Life and people thousands of miles away from each generally attract, and perhaps that’s the start of a new beautiful journey.
For Chinese writer Chen Danyan, such an attraction never fades. Chen has been on the road for the past 22 years.
“Chen Danyan on the Road,” an exhibition featuring the photos, books, videos and travel stories about Chen is being showcased at the Pearl Art Museum through March 3.
“I try to show to the audience how I, a local writer, has grown up to be a citizen of the world, or to be more exact, the growing up of my generation,” said the 60-year-old at the opening of the exhibition.
Born in 1958 in Beijing, Chen moved to Shanghai with her parents at the age of 4. After studying Chinese literature at East China Normal University, she first worked as an editor for a children’s magazine.
In the mid-1980s, she started writing about the emotional world of adolescent girls. In 1997, she received the UNESCO-Prize for Peace and Tolerance for her autobiographical novel “Nine Lives.”
Then her writing turned to focus on Shanghai and the city’s women.
Chen is best known for her trilogy of biographical narratives: “Shanghai Memorabilia (1998),” “Shanghai Princess (1999)” and “Shanghai Beauty (2000).”
The urge to develop
The writer could just sit on the reputation of these books and do no more. But Chen reveals she has an “urge to develop myself, consider more and understand better the good and evil of this world, and all of these themes happen during my journey.”
In her eyes, there is an intimate relationship between reading and traveling.
The exhibition is divided into five parts: “Private Reading,” “The Grand Tour of Italy,” “Danyan on the Road,” “Rambling” and “Nurturing of a Writer.”
“When I was a little girl, I dreamed about visiting Europe, America and throughout Asia,” she said. “For me, they belonged to a world that was built up by the words of those great writers.”
Chen recalled that at the age of 7 she read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” the first foreign adventure book in her life. And she later saw a world map in her geography class when she entered middle school.
Now the world map and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” are both displayed at the exhibition. They are not only a precious memory of Chen as a little girl, who longed to see the outside world, but more a collective memory of her generation at that time.
Chen also invited her middle school geography teacher to attend the opening ceremony, because, “It was her geography classes that inspired my passion to the world,” she said.
The exhibition also showcases an old book of the “Divine Comedy,” which according to Chen, has some special meaning to her.
“When I was young, I didn’t quite understand its meaning, and I only thought that the love it described might be the best love in the world,” she said.
“But later I learned the influence of this book on religion and the world view during the Renaissance. When I traveled to Italy, I visited several castles where Dante once lived. It was only when I put down my traveling notes that I realized his sorrow and pain as a hobo.”
Different from other travelers, Chen often takes a big truck of books with her on her journeys, which contained various world literature books that Chen read in her childhood. She brings these books to the birthplace, writing venues and traveling spots of these writers.
“It seems that I bring myself into the scenario of these novels,” she explained. “I went to the private space of the writers, their homes and even slept on their beds. I have realized the craziest dream of a reader.”
Q: What attracts you to this exhibition at the Pearl Art Museum?
A: It is this art space and the books in the adjacent book store that attract me. In fact, I have been fully engaged in a writer’s movie in Belgrade which nearly exhausted me. The exhibition was discussed several years ago but I already threw it out of my mind. I didn’t feel comfortable to consider myself so great as to put on a show, just because I’ve traveled and written 12 books on my journeys.
If it wasn’t for the persistence of Li Dandan, director of the museum, I would have given it up. But now, standing in this space, I feel so moved. It reminds me of all the novels and travel books that I read when I was a little girl.
Q: What do traveling and writing mean to you?
A: When I was a teenager, I made a decision to see the world. It was always my life’s dream. Although at that time I was not sure I could be a writer, but I hoped I could be. To be a writer is the most perfect life in the world for me.
Many years later when I visited an old library and abbey in Italy, I suddenly realized that I was already on the road. I followed the traces in the novels to understand this world and the hearts of the people. The meaning of writing means I am able to “build up” a more meaningful world based on my “soul journey” during my travels.
Q: Do you think that the multi-media might decrease the charm of paper books?
A: In fact, I also use different media platforms other than paper books to reflect what I garnered during my travels. I write books, shot short documentaries and did sound programs for the radios. I think all these forms help express the spiritual journey for me.
Of course, some stories are more suitable to be written on paper and appreciated alone silently on a sofa, while other stories might be more suitable to be watched on the big screen in the darkness by a group of people. I don’t think different media might offset each other, but instead open a wider scope.
Now I desire very much to isolate myself in a boring small place to ponder on the relations and characteristics among various media, which will be of great help for me.
Q: Do you have any unforgettable moments among all your travels?
A: I am the sensitive kind and there are many unforgettable moments.
For example, I drove along Highway 49 in California and I saw an old account book in a grocery store there. The owner of the account book recorded credits of Chinese workers, and there was one man surnamed Chen. I immediately felt a sense of kinship simply reading his name.
Q: What do you expect visitors to get from the exhibition?
A: I expect them to find the kind of “nutrition” I absorbed from those books. This exhibition is akin to a small labyrinth. Hopefully they can shuttle through my books and find an exit by themselves. Perhaps then they will understand why I wrote these stories and be moved by them, which is the best encouragement for a writer.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: It is the poem book written by Kaneko Misuzu (1903-1930). It is a nursery rhyme written by a Japanese woman about 80 years ago. It really quenched me. I like her details because it reminds me of many things in my childhood which I had forgotten. Surprisingly, I find they still linger somewhere in my mind. I also like the translation of the book. After reading it I started to admire the translator because he would definitely feel happy in this translation.