I couldn't find any of Xu's work translated into English, so I've made a quick attempt at translating one of the last pieces he wrote, published in Beijing Qingnian Bao in June.
徐怀谦：想象力和比想象力更重要的 北京青年报, 2012年06月23日 09:37 http://news.ifeng.com/opinion/society/detail_2012_06/23/15506341_0.shtml?_from_ralated
Imagination and something even more important
When my daughter had read a few children’s stories at school, she said ‘Dad, I want to write stories too.’
It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. ‘Go ahead!’ I said.
She turned on the computer, tapped out ‘Come to Spirit Island’on the screen, and wrote down the titles of thirteen chapters: (1) Come to Spirit Island; (2) I’ve got wings; (3) Saving the queen; (4) Festival of the Spirits; (5) Going inside Spirit School; (6) Wake up, flowers; (7) Plant spirit escapes death; (8) Goodbye, wings!; (9) Moon Lake; (10) Magic Necklace; (11) Chalcone; (12) Lighting up Beauty; (12) Leaving the dream. And then she wrote the first line:
‘This sad little girl’s name was Aidiman.
When she was two, her parents left her. She spent her early years with her grandma, living in a broken down house made of wood. And then her grandma left, and the house felt so lonely, so quiet.
One evening, Aidiman was sitting under an apricot tree in the yard, a big tall tree with roots that could hold up the sky. Her grandma had told her that this tree had a name. It was the Spirit Tree. Aidiman looked up at the stars and fireflies dancing and twinkling in the sky. Her grandma appeared in her mind from time to time. Then she lay down under the tree and drifted off to sleep.
She heard someone calling her, and slowly opened her eyes, to find a girl just a little older than herself smiling at her. And this girl had wings!’
At this point my daughter stopped writing. She had to prepare for exams, and so she altered her technique. Every day when we went for our walk in the park she would tell me about all the spirits in the stories she knew. I was amazed at the strange and wonderful things that filled her little head. Had she been reading too much Harry Potter, I wondered.
The thing is, these days lots of children can write novels. Their material and spiritual nutrition is rich beyond compare, especially the youngest ones. The information they get online, from the television, from books and other sources is a million miles from the stunted childhood that we had. Children today have unprecedented advantages, in terms of imagination and the way they can build up their knowledge.
These thoughts were confirmed when I was a judge at the Sixth Global Chinese Youth Writing Competition. Looking at an essay by a middle school entrant, I was struck by the young author’s delicate feelings, chic style and extraordinary ability to weave a story. It was a shame that others on the judging committee found fault with the second half of the essay and eliminated it. But I was overwhelmed by the author’s talent, and by the education the author had received at school.
On the other hand, when it came to the more senior students’ section, not only was there no top prizewinner, but it was the general feeling of the entire judging committee that the works that won prizes lacked the imagination of the middle school students. I realise that the national university entrance exam directs their imagination like the conductor’s baton commands the orchestra. But I have to say that it is not only their imagination that suffers. There is a serious problem in their observation of the world around them and their perception of life. They were asked to write an essay imagining what their great grandfather or great grandmother would say if he/she opened up her heart. Unfortunately, I found no sense of history in the selected pieces. Only a handful of them had ever known their great grandfather or great grandmother. Given these limitations, was it too much to expect them to write with a sense of history? Obviously it is not. Writers can make a thief the protagonist in a story without having been thieves themselves. They can write vividly about a murderer without having killed. They rely on their observations of the world around them and on their perceptions.
I remembered that some schools involve the family in homework tasks, such as asking a child to go home, wash his/her mother’s feet and then write about it. For some students, this can be the first time they realise how hard their parents’lives have been. Life has changed so much. If the parents say they ate coarse food every day, the children think their standard of living must have been so high, because only the rich eat these things now.
This is a barrier between the two generations. It comes from the parents drawing a curtain over their suffering, but even more, it comes from the children’s lack of knowledge about life.
Imagination is the foundation for creation. I envy the children’s literary achievements, I envy their imagination. But to become a great writer, imagination on its own is not enough, you also have to be able to observe life keenly, to experience things deeply and to develop your own way of thinking. These do not appear by magic, they have to come from life, from experience. I don’t want our children to be seedlings in a greenhouse. As the poet Lu Li said, ‘If you think of yourself as a pearl, then you will fear the pain of being buried. But if you think of yourself as the earth, you can let others work you into a path.’