Zheng Yuanjie has been writing fairy tales in his best-selling children’s magazine, Tonghua Dawang (童话大王 or “fairy tale king”) for 26 years. The World of Chinese caught up with Zheng to talk about his decision to ditch university, why he became a writer and how he keeps coming up with ideas after 30 years of writing.
You’ve been writing fairy tales for 30 years. Why do you think they’re so popular?
Readers think my stories are magical. In this age, a well-written book should show kids there is more out there than just computer games and the Internet. I want my stories to open whole new worlds to their imaginations. I have two to three generations of readers. Parents read my stories when they were young and want their children to read them as well.
Why did you choose writing as your career?
I was originally a worker. My ex-girlfriend’s parents were college professors. They asked me to take the National College Entrance Exam in 1977. I knew I could not pass it, but I planned to take it anyway because I was in love with their daughter. Then my mom told me that a true lover would not leave me because of an exam. She explained that if, as a college graduate, I earned seven points in something then I would be worth seven points in others’ eyes, but if I earned seven points without a college degree then I would be worth ten points in others’ eyes. At that moment I understood that getting a degree would just be a detour in life. I realized that life is about going in a straight line without going in circles. My girlfriend broke up with me and I asked myself what I was going to do. I thought of my father who often read and wrote, so I started writing myself.
Talk a bit about your father and his influence on you.
My father had three years of education in a private school. He was the only literate soldier in his army group, so he was chosen to be a teacher at Shijiazhuang Infantry School. He knew his knowledge was limited, so he read and wrote every day. My dad never schooled me. He had no time to take care of me. But I thought what my dad did was great and I wanted to read and write like him when I grew up.
When was your work first published? Why did you choose to write fairy tales?
I love writing; writing is my strength. At first, I wrote poetry for adults, but my poems couldn’t compete with others’. So I tried various types of literature until I came across fairy tales. Ha, but there was another reason: one day I read a short article in People’s Daily, which said China would possibly implement a family planning policy. Children would become more precious to their families and sales of children’s books would definitely increase.
My first published story, “A Story about Little Gecko,” was printed in Xiangyanghua Magazine in 1978. I was really excited when I received the hand-written notice from the magazine’s editor. From then on, I wrote fairy tales for children only.
Since it was launched in 1985, you have been the sole author of the children’s story periodical Tonghua Dawang. How do you keep coming up with stories?
I have no difficulty in writing. Inspiration is with me at all times. Anyone can create a story if they are inspired. The key is where that inspiration comes from. I think my ability to generate ideas comes from the little education I’ve had. Every day I write down ideas, and when my notebooks are full I lock them in a bank safe. Those notebooks are my wealth and security. A thief could sell them for millions of RMB.
What is your relationship like with your readers?
Readers are higher than royalty to me. My earliest readers are now 41-42 years old. A young man even told me once that his parents fell in love lending each other my books.
I try not to write for children of any particular age. In the past I used particular contexts that one generation may have been more familiar with than another, but now I try to avoid this. Twenty years ago I wrote about BP machines but now I have to add a footnote to explain what those are. Many great books such as “Dream of Red Mansions” are popular today even though no one uses cell phones in them. The more realistic a story’s context is, the shorter lifespan it has. It’s better to write something that can last forever.
What kind of people do you get along with?
I have friends from all walks of life: actors, real estate agents, bicycle repairmen, policemen. But I don’t interact with writers. It’s not interesting to be around people who do the same thing as me. Recently a friend at the British Embassy invited me to attend a book fair in the UK next March and meet with the author of the Harry Potter series. I said, “You can ask her to come to Beijing.”
I have many foreign friends. Today I spent two hours with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke sharing our personal experiences. I went with Locke to visit some workers’ children last week. Locke’s kids were dressed plainly and you could hardly separate them from the workers’ children. They all had Chinese faces, except Locke’s couldn’t speak Chinese.