Salt of the hearth

Updated: Mar 24, 2021 China Daily Print
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Li Jingrui on a recent visit to Berlin.[Photo provided to China Daily]

However, as a top student at high school, having read novels by Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, she aspired to write something outstanding and realized that there was a big gap between ambition and ability.

As a result, she stopped writing for more than a decade, pursuing a career as a journalist instead. After working for 10 years, upon turning 30 in 2012, Li quit the job and became a professional writer. Since then, she has published two essay collections, two short story collections and three novels.

In her fiction, she injected memories about her hometown Zigong, her experience in Beijing, New York and Tokyo, as well as her thoughts about "the torrent of the times" that easily sweeps people away and individuals' courage to make choices to resist the "torrent".

Shen Yu Tang contains similar elements. The first half of the novel centers on Yu Lixin, a middle-aged father in the family and the most powerful figure among the salt merchants in Zicheng. Although he bribed the local government to secure the family business, the abdication of the last emperor and the threat of the warlords forces Yu Lixin to escape to Peking, as Beijing was referred to at the time.

In the hope of finding reliable protection, Yu keeps betting on the wrong people in the capricious power struggle among different factions. After squandering a lot of money, he gradually loses his mind, turning into a violent opium addict.

Li originally wanted to develop the second half of the book to focus on another male figure, Lin Enpu, who decides to devote his life to revolution.

However, in the middle of writing, her characters took on a life of their own and Li found that her feeling towards Yu Lingzhi, a female character, grew deeper. Yu Lingzhi gradually evolved into the main protagonist in the second half of the novel.

Also in her original plan, the ending was tragic but, in the published version, despite the chaotic world and hectic circumstances, there were clear-headed people like Yu Lingzhi, who took a road completely different from those chosen by men. For Li only, this road leads to hope.

Yu Lingzhi is the youngest child of the Yus. Her eldest brother Yu Jizhi leaves for the United States to study medicine and returns as a pious Christian, yet finds the meaning of life in a taboo relationship.

Her elder brother Yu Dazhi goes to Japan to study law and politics, but he quits to make bombs in a desire to help establish a new world order. In a bid to achieve his goal, he does not hesitate in murdering his nephew.

Yu Lingzhi, betrayed by her fiancee, marries another man unwillingly and gives birth to a boy. After the boy is murdered, she wakes up from her seemingly peaceful life and travels to Beijing to continue higher education.

There she witnesses the May 4th Movement and takes part in an initially peaceful protest against the unfair treaty that the then Chinese government was forced to sign at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 following World War I.

Li was surprised to read from historical records that, at the start of 1910s, when power struggles between the various factions carried on unabated, despite the country falling into chaos and an unpredictable future, the then minister of agriculture and forestry Chen Zhenxian chose to organize people to plant trees at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

"When I read the historical records about it, I was deeply touched. They planted about 3 million trees, even imported ones from Germany," she says.

In a world where one's bearings can be lost, we can choose to do something constructive like growing our own trees, just as Yu Lingzhi decides to do at the end of the novel, she says.

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