Jia Pingwa on the origin of his novel – translated by Nicky Harman
Editor’s note: First published in September 2007 by The Writers Publishing House, Jia Pingwa’s novel about a plucky trash collector proved an unlikely success. A movie adaptation of Happy Dreams followed two years later, bringing ‘Happy’ Liu and friends to the silver screen. In 2010 Kim Yun-jin translated Jia’s novel into Korean, and in 2014 Anna Gustafsson Chen did the same, into Swedish, with an English edition finally appearing last fall, thanks to the efforts of Nicky Harman.
Every novel Jia writes is bookended with a substantial afterword by author, detailing the (often challenging) writing process. This is a tradition that Jia started after his 1993 novel Ruined City was pulled from shelves and banned from reprinting, following allegations that Jia intentionally included pornographic content to drive up sales. In the afterword for Happy Dreams, Jia describes how the surprise arrival of an old friend with a new name provided unexpected inspiration for a new project on a sensitive topic — the migration of rural farmers into the cities — with a very personal twist. – Nick Stember
Happy and Me
by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹
One afternoon three years ago, I was at home reading Journey to the West and thinking that the monk Xuanzang and his three disciples were really four different sides of the same person, when suddenly there was a loud rapping at the door. These days, when everyone has telephones, it is rare for a visitor to turn up unannounced. I wondered who it was. I was not expecting anyone. I deliberately waited a while before opening the door, to indicate my displeasure at this uninvited guest. Knock, knock, knock, the noise came again, getting louder with each rap. Finally, there was a thud as someone kicked the door. Indignant, I flung the door open. On the doorstep stood Liu Shuzhen.
“Ai-ya! I thought you weren’t home!” he said.
“It’s you!” I exclaimed. “When did you get to town?”
“I’m a city liver now!” He never did speak properly. I smiled and told him to come in and sit down. “Shuzhen, you do have a way with words!”
“Don’t call me Liu Shuzhen. I’ve changed my name to Liu Gaoxing, Happy Liu! Call me Happy Liu.”
And that was my first meeting with “Happy Liu,” the city dweller.
His son had been in Xi’an for quite a few years by then, delivering coal for a coal store. His son had not inherited his father’s and grandfather’s cheery good humor. He was morose and taciturn, with a big chip on his shoulder. He had wanted to leave home and get a job in the city as soon as he finished junior secondary school. His father had let him go.
As Shuzhen put it, “Father and son are always at odds, so I figured, let him fucking go, and if he doesn’t starve, at least that’ll be something!” But when his son came home for Chinese New Year, he was wearing a smart suit. They played poker and, every time he lost a yuan, he pulled a wad of hundred-yuan bills an inch thick out of his jacket pocket and extracted a one-yuan bill. He put the wad of notes back and lost one yuan again. And again. He never gave his father any money at all.
So Shuzhen decided to come to the city in search of work too. By this time, he was fifty-three years old. He spoke like a much younger man, but his back and legs were no longer as strong as they had been. He couldn’t run fast, and the work was wearing him out. He had worked for a month at his son’s coal store, and he was sharing his son’s shed, thrown together out of plastic sheeting. It was so hot that he splashed water on the ground every night and slept on a bamboo bed mat.
He didn’t care about that. What really riled him was that he and his son had completely different ideas about things. When he earned money, he saved it. When his son earned money, he spent it. He wanted his son to build him a new house back in the village, but the young man refused. They had a huge fight, and Shuzhen decided to leave and go it alone. The only work he could do on his own was trash picking, so he started picking trash. Trash picking? I realized I had never given that job a moment’s thought.
After Shuzhen’s visit, I reflected that I had lived in Xi’an for more than thirty years, and I had seen trash pickers pulling their carts or riding their three-wheelers every day. I’d had them collect old books and periodicals from my apartment, but I had never asked myself where these people came from, why they were collecting trash, and whether they could make a living from it. They roamed the streets by day, but where did they go at night? City folk, including me and my family, pride ourselves on our stylish, luxurious bathrooms, regarding them as a sign of progress and civilization, but the city is like its people: what goes in must come out; we excrete as much as we ingest.
Then why do we simply not see, or care about, the people who do the job of cleaning up our waste? They’re as essential to our lives as breathing, and we don’t forget to breathe, do we? I’m constantly telling people we ought to be more grateful, yet what usually moves us are heroic acts of altruism and self-sacrifice. How have we managed to completely forget about the sun in the sky and clean water in the earth?
That day, Shuzhen and I talked about the ins and outs of trash picking. Shuzhen’s experience as a trash picker had clearly become the prism through which he observed Xi’an and his life as a migrant laborer in the city. Sitting arms akimbo and cross-legged on the sofa, he exuded self-satisfaction as he looked at my astonished expression, splurting on his cigarette and unhurriedly explaining it all to me: people came from all over to work as laborers, but the situation in the areas they came from varied. The towns of Dongfu and Xifu in the Guanzhong plain were fairly well-off, and people from there knew what they were doing, finding themselves jobs in big companies in the development zones.
The people from Northern Shaanxi were generally tall, and they liked to stick together, working for a labor contractor, doing building or roadconstruction work, or working as security men in hotels and residential compounds. Of the three districts in the south of Shaanxi Province, the people from Hanzhong and Ankang looked like southern Chinese. They knew how to make themselves agreeable, and mainly worked in service industries as sales assistants, or in hotels, teahouses, and foot massage parlors.
As for Shangzhou District, it was the poorest and most remote in the whole area: it did not produce food and nor did it have reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas. The only way for the locals to make money was to open small eateries, but they generally loved art and literature and were eager to see their children educated so that they could escape the mountains as soon as possible.
He gave me an example: our county’s government, overseeing a population of three hundred thousand people, raised a little more than twenty million yuan annually in revenue. But ordinary people raised a hundred million a year to send their young people to college—every year, every single year, a hundred million. The country folk were like sheaves of corn, pressed and wrung to extract the last drop of moisture from them, until only the husks were left. And hardly any of those students returned home when they graduated. They found temporary work in government offices or private companies in the city, continually changing jobs and business cards.
The pitiable resources of the Shangzhou Mountains were leached away, all the money taken by students. The elite, those with education, migrated. It was the single biggest migration in China’s history, with people moving en masse to the city. The city was one great maw, slurping every drop of oil from the soup bowl.
“They put on new clothes and go!” Happy Liu said. “All they leave behind are tattered old padded jackets. Shangzhou is left destitute. In the end, even those left behind have to go. The prospect of Xi’an dazzles them. In their eyes, its streets are paved with gold and silver. But they leave with no funds, no skills, and there’s no one with power and influence to smooth their way when they arrive in the city. The only way they can eke out a living is to take on the hardest, dirtiest, and most exhausting work that requires the least skill—delivering coal or picking trash. And if one person does well, then they draw others after them, first family members, then fellow villagers, one after another, until now, when Shangzhou folk make up most of the trash pickers and coalmen.”
After that, Happy Liu paid me frequent visits, whenever it rained. Rainy days were his rest days, “holidays” he called them, and either he came to my house or invited me to his rented room. It was from him that I learned that many of the younger generation of the Jia clan had come to Xi’an as migrant workers. But they had not contacted me, perhaps because I had not been home much and they felt they did not know me, or perhaps because they were not doing well and were embarrassed to admit it.
In any case, what could I have done to help them? Although I was a well-known writer, I had no official clout or money. Happy Liu wanted nothing from me; he knew me and he knew my situation. He came because we were almost the same age, and because he needed to talk, and I needed to listen, and so we became close. Whenever I had a family occasion, like a birthday party for my elderly mother or my daughter’s wedding, I naturally invited him.
He looked and dressed quite differently from the other guests, with his booming voice and his laugh that sounded like the Hong Kong actor Stephen Chow. He stuck out, as if a potato had suddenly appeared in a basket of apples. But he was a cheerful potato. And as soon as the others found out that he was a migrant worker, they were amazed at his calm good humor and thoroughly enjoyed talking to him. He was full of fantastic tales of village life and city trash pickers, which he brought vividly to life. As our guests listened, entranced, his face would suddenly become grave, and his language elegant and classical. He had, he said, “read an uncountable number of books and had an inexhaustible appetite for the strange and marvelous.”
His listeners, many of them university professors, exclaimed, “Happy Liu! Your imagery is superb, better than Pingwa’s!”
“I got better grades in school, but I’m still just a ceramic tile. So is Pingwa, but fate decreed that his is glued to the cooktop and I’m glued to the WC!” And he cackled with laughter, wiped his runny nose, and said, “I’m just Runtu, the hired hand’s son!”
I tried to stop him. “Enough of your crazy metaphors. I’m not Lu Xun, and you’re not my family’s hired hand.”
“I don’t care whether you’re Lu Xun,” he insisted, “but I’m definitely Runtu!”
But he was no servant of a long-dead, famous writer; he was Happy Liu, and he stirred in me a strong desire to write about him and about his community of trash pickers. In every large city, there are celebrations easily costing tens of millions, splashy parties displaying the kind of ostentatious luxury that the era of prosperity has brought. Perhaps by writing about trash pickers’ lives and their thoughts and feelings, I could put my finger on the pulse of otherwise hard-to-reach aspects of city life today.
The desire grew in me, and I told a friend about my idea. He disagreed with me: history has always been created by society’s elite—in the old days, it was emperors, their commanders and ministers, scholars, and beautiful women; nowadays, it’s officials, industrialists, financiers, leaders of fashion, and other powerful people.
If you want to write mainstream literary work, you have to write about them, not about trash pickers, he told me.
My friend was not wrong, but I had my own reality, circumscribed by the environment in which I lived, and my knowledge and abilities. Other people might write better on my friend’s topics, but I wanted to write about what I could, and felt I should, write about. Over the years, I have given much thought to the following question: as a writer in my fifties, of many years’ standing, in a country that reportedly publishes a thousand or so novels annually, what should I be writing about and what significance do my writings have?
I have weighed myself in the balance: I may not be a mythical hero, a Houyi, shooting my arrows at extra suns, or a Xingtian, wielding shield and ax, but neither am I a dilettante writer, in the business of producing popular-genre fiction and making myself rich. I’m not setting myself up as highminded or especially ambitious, and I don’t claim to write good work.
But then few are capable of writing a classic or seeing the big picture, so why should I not write notes on society that I can bequeath to posterity, I reasoned. I wanted to write about Happy Liu and others like him coming to town from rural areas, about how they get here, how they adapt to city life, their viewpoints, how they feel about the hand that fate has dealt them. And if I can enable my readers to understand these things from my writing, then I will be satisfied.
[While I was struggling with my book] Happy Liu was still in Xi’an, of course, and seemed in better health than before. Every six weeks or so, he’d go home to tend his crops, then return to the city. Every time he came back, he either phoned to let me know he was back or turned up on my doorstep. He chatted about this and that, his face full of expression, his laughter joyous.
“Why are you always so happy?” I asked.
He paused, then said, “Well, my name’s Happy. How could I not be happy?”
What kind of a man was happy even though he was not fortunate? But at that moment, I understood how I had to change my thinking, and how I had to write the novel. At the start, I was writing about a multitude of trash pickers, based on Happy Liu’s stories, but delving into so many people’s lives had been a dead end.
Although that one comment from Happy Liu meant nothing much in itself, strangely, it was as if kindling that had hitherto only been smoking suddenly leapt into flame. So I made Happy Liu the subject of my novel. He was, after all, unique. Yet he was also typical. He had turned into the man that he was now because the more life weighed on him, the more he knew how to bear difficulties lightly; the more he suffered, the more enjoyment he got out of life.
“Happy Liu, now I understand you!” I exclaimed.
“Understand what about me?”
“You’re a lotus growing out of pond mud!”
“Don’t use all that fancy language about me! You know the brick kiln back home? When I came out of the kiln, my face was as black as a pan bottom, so black it made my teeth look white.”
That was Happy Liu in a nutshell: a clean life in a filthy place. He put it much better than I did. I laughed, and he cackled along with me. That day, we had paomo mutton soup. I started the novel again. The original title had been City Life, but I changed it to Happy Dreams. 
Before, I had drafted it similarly to my novel Shaanxi Opera, writing about a city and its many residents, but now, the focus was on Happy Liu and two or three of his buddies. The original structure was like that of Shaanxi Opera, layer upon layer of cave homes rising up the mountainside, or a huge patch of thousands of wild chrysanthemums carpeting the gully floor. Now it was a single small pagoda with bricks neatly laid one upon the other, or a single rose blossom with layer upon layer of petals opening out. It did not take me long to draft the novel this time, and when I finished, I felt a huge sense of relief.
Before I did the final revisions, I returned to my home village. Things had changed: when the new highway was built, sections were made to follow the south bank, not the north bank, of the Dan Jiang River. A road I had driven for decades suddenly presented a different aspect.
The first thing I did on every trip home was to visit my father’s grave, burn ghost money, and make an offering of liquor. The pain of losing my father never lessened, and this time was no different, even though he had been dead for eighteen years.
As soon as I knelt by the grave, my tears began to flow. But this time, for the first time, there were flowers. My younger brother had planted all kinds of shrubs around his grave, but I had never been there at the right time. Now, all kinds of flowers were in bloom, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
As I knelt to burn the paper money, I noted how death and the smell of fresh flowers merged into one. Tears running down my face, I muttered to my father, “With Shaanxi Opera, I wrote about how the peasants of our area left the land, and now with Happy Dreams, I’ve written about how they live in the city. At least I’ve written it…”
Just at that moment, I felt a breath of wind, and the flowers trembled, and the ash from the paper money danced in the breeze. For a long time, I sat there, dazed. Then it occurred to me that there was something wrong with Happy Dreams. I left the grave, the smell of death and the perfume of flowers still in my nostrils, mulling over the fact that although I had written how Happy Liu enjoyed his life, setting my story against the background of the hardships of a trash picker’s life, something essential was still missing. I was unsure what the problem was—perhaps the narrative angle?
I got no farther in clarifying the problem, but I was absolutely certain that minor adjustments were not the solution. I had to change the angle, and if the narrative changed, the book had to be rewritten. I abandoned my plan to tour all the Shangzhou District counties and hurried back to Xi’an.
I immersed myself in the fifth revision of the work, making major changes to the protagonists, cutting out many details and whole segments of commentary. To the best of my ability, I curbed my tendencies to euphoria, hyperbole, and complexity, and tried to make the story real, and detailed, so that it felt warm and intimate. With the plot and the protagonists so pared down, I frequently broke the rhythm as I wrote, and where it read too smoothly, I deliberately went for awkwardness, making the language abrasive and clumsy, as if I had not used any skill, as if it were written by someone whose talent had completely run dry.
Happy Liu stopped by a few times during this period. He was such a strange man. He saw me amusing myself with ink painting and calligraphy, and he actually bought some ink and a brush and practiced writing characters on old newspapers at home, hanging each sheet on the walls of his room. I was even more astonished when, after he discovered that I was writing a book in which the main character was based on him, he started writing an article about me, thirty thousand characters long.
He had scribbled down stories in a notebook of our shared childhood, using pens of assorted colors. As a piece of writing, it was basically unstructured, and many of the Chinese characters were written incorrectly, but he had brought those long-ago events vividly back to life. I did not know what to say to him. He would certainly never get anything like this published—he had dashed it off in a few free moments—but how could I tell him not to write? I told him, “Happy, if you’d gone to college thirty years ago and stayed in Xi’an, you would definitely be a far better writer than I am. If I had joined the army and returned to the village, and then come to town to pick trash, I wouldn’t be half as good at it as you, nor would I have your joyousness and humor.”
But when I had rewritten three-quarters of the novel, I got some bad news that almost made me start all over again. I was chatting with a writer friend and enthusiastically reading him the first three chapters, when he suddenly said, “Are you beginning with the peasant carrying his friend’s corpse home on his back?”
“Isn’t that a good beginning?” I said. “Where did you get that story from?” he asked. “I adapted it from a TV news report.”
“Have you seen the film Falling Leaves?” he asked. “No, what about it?”
“Well, that film is about a peasant carrying his friend’s corpse home on his back.”
I was thunderstruck and hardly dared ask what happened in the film. But when he told me the plot, I relaxed. The director may well have seen the same report as I had, but the film was purely about the details of the man’s journey home. For me, it was only the opening of the novel. My friend advised me to change it anyway, but I refused. Why would I change it now, when I had written it into my first draft in 2005? The film was the director’s, and my book was wholly my own work. A mule and a horse were two different things.
About three weeks later, it was pouring rain, and I was writing the ending of the novel, when the phone rang. I was annoyed at the interruption and didn’t answer it. But a little while later, it rang again. I picked up the receiver and barked, “Who is it?”
It was Happy Liu. “Why didn’t you answer the phone?” he asked.
“I was busy.”
“I know you’re busy, and I can’t burst in on you, but when I phoned, you didn’t answer! What are you busy with? Are you still writing about me? When are you going to finish?”
“I’ve nearly finished, just making a few minor revisions,” I said.
“You find it so difficult to write! But I’ve already finished writing your biography!” And he cackled with laughter over the phone. He was phoning me from right downstairs. I put down my pen, opened the door, and a very wet Happy Liu came in. ∎