughing at her wrong stroke order, her writing on top of the couch cushion and her frequent fieldtrips to collect folktales, to becoming the best auditing student in the Lu Xun Academy of Writers.

In Ailing’s eyes, her mother knew little about writing skills or literary theories, but instead, she created unconsciously through her own understanding. She does not reason or preach, which is totally different from the sentimental or extravagant style of the literati. Nonetheless, she was absorbed in telling stories with details. Like story-tellers in older times, she revealed vivid and unforgettable details in her works, such as the ancient custom of foot-binding. People who have read her books have remarked that each word in her writing appears to be screwed onto the page.

Jiang loves to read with Ailing in her spare time. She is fond of Mo Yan, whose works from her hometown Shandong Province reverberated in her heart. In her reading, Jiang simply makes a choice by judging whether the novels are interesting or not, and the same can be said about her writing, which based on the enthusiastic response of the audience is remarkable and fascinating for sure.

Besides reading and writing, Jiang has also started to paint. She even did her own illustrations for her second book. She said with a smile, I never knew the word ‘dream’ before, but now I have a dream of my own, to become a painter by the age of 90. When her neighbor wished she could live up to one hundred years old, Granny Jiang only responded with two words: Not enough!

The audiences were deeply moved by Jiang’s optimism, humor, simplicity and innocence. They laughed and applauded her throughout the conversation.

When asked mother and daughter get along with each other after her mother started to write, Ailing, also a famous writer, praised her mother’s writing for its down-to-earth approach, instead of self-centered literary tone. It was her mother who motivated Ailing to set off on a new path in writing. She complimented her mother’s progress and offered appropriate suggestions at the same time.

To write stories, the two often went out to collect materials, which Granny Jiang called Stocking Shelves. Granny has such a strong interview ability that she can commence an interview with anyone she meets in five minutes and get them to open up about themselves. Materials they collected fell into two categories, folktales and family histories respectively. The former could be recreated and extended, but the latter must be based on the facts and should be corroborated by the descendants of the family. Many elements such as time and location cannot be changed and the background information needs to be verified. 

In Granny Jiang’s eyes, the most troublesome part about her writing does not lie in skill but in emotion. She felt it was extremely difficult to write about famine and the death of her beloved husband.

The conversation, which lasted for over an hour, enabled everyone to comprehend that literary creation requires not only technical mastery but also the depths of lived experience.