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Her Latest Chapter

After her best-selling literary debut Qiuyuan was published when she was 80, Yang Benfen, a woman who spent most of her life toiling as manual laborer has embraced her dream to become a writer

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

The cover of Yang Benfen’s literary debut, Qiuyuan

As long as she feels no pain in her joints, Yang Benfen writes on her iPad every day. Her urge to write flows as naturally as water in a stream.  

Yang began writing at 60. She is now 81. In 2020, Yang published her debut Qiuyuan, an autobiographical novel about an 80-year-old woman who reminisces about the life of her mother, loosely based on her mother’s life. The novel shows how ordinary Chinese women struggle in tumultuous times “like wood floating in the water,” she writes in the preface. Qiuyuan became a critically acclaimed bestseller, rated 8.9 out of 10 on China’s leading media review website Douban.  

Yang had always worked odd jobs – farming, herb picking and carrying sandbags. She was an accountant, a gas station attendant and opened a small auto parts store, but she never thought she could make a living from the written word. For decades, her greatest dream was to go to university.  

In her eighth decade, Yang said being recognized as a writer is surreal. “I never imagined I’d get a book published. It was so unexpected, so unreal,” Yang said.  

Now she is racing against time. Her second book The Floating Wood is about to be published, and she is already working on her third. “I feel like I’m hurrying up with my pen, as if I restarted the long journey of my life again,” Yang told NewsChina.  

All About My Mother 
In 1914, three years after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911), a girl named Liang Qiufang was born to the family of a drugstore owner in Luoyang, Henan Province. Just like millions of others, Qiufang’s life was deeply affected by drastic social changes in China. She enjoyed happiness but suffered great losses. In 2003, at the age of 89, Qiufang died after a fall. 

In the pocket of Qiufang’s cotton coat, her daughter Yang Benfen found a small note, on which she had précised her life: “In 1932, I moved from Luoyang to Nanjing, in 1937, [I moved] from Hankou to Xiangyin, in 1960, from Hunan to Hubei, in 1980, from Hubei back to Hunan. All these years, I’ve tasted the sweetness and bitterness of life. At last my life ended up like this.” 

Yang was 60 that year. While grieving, Yang was inspired by an essay called “Mother in the River,” by writer Zheng Shiping about his mother who drowned herself in a river after suffering political persecution.  

“It struck me like lightning – I could write about my mother. She was a great woman,” Yang said.  

“If I didn’t do it, the traces of my mother would be completely wiped out... And the traces of my own life would turn to ashes. If that day really came, I wondered whether I’d ever existed in this world, whether all the difficulties I suffered, all the experiences I encountered would fade into nothingness,” she said.  

Details of the old days flowed when she started writing. Using over four kilograms of manuscript paper, Yang finished the story in two years.  

But the weight she felt came not from the manuscripts but the tears she shed. “The pain was so sharp I often put down my pen and cried. The memories haunted me. But finally I managed to finish,” Yang said.  

Although her memoir largely tracks the actual experiences of her own mother and her family, Liang Qiufang, Yang chose to use the name Qiuyuan for the mother to slightly fictionalize her story.  

The youngest daughter of a drugstore owner, Qiuyuan received a good high school education, but her dream of going to university was thwarted at 17, when she was married to Yang Renshou, a young Kuomintang official. The couple settled in Nanjing, capital of the Republic of China. In late 1937, after Nanjing was occupied by the Japanese army, the Nationalist government retreated to the inland city of Chongqing and many officials chose to go home. Qiuyuan followed her husband to his hometown: a village in Xiangyin County, Hunan Province. The couple had six children.  

Just as millions of her contemporaries, Qiuyuan’s life was tremendously changed by the times. She suffered great losses: her youngest son died of pneumonia at 13 months old, while her youngest daughter died of acute dysentery. Her husband, who served the Nationalist government, died of starvation under political persecution in the 1950s and her second son drowned in an accident.  

Yang never dreamt of publishing this story. Her second daughter Zhang Hong, a children’s book author, posted it with the title of “A Memoir of My Mother” on Tianya, one of China’s most popular forums. The story, told honestly and simply, drew a wide range of loyal readers. Many left encouraging comments, which amazed Yang. She learned how to use a computer so she could reply to them.  

In 2019, the story was read by publisher Tu Zhigang. “I was determined to publish it after I read the first chapter. I knew I had to do it even if it was only 5,000 copies,” Tu told NewsChina.  

“What moved me most was that she boldly used writing to face up to her own life, to the history of her family and country, and to the impermanence of fate,” Tu said.  

Seventeen years after Yang finished writing it, Qiuyuan was published in June 2020.  

Hard Times 
There is extreme humility in Yang Benfen’s character.  

During the interview, she was concerned whether her heavily accented Chinese was understandable. “Do you understand what I am saying? So sorry for my terrible [standard] Chinese,” Yang said repeatedly.  

She feared her downbeat story would upset readers. “I feel incredibly sorry for letting readers read such a sad story. Perhaps people won’t be happy because of my writing,” she said. 
 
She feels shy about being called a writer. In the afterword of Qiuyuan, daughter Zhang Hong, wrote: “She kept asking me ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit self-serving to call your mother a writer? I don’t think I’m qualified enough to be called a writer.”  

Privately, Yang feels differently. “I often read my own writing. I compliment myself secretly. I think it’s pretty good,” she said. But she keeps it to herself. In public, her timidity returns.  

Yang attributes her timidity to her hard life experiences. “I’ve always had bad luck,” Yang said in a mildly self-mocking tone.  

Yang was born in 1940 in Xiangyin County, Hunan Province. Since Yang’s father was physically weak and could not do any hard labor, the family’s burdens rested on her mother.  

As the eldest daughter, Yang had to help with the housework and look after her younger siblings. Unable to go to school, she learned how to read and write at home. She began attending school at 11. Thirsty for knowledge, she devoured every book she could and was always at the top of her class.  

It was nearly six kilometers to school. Yang had to get up before dawn and walk alone on mountain trails. At night, she had to do embroidery by oil lamplight to earn money.  

But she enjoyed those days. “I was extremely happy. Every day I walked alone on the mountains and kept telling myself, ‘how fortunate I am to get an education!’” Yang told NewsChina.  

Her good fortune did not last long. After graduating from primary school at 13, Yang had to stop her studies and work for the family. 

Several years later, when her brothers and sisters were old enough, Yang was able to continue her studies. At 17, she was admitted to the Institute of Industrial Technology of Yueyang, a vocational school in Yueyang, Hunan Province. She read any novel she could find. 
 
Yang bought a flashlight, and while hiding under the covers read The Three Musketeers, Gone with the Wind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and her favorite, Anna Karenina. For her, being a writer was the most admirable occupation in the world.  

But misfortune fell again. Two months before graduation, Yang’s school was closed, although she does not say why. She neither got a diploma nor a job opportunity, so to find work, she went to Yichun, Jiangxi Province, where she was admitted to the Communist Workers School, a vocational school for workers and farmers. However, her education ceased one year after, as she was sent to a village in Panzhihua, Sichuan Province, to do forced labor due to her “problematic family background.” This was because her father had served the nationalist government.  

She got married because her husband promised she could continue her schooling. But this was shattered when she had three children in quick succession.  

The family lived in a small town in Yichun. In February 1972, she started work as a casual gas station attendant for a car transport company. She had to work hard without complaint to secure the job.  

Reading was her only solace. At a time when books were like gold dust, it was harder to get any in a small town. If she heard someone had a book she had not read, she would do whatever she could to please them, sending the book owner gifts like embroidery or homemade desserts. 

“I really can’t imagine life without books,” Yang said.  

Yang is a natural storyteller. She remembers every plot and character, no matter how tiny, from every book she has read.  

During winter nights in the late 1970s, Yang’s neighbors and young mechanics from the transport company would visit her home to listen to her tell stories. She recounted Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the 1883 Chinese martial arts novel The Tale of Loyal Heroes and Righteous Gallants, and Red Crag, a 1961 novel by Chinese writers Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan.  

Yang Benfen

A Writer in the Kitchen 
Starting late in life, Yang used all of her spare time to write. The kitchen became her study. 
 
In her 4-square-meter kitchen, the sink, stove and refrigerator occupy most of the space, with no room for a single table. Yang sat on a stool and wrote on a slightly higher chair. 
 
She washed vegetables and stewed meat on the stove. She wrote during breaks between cooking. When the broth boiled, she put away her pen and manuscript in a plastic bag and resumed cooking.  

Yang’s greatest desire was to send her three children to university, which she achieved. Zhang Hong got a postgraduate degree in Chinese literature at Nanjing University, and is also a published writer.  

She sees her mother writing late in life as a form of redemption.  

“There’s famous quote by Franz Kafka: ‘Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others.’ I think my mother is doing that,” Zhang told NewsChina. 

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