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T’ien-wen Wins Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

T’ien-wen Wins Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

An international jury has selected the novelist and screenwriter Chu T’ien-wen as the winner of the 2015 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

An international jury has selected the Taiwanese novelist and screenwriter Chu T’ien-wen as the winner of the fourth Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. She is the first female Newman laureate. Sponsored by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for U.S.-China Issues, the Newman Prize is awarded biennially in recognition of outstanding achievement in prose or poetry that best captures the human condition, and is conferred solely on the basis of literary merit. Any living author writing in Chinese is eligible. A jury of five literary experts nominated the five candidates last spring and selected the winner this week.

Ms. Chu will receive $10,000, a commemorative plaque, and a bronze medallion at an academic symposium and award dinner at OU on March 6, 2015. The event will be hosted by Peter Hays Gries, director of the Institute for U.S.-China Issues, which seeks to advance mutual trust in U.S.-China relations.

“All five nominees are exceptionally talented and accomplished writers,” said director Gries. “It is a testament to Chu T’ien-wen’s remarkable literary skills that she emerged the winner after four rounds of positive elimination voting.”

The Newman Prize honors Harold J. and Ruth Newman, whose generous endowment of a chair at OU enabled the creation of the OU Institute for U.S.-China Issues. OU is also home to Chinese Literature Today, World Literature Today and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

This year’s Newman nominees represent some of the most respected names in Sinophone literature over the last several decades.

Chu T’ien-wen’s work Fin-de-Siecle Splendor, according to her nominator, Margaret Hillenbrand (Oxford), has elevated the Chinese short story to new heights. Rooted in the vibrant particulars of Taiwan, her short stories reveal how and why short fiction may be the genre most suited for our times. 

Chu was born in 1956 in Taipei into one of Taiwan’s most prominent literary families. Her writing career began in the mid-1970s, with whimsical and sentimental pieces that led critics to dub her a latterday acolyte of Eileen Chang. Her literary stock rose steadily throughout the 1980s, boosted by the appearance of harder-hitting works such as Yanxia zhi du (City of Hot Summer, 1987).

The publication of Shijimo de huali (Fin-de-siècle Splendor) in 1990 caused it to soar rather more spectacularly. Fin-de-siècle Splendor was her breakthrough work, trading romanticism for decadence, and crafting a full-blown, mature style that melds classical grace with street slang, and bears the imprints of Taiwan’s fraught linguistic past. That style found its apotheosis in Chu’s award-winning novel Huangren shouji (Notes of a Desolate Man, 1994), whose gay narrator parlays with a host of thinkers, writers, and philosophers in a text which is perhaps three parts story and seven parts metaphysical rumination.

After a period of literary reclusion, Chu reinvented herself again in 2007 with Wuyan (Words of a Witch), a work that probes still more insistently into the nature of writing itself. Chu T’ien-wen’s career as a screenwriter has been no less illustrious. Her collaborations with Hou Hsiao-hsien have yielded many of the landmark films – from Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness, 1988) through Ximeng rensheng (The Puppetmaster, 1993) to Qianxi manbo (Millennium Mambo, 2001), and several more besides – which helped to turn Taiwan’s New Cinema movement into a global brand.

“Chu T’ien-wen is a multi-faceted cultural figure,” Hillenbrand writes, “a novelist, screenwriter, and essayist who excels at each of those different forms. But in recommending Chu’s short-story collection Fin-de-siècle Splendor for the Newman Prize, I am calling particular attention to the place she occupies in modern Chinese-language literature as a superb practitioner of short fiction, arguably that literature’s most triumphant genre. As any attentive reader of literature from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the diaspora over the last century can testify, the history of this literature is, to a degree perhaps unparalleled elsewhere, one shaped, driven, and dictated by brilliant short stories.

And as a writer of short fiction, Chu is prodigiously talented. Texture, fragrance, color, and taste leap out from her uncommonly crafted prose with such force that they suck the reader into the text in ways not usually associated with the short-story form – a genre which is supposedly too fleeting to be immersive. Chu T’ien-wen’s writing refutes this received wisdom. This is partly because Fin-de-siecle Splendor pays homage to Taipei, the city of Chu’s birth, over eight fluidly conjoined tales which speak to each other as much as they live vividly in their own right. Yet it also because of her flair for carving crystal-cut literary moments, in which the constituent elements of a scene – air, light, mood, character – are each summoned up so precisely that they coalesce into a tableau that sears itself on the reader’s eye.”

Mainland Chinese novelists Mo Yan and Han Shaogong won the 2009 and 2011 Newman Prizes for Chinese Literature respectively. Mo Yan went on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. Taiwanese poet Yang Mu won the 2013 Newman Prize.

For more information, please visit the Newman Prize homepage.