Plain, Time, and Catastrophe:
A Conversation with Chen Zhongshi

By Yiju Huang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2013)

Chen Zhongshi

Chen Zhongshi

This interview with Chen Zhongshi was conducted on June 15, 2013. Cigar in hand, Chen Zhongshi conversed with me in Shaanxi dialect. He addressed me respectfully as xiang dang 乡党 (fellow provincials), a regional term that bears nostalgic and personal echoes. His speech and temperament reminded me of his name, Zhongshi—honest, down to earth, brimming with truth. As I wound my way through a set of questions concerning his best-known novel, White Deer Plain (白鹿原), I consistently felt in his words a tone of care, reflection, and sympathy.

Chen Zhongshi was born into a peasant family in 1942. His father was one of the few peasants in the village who could read and write. Chen understands with great clarity the influence of his father on him and reminisces the way his father used to tell stories from traditional fiction such as Water Margin andThe Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. Chen’s hometown is on the Weihe plain of Shaanxi province. Site of ancient capitals to thirteen Chinese dynasties, this plain, in Chen’s words, “has the fortune to be immersed in the halo of China’s emperors but also bears the pathos of each dynasty’s demise” (Chen 2009: 16). This plain provides Chen with an ideal setting for his analysis of time, catastrophe, fate, and change—themes that quietly flow through White Deer Plain.

Chen Zhongshi came to national prominence with the publication of White Deer Plain in 1993, a novel tracing the fates of the Bai and Lu clans on White Deer Plain from the end of Qing dynasty to the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success. By 2000, it had sold two million copies (He 2006: 19-20). Official reception of the novel was not without complications. In 1997, White Deer Plain went on to win China’s most prestigious literature prize: the Mao Dun Literature Prize. But the prize committee requested two changes be made before granting the award. First, Chen was asked to change a metaphor used by the character Mr. Zhu who is an emblem of Confucianism itself. Mr. Zhu describes the political struggles between Communists and Nationalists in China as “fan aozi,” a regional term meaning “turning the griddle.” The prize committee felt this metaphor trivialized the historical significance of the communist revolution. Second, Chen was asked to change “some explicit delineations of sex” (Bailu yuan beihou).

White Deer Plain remains a profound meditation on the modern fate of traditional China. Different from the root seeking literary movement in the 1980s that privileged historically marginalized roots, Chen’s novel journeys into the very Confucian root of China and gently reflects on this unique cultural inheritance, its ethical structure, with compassion as well as criticism.

Huang Yiju (HY): Can we begin by talking about the genesis of White Deer Plain? What inspired you to write this novel?

Chen Zhongshi (CZ): It began with my writing The Man in the Blue Long Gown in 1985. I became interested in recollecting life experience from before 1949.

HY: Could you explicate more? Recollecting? Life experience from before 1949?

CZ: I started to write about the ancient South plain.[ 1 ] When my pen reached the two black wood doors to Xu Family that are inscribed, “farming and studying as family lineage” (耕读传家), I shuddered. I felt that a repertoire of memory had just seeped open, and I was utterly surprised by it.

HY: It is interesting that a visual detail can ignite something that powerful. What is condensed within these four characters, geng du chuan jia? What are you trying to recollect in White Deer Plain?

CZ: The Man in the Blue Long Gown is the threshold. My previous short stories and novellas concern the world of peasantry in contemporary China, changes brought by new politics. With this novella, I became interested in probing the psychology and fate of human beings.

My hometown, Weihe Plain of Shaanxi Province, surrounds the ancient capital of Chang’an. What time has given men and women on this plain is more than terracotta artifacts. What kind of spirit and psychological structure have people inherited? How did the villagers in White Deer Plain, after losing the emperor in the early twentieth century, journey to 1949? This is the primary question I ask in White Deer Plain.

HY: In your dialogue with Li Xing in March 1993, you made the following statement about catastrophe: “When I first systematically reflected on the series of catastrophic events that occurred on this plain within this century, I gradually entered a state of rationality. Even events such as Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution, are not mistakes from an individual’s misjudgments or misconducts. The occurrences of all catastrophes are not incidental. They are inevitable in the process of a nation’s revival from ruination” (Chen 2009: 184). Catastrophe is then not just a recurrent theme in your novel but a critical framework through which we can view your work and even China’s modern history? In what sense is it inevitable?

CZ: The collapse of a 2000 year-old Confucian empire is doomed to be protracted. The thicker the dust, the more agonizing, lingering and eventful the process of collapsing became.

HY: Is it a matter of time? Overcoming the weight of the past?

CZ: From the end of Qing to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the psychological journey of the Chinese people brings out an important theme. For example, the emperor is gone, how should one continue one’s life in an everyday context? This is the question probed by Lu Xun in his story “Storm in a Teacup.”

HY: Would the theme then be a kind of psychological indeterminacy or suspension caused by massive destruction and historical change?

CZ: Yes. The 1911 Revolution or Chinese Communist Revolution—these are grand reconstructions of cultural systems. As a writer, I am interested in what is behind the grand surface, the deep layer. This is the reconstruction of individuals’ cultural-psychological structures. For any individual to change, he/she needs to go through a process that I call peeling (剥离). To be peeled from one’s tradition is like being skinned. The deeper one is immersed in traditional culture, the more painful the process of spiritual peeling, such as that of Bai Jiaxuan and Mr. Zhu. Since the younger generation’s cultural-psychological structure has not yet concretized, it is easier for them to accept new ideas. Then there ensues the terrible conflict between the generations. For me, if I could interpret a character’s cultural-psychological structure well and stick to it, I can then realistically grasp the exact life trajectory of that character.


Fig. 2: Chen Zhongshi and the author

HY: White Deer Plain derives much of its power and aura from its central mythical animal, the white deer. It is a light source, a healing figure, a spiritual image. You also portray a memorable Confucian sage, Mr. Zhu, who can read the stars and ordains moral norms. What is your intention of constantly linking the white deer with Mr. Zhu? Is he an incarnation of the white deer?

CZ: I have a rule for myself that I do not interpret my characters and plots. But I will tell you that Mr. Zhu is based on Niu Caizi, a historical person from Shaanxi province. In my childhood, I heard numerous legends surrounding him such as his ability to read astronomic phenomenon. Even my father was an admirer of him. So naturally he was one of the earliest images when conceiving White Deer Plain.

HY: As a native of Xi’an, I’ve heard of this name, Niu Caizi, although only vaguely. Could you comment more on the significance of this historical person?

CZ: Niu Caizi’s real name was Niu Zhaolian. He passed the imperial exam right before the abolishment of the imperial examination system. He is the last heir of neo-Confucianism, Cheng-Zhu School, Shaanxi Branch. The founder of Shaanxi Branch, Zhang Zai, has four famous sayings: To establish conscience for Heaven and Earth. To secure life for the people. To continue lost teachings for past sages. To ordain peace for future generations. Even reading these lines today, I am moved by their sincerity and earnestness.

HY: I still want to understand your views on Confucian tradition. I certainly sensed a solemn presence of Mr. Zhu in White Deer Plain. But his presence is also ambiguous. He conveys a kind of conflictive mood regarding our classical past, integral and yet elegiac.

CZ: Mr. Zhu popularizes and concretizes the Confucian spirit. Take, for example, the Village Rules he writes. The texts/foundation (本) are the source of power for villagers to continue their lives after endless famines, plagues, and the fury of wars.

HY: I am still wondering if there is a slight splintering going on within your views on the Confucian tradition. For instance, one major theme that White Deer Plain illuminates is the fate of women. I remember a line from Bai Jiaxuan’s mother, “Women are like pasted window papers. When ruined, just tear it off and put on a new layer. Family lineage is the most important thing” (Chen 2008: 10). This metaphor comes off as particularly cruel when uttered by the family matriarch who thinks like a patriarch. Then you have unforgettable images like Tian Xiao’er and Bai Ling. Is your primary goal in creating Xiao’er and Bai Ling to debunk that patriarchal culture, that fate?

CZ: You have to know that the “texts/foundation” are also the source of limitation that cocooned lives, especially for girls like the rebellious Xiao’er and Bai Ling. When I did research for this novel, I looked through gazetteers of three counties near Xi’an. Invariably, I encountered volumes of chaste and heroic women. They lay silently there, in their surnames, in their similarities. I grew tired of reading through those endless surnames. And at that moment, the image of Tian Xiao’er surfaced in my mind and mocked the seriousness of the county gazetteers. Over the years, I have heard of countless “fermented and yellowed vegetables” (酸黄菜). They are the stories and jokes about lustful women. These women in folk hearsay and those surnames in county gazetteers form a unitary whole, one text.

HY: Both Xiao’er and Bai Ling are iconoclasts. How are they different in terms of the fate of women?

CZ: Tian Xiao’er’s rebellion derives from a pure, instinctual need to survive. Her rebellion is doomed to fail because of the moral judgment she is to face. The more thorough this type of rebellion is, more tragic her fate becomes. There is no exception. Bai Ling is a new person. Her rebellion is self-conscious. She accepts new ideas, first democratic revolution, later Marxism. So her rebellion against arranged marriage is very self-conscious.

HY: If I understand you correctly, Xiao’er rebellion is reactive and pessimistic whereas Bai Ling’s rebellion is assertive and autonomous.

CZ: Correct.

HY: Were you inspired by The Legend of the White Snake in construing the textual detail where Xiao’er’s cremated remains were suppressed under a pagoda? Is there any symbolic significance to this imprisonment?

CZ: To suppress a vulnerable soul under a pagoda is the most rotten stroke possible in feudal society. This textual detail is not related to The Legend of the White Snake. It derives solely from local customs and cultures. Villages of Shaanxi usually have two temples. The temple on the east side houses the Buddha. The temple on the west side houses Saint Guangong. The world has its whims, wind and rain, cold and warm. Peasants want favorable weather for their crops. There is also a temple for Horse Prince because every house owns livestock. Every village has more than one or two pagodas. They are usually for suppressing evil forces. Gods dwell in the temples. Ghosts are not tolerated. Xiao’er is regarded as an evil force. Unlike the White Snake who is not tolerated by Fahai, Xiao’er is not accepted by her community.

HY: I want to shift to a question on the art of writing. Critics have acclaimed your use of language in White Deer Plain. Some comment on its lyricism, some its near-mystical quality. Many regard it to possess the depth of an epic. And still some hear within White Deer Plain the rhythm of Shaanxi opera. How does your language do all this?

CZ: For the longest time I have tried to find a kind of narrative language with imagery (形象化的叙述). What is also indispensible for me is the direct connection with the characters and attunement with the atmosphere of their environment. Bai Jiaxuan did not become concretized as a character until an elder in my village told me he had seen my great-grandfather. In his description, he was a tall man. His back was always held straight. Whenever he walked through the village, the nursing women would hurry back home. I became very excited. I could then feel the pulse of Bai Jiaxuan.

HY: Beautiful. I learned in your interview with Yang Lan that you unexpectedly heard the groaning sound of your Grandpa Xia when writing, which according to you are the excavated and revived sounds from childhood memory. How is this groaning sound important in your writing?

CZ: Very much so. It lifted the heavenly curtain of time between me and that generation of men on White Deer Plain. Once I unexpectedly heard the groaning sound from the depths of my memory, I knew that I had become engrossed in this ancient plain. Whenever the book was kind of blocked [as I was writing it], I would purposefully search for that groaning sound and invariably regain calmness and confidence.

HY: This is really interesting. You wrapped yourself physically into the sound for an attunement to a different time. So what other aspects of writing would you like to emphasize?

CZ: The use of regional language should be abundant but regulated. I only incorporate regional language that readers can understand. Ga qi ma da 噶七马达,[ 2 ] for instance, becomes a conundrum outside Shaanxi province. The purpose of writing is to communicate with readers. But the use of regional language is essential. It gives your language resilience, textures, and memories.

HY: To conclude, could you recall a memorable moment in your writing of White Deer Plain? Are there times when emotions become too unbearable to continue the words?

CZ: When [writing about} Tian Xiao’er being stabbed from behind by her father-in-law with a spear, my eyes all of a sudden went completely dark. I threw away my pen and rested. When I reopened my eyes, I wrote down nine characters in a note: “To be born is suffering, to live is suffering, to die is suffering.”

HY: Saddening as it is, it should not be taken as the ultimate gesture of White Deer Plain. According to what I’ve read and understood, you have managed to convey suffering without losing optimism and even a sense of joy. My final question concerns the readership. White Deer Plain has been translated into many other languages. Are you considering bringing it to the English readership?

CZ: When a French press translated the novel into French, it sent me an agreement stating that it will take care of the northwestern market. I signed the contract. The press never took steps to have the book translated into English. Meanwhile, major presses in the United States have contacted me in recent years, but they were unable to settle with that French press. So the possibility of an English translation is suspended there.

Yiju Huang
Bowling Green State University


[ 1 ] South Plain is another name for White Deer Plain.

[ 2 ] The equivalent to ga qi ma da 噶七马达 in standard Mandarin is luanqi bazao 乱七八糟, an idiom meaning everything is in disorder.


Chen Zhongshi 陈忠实. 2009. Xunzhao ziji de juzi 寻找自己的句子 (Looking for sentences of my own). Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi.

—–. 2008. Bailu yuan 白鹿原 (White Deer Plain). Beijing: Shiyue wenyi.

Bailu yuan beihou de rensheng”《白鹿原》背后的人生 (Life behind White Deer Plain). Zhongguo zhoukan (March 2, 2012). URL: (last accessed July 31, 2013):

He Qizhi 何启治. 2006. “Bailu yuan dang’an” 白鹿原档案 (Archive of White Deer Plain). In Feng Xizhe 冯希哲 and Zhao Runmin 赵润民, eds., Shuobujin de Bailu yuan 说不尽的白鹿原 (Infinite White Deer Plain). Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin, 18-25.