Zheng Feng and her new novel: The Valley of Life and Death

This article is a translation. The original article can be read in Chinese here.

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Zheng Feng’s new novel 《生死谷》(The Valley of Life and Death). 3 Vols.

Hong Kong resident wuxia novelist Zheng Feng comes from a political family. Her father is our well-known former President of the Control Yuan Chen Li-an, and her grandfather was the second Vice-President Chen Cheng, but she did not follow them down the path of politics but instead followed after her brothers in her youth by beginning to read wuxia novels before creating her own wuxia world, to the point that she has been honored by Ni Kuang as the female piece of the puzzle the wuxia world has long been looking for.

Now she is not only a wuxia novelist, but also the mother of five children, writing novel after novel while raising her kids. Her newest novel, The Valley of Life and Death, follows her previous novel, Legend of the Marvelous Peak and the Strange Stone, which used the early Tang dynasty as historical backdrop. This new novel takes place in the later Tang, when military governors vied for control in a fractured, waning empire.

“I used historical records as a foundation to construct a chronological table and was shocked: a lot of people during that time were killed by assassins. The military governors vied for each other’s territory, were poisoned and stabbed to death everywhere. The biggest of such incidents was when Li Shidao sent people to kill Wu Yuanheng in the street.”

Wu Yuanheng was chancellor appointed by Tang emperor Dezong whom he had specially recalled to Chang’an, but was assassinated while preparing for the morning imperial court session. “Such a chaotic time that the chancellor could be murdered in the street?” The Valley of Life and Death begins in just such a troubled time. It starts with several children playing in the street, but soon a seven-or-eight year old child is abducted and taken to a group nestled in a mysterious mountain valley where she is deprived of clothes, her name, and forbidden to speak. There, she begins her harsh training.

The story’s protagonist, Zheng Feng said was inspired by the one from the upcoming popular film Nie Yinniang (The Assassin), and she also consulted the original Tang dynasty tale. “Although the tale of Nie Yinniang is complete, including mention of the process of shaping the killer, I felt it was not enough for constructing a full-length novel, so I took a group of children trained as assassins, and at that time the demand for hitmen was quite high.”

Therefore, The Valley of Life and Death not only uses Nie Yinniang as a prototype for the story’s protagonist Pei Ruoran, there is also over a hundred children preparing to be assassins, each undergoing various trials, sometimes competing with each other, sometimes helping each other, other times framing each other, to the point that they turn to each other as food before finally finding it is not easy to leave the valley. They become members of the “Killer Path” and begin receiving orders to kill people for money, at the same time undergoing the distress of considering the morality of their actions.

Wuxia, as the name implies, should have “xia”, but in a time when people make a living out of killing, how can one be a xia? “What’s right, what’s wrong, actually the characters don’t have an answer for that. Pei Ruoran just believes in “surviving” and that one “cannot betray one’s friend”, while Wu Yuanheng’s son Little Tiger embraces good and evil. He would rather seek death than to cherish living.” Perhaps good and evil are not common, and like real life, seeking “xia” becomes the wuxia novel’s conundrum, not an organization or a charcter, but as Zheng Feng says, “the concept of xia has become more and more complicated with each era, it has become an idea, an action. All one’s life the xia’s work is to have a strong sense of justice and desire to help the weak even when it’s not opportune. Xia ought to be something everyone can accomplish to some degree.”

In fact, brutal reality has already infected the novel to the point that the novel no longer tolerated the vain hope for heroes. The xia is no longer the depiction of the eminent man Jin Yong gave us, natural and unrestrained, and all-powerful, to the point that even passion or sentimentality cannot be endured.

Similar to the non-existent hero, in Zheng Feng’s novel there is no happy romantic love. “Whether it’s a novel or real life, emotions should be more subtle, more veiled.” Even though Jin Yong is Zheng Feng’s model, as a woman wuxia novelist she possesses a different point of view on romantic love. “In Jin Yong’s work there is a lot of moving romantic love, but there is also that like Wei Xiaobao, which is not enticing in the slightest. When a woman looks at a man, she’s looking for if he treats me well, or enough, but Wei Xiaobao doesn’t do any of that, yet every girl sticks close to him, it makes no sense. Of course it’s Jin Yong’s plan, to set up this joke.”

However, certainly most of the infatuation in wuxia comes from women, except Zheng Feng’s. Her romances must have a reason, like she asked, “Do women always fall in love with those who treat them well?” Love doesn’t come without reason just as heroes are not inborn. In Zheng Feng’s novel, everything must be accomplished.

Chatting about reality, and about Zheng Feng’s resident Hong Kong, the topic of the Umbrella Revolution is mentioned. She said she has seen a lot of “latent potential emerge.” Revolution cannot be expounded in a few words, but the perils of life she has gone through have deeply affected her. When she was about to give birth to her fourth child, she called hte hospital up in the morning, but they replied there were no beds available and she would have to wait until afternoon, but when it’s time for the baby to come out, how can you just wait until afternoon? Not only did she have no bed, none of the other hospitals in Hong Kong, either private or public, had beds available, so she could only lie down in the corridor. Her fifth child was born during the milk powder shortage, when the only way to get milk powder was the register with the manufacturer, show identification, and then it would be delivered to your home. Then school. The birth-rate in Hong Kong was so low that many schools had closed down, but because people were crossing over jurisdictions to send their kids to school, the line for registering your child for kindergarten was long so that you had to wait in line all morning. “So why are Hongkongers so anxious, these immediate perils cause you to ask: does the government really not think things through? Why do they always wait until something happens to begin action?” The accumulating discontent among the populace is because the people do not feel the government has much consideration for the people.

It’s fairly easy to write wuxia in a chaotic world, during war heroes are likely to emerge, and in a time of confucion where the way out is not clear, what course should revolution follow? Novels tend to avoid mentioning this, but Zheng Feng says, “Writing is a dialogue with myself, a quiet stable activity. Through writing I can placate myself.” Perhaps the answer lies between reading and writing. In life you might bet met with a flash, a small notion turning, and “xia” consequently will be born. This “xia” perhaps cannot change anything, but through it we can placate ourselves and this turbulent world, if ever so slightly.

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