Deng Youmei was born in March, 1931, in Tianjin, though his family has its roots in Shandong province’s Pingyuan County. Deng has adopted a number of pen names, such as You Mei, Fang Wen, and Jin Zhi. He has served as secretary of the Beijing Federation of Literary and Art Circles and vice-chairman of the China Writers Association — of which he is currently honorary vice-chairman — and today sits on the board of The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries.
Deng has had a life that can be described as legendary. At the age of just 12 he was working as a military signaler in his hometown. In the couple of years that followed he was forcibly dispatched to Japan to do hard labor in a coal mine, where he lived life on the fine line separating life and death. In 1944, he returned to China and rejoined the military, where he worked in the armed forces’ art troupe. After completing a course of study at the Central Training Institute of Literature, Deng — who was previously self-taught in the art of the written word — soon became an up-and-coming figure in the literary world. His published works include: The Collected Works of Deng Youmei (in five volumes),Within and Beyond Beijing’s City Walls, Snuff Bottles and A Hodgepodge of Essays. Our Commander won the country’s inaugural National Outstanding Short Story Award; Taoran Pavillion won the same prize the following year; Na Wu won the second National Outstanding Novella Award; and Snuff Bottles won the third National Outstanding Novella Award.
Considered the forefather of contemporary China’s so-called “Beijing-Flavor Literature”, Deng possesses a creative style that is best described by the words robust and honest. It is his “Beijing-flavored” novels like Na Wu and Snuff Bottles that are most representative of his artistic achievement. Such works, imbued as they are with the taste of the capital, mostly take their inspiration from stories of the Manchu people. With his unique perspective, the author paints a tapestry of the lives of the Manchu, a people with which readers of today are generally unfamiliar. Not only do such works take you among the sights, smells, and folklore of old Beijing, they also bring you realizations about the past and enlightenment about the present.
Deng is all too familiar with the language and psychology of Beijing’s people. His first attempt at harnessing the speech and mindsets of Beijingers, Taoran Pavillion was met with critical acclaim. He imbues his writing evocatively with the life and language of ordinary people; while assuming the dialectic essence of the Beijing tongue, the narrative is also intangibly refreshing, nimble, clean, and pure. The Beijing-flavored work Na Wu follows the idle, lavish, unanchored, and unaccomplished life of its eponymous protagonist, a privileged child belonging to a nobility in decline. From the perspective of the general populace, and following the path of human life and the comings and goings of historical eras, the work lays bare the reasons behind the collapse of a government and the decline of a people, offering food for thought on the weaknesses that lie within the national character of traditional China. Na Wu has two chances to set himself back on the straight and narrow, but he dismisses them disdainfully; opportunism, selfishness, cowardice, pride, and vanity are deeply engrained parts of his character. Rather than shouldering the responsibility of protecting their families and serving the country as would have been expected, the spoilt youth like him spend their days playing with pigeons and walking their horses. Long used to the parasitic life, their knack for eating, drinking, and finding merriment are worth not even half a stale pastry. Arguably, it was the country’s unfavorable policies that cultivated a generation of such good-for-nothings, which in turn led to the ruin of the Qing Dynasty.
Snuff Bottles employs an interlocking dual-narrative structure. One narrative follows the framing and subsequent imprisonment of Wu Shibao, a privileged child of the declining noble class. In prison he meets Nie Xiaoxuan, an ethnic Han snuff box artist who teaches Wu the art of making enamelled porcelain and painting the inside of snuff boxes. With these skills, Wu goes on to make his own living. The second narrative tells the legend-like story of how Nie Xiaoxuan chooses to break the bones in his own hand rather than paint a snuff box singing the praises of the Eight-Nation Alliance — an international military alliance set up to quell China’s Boxer Rebellion. In a bid to curry favor with the Japanese, the character of Ninth Master, a powerful advocate for westernization, tries to force Nie to paint a snuff box portraying the jubilant scenes following the Eight-Nation Alliance’s assault on Beijing. Resolutely opposed, Nie breaks the bones in his own hand in protest.
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