Bi Feiyu talks Blind Massage

Novelist's work Massage released in English

Born in 1964 in Xinghua, Jiangsu province, Bi Feiyu had a somewhat peripatetic childhood. After his father was labelled a ‘rightist’ by Government authorities, his family was forced to move to the countryside. Aged 19 he enrolled at Yangzhou Normal University to study Chinese literature, which would become his ticket out of farm life. Upon graduating, he was assigned to a training school for teachers of the blind and deaf in a remote area outside Nanjing. He had no choice but to go.

Today, Bi Feiyu – whose name means ‘one who flies across the universe’ – is celebrating the long- awaited English release of his novel Massage. The story follows a community of blind masseurs living on the fringes of Chinese society. It is a book that might never have come about had he not been packed off to the teacher training school.

Since then, Bi has won some of the highest literary awards in China. His screenplays have been used by internationally renowned directors, such as Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad). In 1997 his short story Breast-Feeding Women won the Lu Xun Literary Prize; and in 2001 he won the first Chinese Fiction Institution award for his novels Three Sisters and The Moon Opera, an account of an ill-fated Peking opera singer that introduced Bi’s work to the Western world.

However, his most unforgettable achievement, Bi tells us, is the 2011 Mao Dun Literary Prize, the highest national literary award, for Massage. We ask if he wrote the novel to raise awareness of the blind in China. ‘No, you can interpret the book in various ways. You can see it as a description of plight. The French saw it as a symbolic novel. I wanted to reveal something new, that is, the interpersonal relationships of the blind,’ says Bi.

That said, Bi does recognise the plight of China’s blind, whom he says are brushed under the carpet. ‘China’s blind community do not have a favourable situation. This is a time of economic development and they can’t help boost GDP, so they get very little attention,’ he says.

‘According to statistics, China’s disabled population equals the entire population of Britain or France. If people said Britain and France had disappeared from the face of the Earth, I believe everyone on the planet would freak out. When I realised the problem, I was absolutely terrified.’

While Massage was not written to raise awareness, per say, this has been the direct side effect – and one that Bi is very proud of. After its publication, Massage got the chance to be a movie and aired at prime time on CCTV-1 [one of China’s flagship TV channels]. The theatre version was staged at the National Grand Theater and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center. The movie also achieved some success. Indeed, it was the surprise winner of Best Feature Film at the 2014 Golden Horse Awards. ‘Today, Massage is more than a work of mine. It has become a social issue,’ says Bi. ‘It’s made me very satisfied, and such satisfaction goes far beyond a novelist’s vanity.’

However, publicity was almost interrupted last year following a copyright dispute. The row erupted after a publisher, Xiyuan, released an expanded version of the book based on the TV adaptation under Bi’s name, selling copies of the two-volume set for 68RMB, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. In March, the Beijing Dongcheng District People’s Court found Xiyuan guilty of copyright infringement.

Aside from Massage, Bi says his second career highlight is winning the 2010 Man Asia Prize, which judges works by Asian authors written in English or in English translation, for Three Sisters. ‘In that year, among the candidates there was the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Kenzaburo Oe. When the announcer suddenly said my name, I was totally astonished,’ says Bi.

So how did he feel about having his work judged in English? ‘In literature, English is still the most widely used language. It’s unrealistic to make the judges of world-class literature prizes skip the translation and directly use the Chinese to determine the winners. If Asian literature, including Chinese literature, wants a wider literature audience, translation is an indispensable link,’ he says.

Bi’s novels have been translated into more languages than most. His work is particularly popular in France, and the film adaptation of the book, Blind Massage, was co-produced in the country. He is also read in German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Slovak, Dutch, Norwegian, Turkish, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

In turn, he takes inspiration from international novelists, while from within China, he prefers the work of ancient Chinese poets to modern writers because, ‘from a historical perspective, China is a great country of poetry, not a country of novels.’

But surely he is living proof that China is producing great modern novelists? Bi responds modestly: ‘I hope the world remembers me for my honesty, my thinking, imagination and the happiness I’ve got from the Chinese language.’

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