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Zhang Xianliang (b. 1936)


Chinese novelist and poet, who spent 22 years in jails and labour camps and wrote about his politically related imprisonments in China's gulag. Zhang Xianliang's semi-autobiographical protagonist is Zhang Yonglin, whose emotional and intellectual development the author charted in such novels as Mimosa (1985) and Half of Man Is Woman (1985), a controversial novel about a man's life in the camps and his sexual difficulties after his release.

"The great majority of contemporary Chinese literary works neglect a most important law of artistry in the use of language: economy. Thus, our language lacks ambiguity, subtle nuances, and multiple meanings. It is short on understatement and humor. Because we try to write everything that is on our mind, we often fail to set readers off on associated lines of thought of their own. This makes it hard for readers to bring their own creativity into play when they enjoy a piece of writing." (Zhang Xianliang in Modern Chinese Writers, ed. by Helmut Martin and Jeffrey Kinkley, 1992)

Zhang Xianliang was born in Nanjing into a middle-class family. His father was a Kuomingtang official and industrialist, who managed a number of large enterprises including a shipping company. At the age of thirteen Zhang Xianliang started to write poems, and had his work published.  Zhang's literary and artistic education during the 1940s and early 1950s provided the psychological  foundation that was to sustain him during the year he later spent in the camps. Throughout his oeuvre, his familiarity with classics from China and Europe is seen in many references to them.

A few years after the proclamation of the People's Republic of China, Zhang Xianliang's father was arrested and accused of spying. He died in a Maoist prison. Zhang Xianliang went to Beijing, where he attended middle school. He joined a group called "Qi Xiondi" (seven brothers), and was expelled from the school in 1954. He then moved to the northwestern region of Ningxia, earning his living as a farm worker. In 1956 he was assigned to teach at the Cadres's Culture School.

Zhang Xianliang's poem 'Da Feng Ge' (Song of the Great Wind), which was published in the July 1957 edition of Yan River, achieved a huge success. When Mao Zedong started his anti-rightist campaign, Zhang's poem was attacked by bureaucrats and he was accused of being rightist. At the age of twenty-one he was sent to a labor camp for reform. This started a long period of suffering in Zhang's life, lasting over twenty years. As a result of his ordeal and hunger-related traumas, he became almost a vegetarian.

Between the years 1958 and 1979 Zhang was imprisoned several times. He was held in labor camps, state farms, and prisons. Once he was taken to the execution ground. With the help of his family, who sent him things he could trade for food, Zhang survived the Three Years' Famine, that led to mass death. In 1961 he was released for a time and then sent to jail for three more years. During the Cultural Revolution he was labelled as "anti-revolutionary-revisionist." Those tumultuous years he spent in a Ningxia labor-reform camp and working on a state farm. Later he described his experiences in Half of Man is Woman. In 1972 he was set free in the aftermath of the Lin Biao Affair – a plan to assassinate Mao. It was not until 1979 that he was formally rehabilitated.

Zhang Xianliang kept a tiny diary in a less stringently guarded camp in a rural area in Ningxia, filling its pages with cryptic descriptions: "Capital construction: hauled dirt clods." (in Grass Soup, 1992)  However, as a rule, someone would inform on him, if he tried to scribble anything a diary. In the late 1970s, he started to write again and joined the editorial staff of the literary magazine called Shuofang. It printed his first story 'Ling Yu Rou' (Soul and Body), later known as 'Mu Ma Ren' (A Herdsman's Story), which was  adapted for the screen by Jin Xie.

Mimosa, a first-person narrative, portrayed Zhang Yonglin's struggle during the early 1960s, in the time of a great famine. One third of his fellow inmates died, but Zhang has managed to stay alive, fighting with rats over food. At the beginning of the story, he is 178 centimeters tall and weights 44 kilograms. He is transferred from a prison camp to a state farm, and becomes engaged to a resourceful but illiterate woman, nicknamed "Mimosa."  Before Zhang can marry her, he is thrown back into the camps.

Though the tone of the story is ironic, it also has lyrical moments. The theme of the possibility of resurrection, the unity of body and mind, was further developed in subsequent works. Noteworthy, the title of one of Zhang Xianliang's very first stories, 'Flesh and Soul', already dealt with the demarcation between the body and the mind. Mimosa shows her preference for brains over muscle, but the narrator says: "To hell with culture! There are no mediocre jobs, only medioce people." In order to win Mimosa's love, Zhang Yonglin has to fight with Hai Xixi, a strong and handsome Islamic drifter, his rival.

Nanren de yiban shi nüren (Half of Man is Woman) was set in the 1970s and caused a great deal of debate because of its sexual theme. In this and other works Zhang Xianliang examined how sexual behavior was repressed by the puritanical policies of the Communist authorities. In the novel Zhang Xianliang wondered if China's entire intellectual community has not been emasculated. The protagonist, the older and more sardonic Zhang Yonglin, spends some twenty years in labor camps. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"" cries the protaginist in one scene, but in general, Zhang do not show much affinity with Biblical material.  While he is working in a rural commune, he sees a beautiful woman, Huang Xiangjiu, bathing nude in the river. He meets the woman eight years later, they marry, but the romantic picture of the woman turns sour. On their wedding night Zhang suffers from impotence – a  reference to the sensitive issue if the government had castrated "China's entire intellectual community,"  as Zhang Xialiang has wondered. Depressed and considering himself a failure, he thinks: "The first struggle of mankind was not between man and man, or man and beast. The earlierst struggle was that between man and woman." His wife loses her patience and is taken by a party secretary. Zhang shows his heroism during a flood and regains his dignity and sexual power.  

Getting Used to Dying (1989) is narrated by two voices which belong to the same person. It juxtaposes encounters with death and suffering in the Chinese camps on the one hand, and sexual relationships and self-indulgence in the West on the other. In one scene the narrator is brought into a town to be executed. Parents with children have come to watch the spectacle. According to the chronology of the book, the narrator dies in 2001, at the age of 65. Grass Soup – title taken from the prisoners' habitual evening meal – and My Bodhi Tree (1994) are diary passages from the 1960s with commentaries, when Zhang Xianliang was still in a labor camp, and could not write freely. "We were most fortunate to be living in the Mao Zedong era; we were bathed in his nourishing light," he said in My Bodhi Tree.

With his autobiographical works, Zhang Xianliang became known along with Cong Weixi and Liu Xinwu as one of the major representatives of the "literature of the wounded" or "scar literature." The Communist party  reaffirmed in 1985 that its guarantee of creative freedom for writers was a firm and unshakable one. Without being labelled as dissident, Zhang Xianliang called for economic reform is some of his stories, such as 'Longzhong'   (Dragon Seed) and 'Nanren de fengge' (Man of Character). 

Zhang Xianliang  received the Best Novel of the Year Awards in 1981, 1983, and 1984. In 1983 he was appointed a committee member of the People's Consultative Conference, and in 1986 a member of China's Writers' Association.  From 1986 he held a chair at Ningxia Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Several of his stories have been filmed. Fallowing the economic liberation, Zhang Xianliang founded the 1990s in Zhenbeibu, about 21 miles from Yinchaun, the China West Film Studio, which grew one of the largest in the whole country. He had discovered the site while being in exile in Ningxia. With its ancient fortress, ruins, caves, and barren landscape, it has fascinated a number of directors, including Zhang Yimou, Stephen Chow, Jeffrey Lau, Kar Wai Wong and Teng Wenji, and has became a tourist attraction.

For further reading: Literature of the Hundred Flowers, edited by Hualing Nieh (1981); Tuibian yu xin chao by Lei Da (1987); Rewriting Chinese by Edward Gunn (1991); World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby (1991); Cycles of Repression and Relaxation by He Yuhuai (1992); Modern Chinese Writers, edited by Helmut Martin and Jeffrey C. Kinkley (1992); Dalu xin shhiqi xiaoshio lun by Zhang Fang (1992); Words from the West, edited by Lloyd Haft (1993); Contemporary World Authors, edited by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State, eds. by Gilmartin et al. (1994); 'Postrevolutionary Leftovers: Zhang Xianliang and Ah Cheng by Gang Yue', in The Mouth that Begs (1999); 'Chinese Labor Camp Fiction as Conversion Literature' by Jeff Kinkley, in The Chinese Labor Camp: Theory, Actuality, and Fictional Representation (2000); Human Rights, Suffering, and Aesthetics in Political Prison Literature, edited by Yenna Wu and Simona Livescu (2011)  

Selected works:

  • Ling yu Rou, 1981 [Flesh and Soul]
    - film: Mu Ma Ren / Herdsman, 1982, prod. Shanghai Film Studios, dir. by Jin Xie, starring Shan Cong, Qiu Liu, Shimao Zhu, Ben Niu, Ziyue Zhao 
  • Nanren de fengge, 1983 [Man's Style]
  • He de zi sun , 1983
  • Long zhong, 1984
  • Xiaoerbulake, 1984
  • Contemporary Chinese Short Stories, 1984 (with Zhang Xian and others)
  • Lü hua shu, 1984
    - 'Mimosa,' in Mimosa and Other stories (translated by Gladys Yang, W.J.F. Jenner, et al., 1985)
  • Prize-Winning Stories from China, 1980-1981, 1985 (with others)
  • Gua ling, 1985
  • Nan ren di yi ban shi nü ren = Nanren de yiban shi nuren, 1985
    - Half of Man is Woman (translated by Martha Avery, 1988)
  • Gan qing de li cheng, 1986
  • Zhang Xianliang zi xuan ji, 1986
  • Fei yue Ouluoba, 1986
  • Yi xiang tian kai, 1986  (screenplay)
  • Zao an! peng you, 1987
  • Women Shi Shijie, 1988 (screenplay)
  • Xi guan si wang, 1989 (Hsi kuan ssu wang)
    - Getting Used to Dying (translated by Martha Avery, 1991)
  • Zhang Xianliang ai qing san bu qu, 1992
  • Fan nao jiu shi zhi hui, 1992
    - Grass Soup (translated by Martha Avery, 1994)
  • Wo di pu ti shu, 1994
    - My Bodhi Tree (translated by Martha Avery , 1996)
  • Zhang Xianliang zhong duan pian jing xuan, 1994
  • Zhang Xianliang xiao shuo zi xuan ji, 1995
  • Xiao shuo Zhongguo, 1997
  • Xiao shuo Zhongguo ji qi ta, 1999
  • Huaxia xi bu ying shi cheng: wo yu Zhenbeibao, 2000
  • Nan ren de yi ban shi nü ren, 2001
  • Zhang Xianliang zuo pin jing cui, 2002
  • Zhongguo wen ren de ling yi zhong si lu, 2008
  • Xi guan si wang, 2009
  • Yi yi liu, 2010

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