Despite having left his hometown 45 years ago, Liu still speaks with a strong Henanese country accent and frequently refers to “my village.” Liu was born in the small village of Laozhuang in Yanjin County, Henan Province in 1958. Like the fictionalized versions of existing places such as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Laozhuang Village in Yanjin County is the root of Liu’s writing.
“[When I was young], my top ideal job would have been to become a cook in my own town – it must be a very cozy job since I would be working by the stove; my second choice would have been to be a percussionist in my village’s opera orchestra so that I could play the bangzi [a local percussion instrument] under the moonlight; my third choice was to become a village teacher, immersed in my own world with the sound of children reading for company. Nevertheless, getting into university pushed me down the fourth path – to be a writer, so I became an entirely different creature,” Liu once said in an interview.
“Although I work in Beijing, I often go back to Yanjin, where I’m constantly in touch with the people in my village – the barber, the butcher, the tofu seller, the cook, the drum player and the bathhouse staff… More importantly, I always have a feeling that sometimes a word from my uncle, cousin or someone in my village is worth ten years of study in Beijing,” Liu told the Dahe Daily in 2009.
Even today, Liu values the more straightforward wisdom of his fellow villagers. His uncle was a cart driver who would go to the county town, which, among his fellow villagers, made him the man who had traveled the farthest into the outside world.
When Liu was still a boy, he had a lifechanging conversation with this uncle beside a cowshed, which he recounted in a recent speech at a an even held by Tencent Entertainment:
“Zhenyun, do you think you are clever?”
“I’m definitely not clever, uncle.”
“Do you think you’re a fool?”
“Uncle, you ask me questions and I give you my answers. So I am not a fool.”
“Then that’s a problem. Clever men and fools live happily. But people like you who are neither clever nor stupid will run into a lot of troubles in life. […] Have you ever thought of getting married, kid?”
“I’m only 13. Do you think I should be thinking about it, uncle?”
“You’d be a fool not to.”
“Then I’ll think about it.”
“People like you can only marry a widow. If you want to marry a good woman, leave home and head into the world out there, kid.”
The 14-year-old Liu left his village, said farewell to his beloved grandmother, welltraveled uncle and four siblings, and joined the army aged 15 and served for around five years in the Gobi Desert. In 1978, Liu, then 20, took the college entry exam and got the highest grade in Henan Province, securing a place at the prestigious Peking University. After graduation, Liu became a journalist for Farmers’ Daily.
Liu had begun writing for himself at the age of 15, but began getting noticed in the early 1980s when he had a series of short stories and novellas published by People’s Literature such as Tapu Township (1982), Work Unit (1988), Chicken Feathers Everywhere (1992), and Remembering 1942 (1993).
Liu Zhenyun focuses on the relationship between humans and the social environment.
Books like Work Unit and Chicken Feathers Everywhere depict how Chinese live in an authoritarian, seemingly homogenous society and how when they turn themselves into someone else, it is a painful and torturous process. Being regarded by critics as a the poster boy for neorealism, Liu insists on the stance of the common instead of the elite and vividly portrays the lives and psychology of the common people within contemporary society.
As the Peking University professor Hong Zicheng puts it in The History of Contemporary Chinese Literature, in Liu’s works, uncontrollable desire, the weakness of human nature together with social power structures weave a web that common people cannot escape. “Compared with many other neorealist novels, Liu’s works embody a more conspicuous exploration of ‘philosophical depth’ – they continuously reveal the omnipresent ‘absurdity’ and humans’ alienation in their daily lives,” Hong writes.
Almost half of Liu’s books are set in Henan Province and his hometown Yanjin County. The hometown is most salient in Liu’s most popular novel One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand, published in 2009, and which won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize.
Liu sees hometown as the “compass” for his life. “My perspective and attitude towards life and society were developed in my hometown. When I lose my direction in the outside world, I will naturally think of my village as the compass to correct my direction,” Liu told the Dahe Daily.