HONG KONG—A childhood spent in the canal-threaded Chinese city of Suzhou was the inspiration for the latest winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Su Tong, who is already well-known for the novel that led to the making of the film "Raise the Red Lantern."
“I grew up in Suzhou, on the banks of the Suzhou River," Su said in an interview after his novel, The Boat to Redemption, was given first place and a U.S. $10,000 award by a panel of judges.
"My parents were from an island in the Yangtze River. My ancestral home is surrounded by water," said Su, whose novel tells the story of a womanizing Communist Party official who makes his home on a river barge.
"I now live on the banks of the Yangtze River," said Su, who wove memories of growing up as a teenager in the wake of the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) into the novel.
Su, 46, was the second Chinese author to be awarded the three-year-old prize, and was the best-known, thanks to an earlier best-selling novel, Wives and Concubines, which was made into the film "Raise the Red Lantern" by celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
He said he had two aims with The Boat to Redemption:
"The first was to bring in my own recollections of the Cultural Revolution," he said.
"The second is to do with the river that I grew up with. I wanted to describe the river in a work of fiction," Su added.
He said his interpretation of the Cultural Revolution might "differ" from that of others.
"The Cultural Revolution caused so much suffering and produced so many absurdities," he said. "My interpretation of the history is quite different from others.'"
Man Asian award
Su's work was picked out of more than 150 contenders mostly from India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines by Irish author Colm Toibin, Chinese-American author Gish Jen, and India's Pankaj Mishra.
Among those shortlisted were Indian writers Omair Ahmad and Siddharth Chowdhury, Kashmiri Indian Nitasha Kaul, and Filipino writer Eric Gamalinda.
The Man Asian award goes to an "Asian" novel unpublished in English, with the intention of bringing "exciting new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community."
But Iran, Turkey, and Central Asian nations are excluded from its definition of Asia.
Retired Shandong University professor and literary commentator Sun Wenguang said the award should have a positive effect on China’s ideological emancipation.
"I think that literature in the first place should reflect China’s reality, and the dark side of society," Sun said.
"This can promote social development."
Su Tong was born in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and originally named Tong Zhonggui. He graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University.
The judges said in a statement that the winning work was "a picaresque novel of immense charm."
"It is also a political fable with an edge which is both comic and tragic, and a parable about the journeys we take in our lives, the distance between the boat of our desires, and the dry land of our achievement," they added.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Jia Yuan. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.