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Waves of Memory

Popular spy novelist Mai Jia departs from the genre in his latest novel Life Is Like An Ocean, embarking on a voyage to reconcile with his past

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

After an eight-year hiatus, famed espionage writer Mai Jia (pen name of Jiang Benhu) returns with his new novel Life Is Like An Ocean. In this departure from the spy genre, Mai tells stories based on his childhood, hometown and rumor. 

The protagonist is a retired PLA colonel who despite fighting bravely in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) and the Korean War (1950-1953) was nicknamed “eunuch” by villagers. 

The character was inspired by a man Mai had met while a primary school student in his small village in Hangzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province. The now 55-year-old author remembers him hauling baskets of animal dung dangling from a shoulder pole. Rumor was that the man, who lived alone in a nearby village, had lost his genitals in a war injury. He has haunted Mai’s memories ever since. 

In most of Mai’s novels, the main character is recruited for a special mission because of their exceptional talent, only to be hindered and eventually destroyed by social forces of the time. Mai calls them his “venerable geniuses.” Knowing his past, the parallels are clear.  

Mai said writing became a therapeutic escape from what he called a miserable childhood. “In a sense, I’ve been trapped by my childhood and I have been trying to break away from past memories,” he told NewsChina. “Creating heroic characters was necessary to escape my village.” 

Navigating Deep Waters
Mai Jia was born in 1964 in a small Hangzhou village just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At school, Mai was frequently bullied and abused by classmates because of his family’s political standing: his father was labeled as a reactionary and rightist, his paternal grandfather was a landlord, and his maternal grandfather a Christian. 

One day he had enough and blocked the home door of his classmate to defend the honor of his family. When his father arrived, Mai rushed to him expecting a hug – only to receive two slaps in the face. He recalled how blood erupted from his nose, flowed over his mouth and onto his pants. 

Mai did not try to explain himself and quietly walked away. From then on, he felt alienated from his father and became increasingly introverted. He seldom went out. When he did, he would walk close to walls, his head hanging low.  

“Society deserted my family,” Mai said. In the absence of friends, he confided in his diary. There, Mai vented all his anguish, anger and grievances. He remembers writing how he swore to never call his father by the name “father.” 

Mai developed severe insomnia. Lying awake in his moonlit room, he would longingly imagine that a big bird would fly inside and carry him away. Mai was desperate to leave the village where he had suffered so much humiliation. He often hoped that a hero would one day come and save him. 

His chance for escape came at 17. Mai was at a local hospital when he noticed a PLA engineering institute was conducting physicals for applicants. A recruitment officer with broad shoulders and a thick beard was eager to sign on new students. He picked Mai immediately. Several days later, Mai and more than 60 students were on an army truck in the mountains of Fuzhou, Fujian Province. Sitting in the dark, he was unaware of what would come next – training in radio intelligence at a PLA academy – and was brimming with excitement. It was the first time Mai had ever left home. 

His first assignment, however, was disclosing his family background. As his roommates busily wrote down their histories in the dormitory, Mai snuck out and worked on it alone in the rec room. Sad and embarrassed, he spent two days on what he called his “confession letter.” 

Mai soon befriended a classmate next door who also kept a diary. He was later surprised to learn his new friend wasn’t just journaling. He was writing novels. Mai took a crack at it, but didn’t know how to start. The spark came while reading The Catcher in the Rye. “It read virtually the same as my diaries,” he said of J.D. Salinger’s famed novel. Encouraged, Mai started on what became his maiden work, The Personal Notebook.  

In the spring of 1987, a friend introduced Mai to the short stories of Argentine author and poet Jorge Luis Borges. He was struck most by The Garden of Forking Paths, a story about espionage and codebreaking during WWI that features a Chinese spy. Mai had already been working in intelligence for more than eight months. 

Mai borrowed the book and took it back to his new school, the Academy of Arts of the People’s Liberation Army. The night before graduation, he started a novel about code cracking based on his own military experience and the inspiration drawn from Borges. He would spend 11 years on it. 

The novel, Decoded, became a bestseller and was translated into several languages. It was a literary first for China, as military activities were largely kept classified. Mai made 17 revisions and gave up on the project several times. It wasn’t until landing a job as a screenwriter at a TV station in Chengdu, Sichuan Province that he finally had enough spare time to finish it. 

Mai gradually wrote less in his diary. He no longer found it therapeutic. It was a place for negativity. He quit altogether after the birth of his son. “When I became a father, I told myself to close the door of the past and be a good father,” he said. 

Returning Home 
Eleven years later, Mai left Chengdu for the childhood home he had once vowed never to return to. But time had passed and things were different. It was 2008, and the massive earthquake that hit Wenchuan, Sichuan Province had brought him a change in perspective. 

The homecoming was bittersweet. Mai’s father had developed Alzheimer’s, and did not recognize his son. 

Mai said this was his most productive period. In 2008 alone, he received several prizes such as the Maodun Literary Award, China’s highest literary honor. Media hailed Mai as China’s answer to British spy novelist John le Carré. In 2009, Mai’s bestseller The Message was adapted into a blockbuster film. Requests for new work were pouring in.  

From 2009 to 2011, Mai devoted himself to two spy thriller novels: Wind Whisperer and Seven Killings, both set during China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. During the last meeting with his father, Mai promised to come back when he finished these two novels.  

He missed his father’s funeral, working on the end of Seven Killings in tears. The loss came as a severe blow. Mai stopped writing and spent most of his time reading, bodybuilding and tending to his courtyard home. Three years later, he started on Life Is Like An Ocean. Working daily from 8am to 2pm, he would write 1,000 words each day, which he would then often edit down by half.  

“Writing is just like a tree. When it grows too fast, the wood texture tends to be soft,” he said. Mai completed the draft in August 2018 and the final edition in March after seven edits. Mai told our reporter that his father’s death had broken his heart and Life Is Like An Ocean was his way of mending it. 

The author said he has come to terms with his past, which has become less painful with the passage of time, and hopes to help young people by sharing his experiences. “There are many complications in my life, such as my family origin, my personal development and love of literature. All these problems eventually turned into assets,” he said.