An international jury has selected Chu T’ien-wen (朱天文) as the winner of the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. Sponsored by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-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 on September 17. Chu T’ien-wen is the first ever female laureate.
Next March, Chu will receive USD $10,000, a commemorative plaque, and a bronze medallion at an award ceremony at the University of Oklahoma. The event will be hosted by Peter Hays Gries, director of the Institute for US-China Issues. “All five nominees are exceptionally talented and accomplished writers.” He said. “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.”
This year’s Newman nominees represented some of the most respected names in Chinese literature. As well as Chu T’ien-wen, from Taiwan, they included from mainland China Yan Lianke, Yu Hua, and Ge Fei, and from Malaysia Chang Kui-hsing.
Yan Lianke (阎连科) was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and has won numerous awards in China and in Europe. He is known as much for his formal innovations as for his social commentary. Yu Hua (余华) is one of China’s most well-known novelists, garnering both critical and popular acclaim - his novel To Live was adapted into a film. Once known as a member of the avant-garde, Ge Fei (格非) now writes lyrical novels that have won him many fans. Chang Kui-hsing (張貴興) sets his novels in South-East Asia, and is crafting one of the most distinctive bodies of work in world literature.
Meanwhile Chu T’ien-wen writes short stories rooted in Taiwan. In 1990 she published Shijimo de huali (Fin-de-siècle Splendour) which pays homage to her home town, Taipei, over eight fluidly inter-connected but stand-alone tales. She followed up with Huangren shouji (Notes of a Desolate Man), whose gay narrator talks with thinkers, writers, and philosophers in a text which mingles story and metaphysical rumination. After a period of literary reclusion, Chu reinvented herself in 2007 with Wuyan (Words of a Witch), which probes the nature of writing. Chu T’ien-wen’s career as a screenwriter has been no less illustrious. She has collaborated often with Hou Hsiao-hsien, in a partnership yielding many of the films which helped turn Taiwan’s New Cinema movement into a global brand – Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness), Ximeng rensheng (The Puppet Master), Qianxi manbo (Millennium Mambo), and others.
Chu T’ien-wen was nominated for the Newman Prize by Margaret Hillenbrand, Associate Professor of Modern Chinese at Oxford University. “Chu T’ien-wen is a multi-faceted cultural figure,” Said Hillenbrand, “a novelist, screenwriter, and essayist who excels at each of those different forms. But in recommending Chu’s short-story collection Fin-de-siècle Splendour for the Newman Prize, I was calling particular attention to the place she occupies in modern Chinese 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, colour, 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. She has such a 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.”