Zhang Henshui 张恨水

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Zhang Henshui 张恨水 (1895 - 1967) was the penname of a prolific popular novelist Zhang Xinyuan 张心远.

Born in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, Zhang began working as a reporter in Wuhan at the age of twenty-two. It was in Wuhan that he took up his penname and completed his first novel Elergy to the Southern Country 南国相思谱. His work took the form of the classical Chinese novel, written in colloquial Chinese and using classical Chinese poetry as chapter headings.

Zhang departed for Beijing in 1919 to work as a newspaper editor publishing the highly successful novel, An Unofficial History of Beijing 春明外史, in serial form between 1924 and 1929. His use of realistic dialogue, and his way of interposing people from different social strata proved immensly popular to Chinese readers of the time. His best works include A Family of Distinction 金粉世家, 1927-32 and Tears and Laughter 啼笑因缘, 1930. In 1935, Shanghai Express, his novel about the relationship between a wealthy banker and a mysterious and outspoken young woman who meet on a train, was China’s most read novel by her most popular author.

The romantic style of Zhang Henshui and other authors of the time clashed with the more serious and political writers of the May 4th movement who derided their work as sentimental entertainment, labelling them ‘Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature’ (referring to the frequent use of poetry in which lovers are compared to mandarin ducks and butterflies). Arguably, however, Zhang Henshui tried to dignify the genre by retaining the form and language of the old-style Chinese novel, but assimilating techniques and content from May Fourth writing in an effort to modernize traditional fiction. In fact, his later writing took a more serious and political tone. Published in 1941, Eighty-One Dreams 八十一梦 is perhaps the most representative of his 40-odd novels set during the War of Resistance against Japan and uses parables and dream sequences to satirize the corrupt bureaucracy.

At the height of his popularity he was working on six novels in serialization at the same time as working as journalist and editor and supporting a large extended family through his writing. It is estimated that throughout his life Zhang wrote a total of some 40 million Chinese characters in over 110 novels. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1967 in Beijing.

Works available in English:

Madam White Snake (Myra Ellis). Singapore: Federal Publications, 1981.

Shanghai Express: A Thirties Novel (William A. Lyell). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

The Eternal Love: The Story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (S.R. Munro). Singapore; Hong Kong: Federal Publications, 1991.

Sources for this biography: Wikipedia entry for Zhang Henshui, Baidu entry for Zhang Henshui, Review of Shanghai Express, translated by William A Lyell, on Amazon


Original Works

Novel (1)

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