Ah Cheng

Ah Cheng

Ah Cheng, born in Beijing in 1949, is the pen name of Zhong Acheng. An accomplished fiction writer, painter, and screenwriter (for internationally renowned Taiwanese director, Hou Xiaoxian), Ah Cheng spent the Cultural Revolution years in a small village in Inner Mongolia where he painted the sheep and grasslands, and on a State Farm bordering Yunnan province and Laos. During the 1980s he came to prominence as a member of the “primitive” or “seeking roots” literary movement. He has lived in several countries including the US, often not writing for long periods and working various jobs such as fixing bicycles and house painting. In 1992 he received the Italian Nonino International Prize for his literary achievements, which includes a travel journal, Venetian Diary. He lives in the outskirts of Beijing.

The King of Trees

Fiction by Ah Cheng

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie S. MacDougall

When the three novellas in The King of Trees were published separately in China in the 1980s, “Ah Cheng fever” spread across the country. Never before had a fiction writer dealt with the Cultural Revolution in such Daoist-Confucian terms, discarding Mao-speak, and mixing both traditional and vernacular elements with an aesthetic that emphasized not the hardships and miseries of those years, but the joys of close, meaningful friendships. In The King of Chess, a student’s obsession with finding worthy chess opponents symbolizes his pursuit of the dao; in The King of Children – made into an award-wining film by Chen Kaige, the director of Farewell My Concubine – an educated youth is sent to teach at an impoverished village school where one boy’s devotion to learning is so great he is ready to spend 500 days copying his teacher’s dictionary; and in the title novella a peasant’s innate connection to a giant primeval tree takes a tragic turn when a group of educated youth arrive to clear the mountain forest.…
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Nearly all the Chinese critics who discuss Ah Cheng’s work go to great lengths to praise the spare, concentrated expressiveness of his prose style… But they see in Ah Cheng’s powerful language an indicator of something else, too – they see in his style an extraordinary spirit, something that years of class struggle under Mao’s aegis had sought simply to efface.
—Theodore Huters, Modern China
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