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  • Cao Wenxuan, Hans Christian Andersen Award Winner 2016
  • Mingzhou Zhang (bio)

There is no doubt Cao Wenxuan is a great writer—his unanimous selection by the jury as the laureate of the 2016 H. C. Andersen Award is crystal clear proof. However, the more I read by him and about him, the more curious I get as to why and how he has grown into the person he is now. In order to understand the “big river,” I decided to go to its original sources. Thus, I paid a three-day visit to his home village where he was born and grew up before he left for Beijing at the age of twenty.

Cao Wenxuan’s home is in the serenity of the campus created by his father, Mr. Cao Guisheng, founding headmaster of the school which frequently appears as the main scene in novels such as The Grass House and Bronze and Sunflower. The whole area is s vast plain crisscrossed by waterways and rice fields through which Cao Wenxuan used to run and play with his youngest sister. You see the reefs waving in the breeze; you see fishing boats and flocks of ducks floating on the water in the peaceful sunshine. It was in such pleasant circumstances I interviewed the author’s youngest sister, Ms. Cao Wenfang, also a famous children’s literature writer; his teacher Mr Li Yougan, a respected author and educator; and his old friend and classmate Mr. Chen Ming, a famous scriptwriter. Each of them shared with me a lot of stories about Cao’s early years, before he came to Peking University.

Cao Wenxuan was born in 1954, in a small, remote village called Hougang in Yancheng City in the Jiangsu Province. Like most Chinese people in those days, Cao Wenxuan and his family suffered from extreme poverty. He recalls that spring was his least favorite season because there was no food; last year’s reserves were all gone, and the new harvest had yet to come. He writes,

I was so hungry that I even had an appetite for stones. The sun shed warm light on the earth, but I just wanted it to set in order to bring darkness to the world, so that I didn’t have to see or feel anything and didn’t have to feel hungry.

“Suffering”—and not only from starvation—is a keyword when describing his childhood, but his suffering and hardship ultimately turned into his spiritual and literary wealth. In the postscript to his novel Bronze and Sunflower, Cao writes, “We should be grateful for our suffering.” And he has spoken on many occasions about how his suffering in childhood changed him, made him more empathetic: “when the suffering comes, we must remember, but we must not hate, and never remember it as a hatred. Instead, we should be more empathetic and compassionate.”

There is an old Chinese saying: “only when the barns are full, may people know honor and grace.” However, in Cao’s family history, there are several examples that contradict the proverbial wisdom. Cao’s mother was always the last person to eat, after all the kids have eaten. And his father, a self-taught teacher, worked in Shanghai for five years in his youth and eventually went back home and set up a school in the countryside. Despite hardship, his vision was deepened and his horizon broadened by his experiences in Shanghai; he was no longer an isolated, [End Page 4] narrow-minded countryman.

Many villagers, like Cao’s father, came back from the city changed and eager to improve life in the village. But the outside world also came calling to the village. Before and during the Cultural Revolution, artists and writers as well as young students from big modern cities like Shanghai brought books, art, music, new manners and etiquette, proper modern clothes, hygiene, etc. to Cao’s village. These changes greatly impacted the local villagers’ daily life and their understanding of the world of culture and literature. Surely, Cao Wenxuan benefited from it also.

On a personal level, Cao Wenxuan’s teacher and lifelong friend, Li Yougan, the most famous local author, had a decisive influence...


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