Chinese author Mai Jia was born in 1964 in a small coastal village — just 40 kilometers from Hangzhou, but, he says, a far cry from that nearby imperial city in terms of civilization.
What lends Mr. Mai’s books their rare bite isn’t his experience of village life, but his 17 years in the People’s Liberation Army. He worked in a PLA intelligence unit before being transferred to write for the propaganda department.
His seven fast-paced novels, all in the spy genre, often merge espionage elements with historical fiction and crime writing. The books’ combination of gripping plots and nuanced, complex characters have won Mr. Mai (a pen name; his real name is Jiang Benhu) many fans. His novels have sold more than five million copies in China, and all have been made, or are being made, into films or television series. Mr. Mai often writes the scripts.
Success has made Mr. Mai one of China’s best-paid authors. In 2010, he received an advance of 7.5 million yuan ($1.2 million) for his three-part “Whispers on the Wind.”
Now, for the first time, one of his novels has been translated into English. “Decoded,” which came out in China in 2002, was published last month by Allen Lane.
“Decoded” tells the story of Rong Jingzhen, a mathematician-turned-code-breaker who resides on the autism spectrum. He is recruited by Unit 701, the cryptography department of China’s secret services, to crack two seemingly impossible codes dubbed Purple and Black. Woven into this tale of spies and state secrets is Rong’s descent into madness.
At its heart, “Decoded,” rendered in lyrical prose and beautifully translated by Olivia Milburn, is about the fragile line between insanity and genius.
Mr. Mai spoke to the Journal about censorship, his family struggles during the Cultural Revolution and dealing with rejection as a writer. Edited excerpts:
You once quoted Ernest Hemingway saying that an unhappy childhood is the best training for a writer. Did you have an unhappy childhood?
Yes, I had an unlucky childhood. My father was a rightist [condemned in Maoist China], my maternal grandfather a landlord and my paternal grandfather a Christian. The thing that made the most impression on me is that my father was criticized and denounced on the streets like a criminal. I dared not go out because I felt ashamed and I felt as if everybody would be looking at me with disdain.
How did other children treat you?
They all looked down on me and bullied me. Even my teachers humiliated me in public. I remember that on a snowy day the snowflakes drifted in through the window and fell on my neck. I unconsciously stood up to close the window. The teacher asked me if I was feeling cold. I said yes. He continued: “With several black hats on your head, how come you are still feeling cold?” In that era, people like my father, maternal grandfather and paternal grandfather were all called “someone wearing a black hat.” Sometimes I think that it is because of the trauma from my childhood that I have taken to writing.
How did you begin to write?
I started by keeping diaries. Few children from the countryside kept diaries. There is no such habit and education. I was morbidly different. It was, as it were, a kind of disease, because I did it for nothing but a physiological need. Human beings have an inborn desire for communication and expression, but due to the low social status of my family, nobody would make friends with me. Diaries became my bosom friends with whom I could talk. It dispelled the loneliness and boredom of a young boy and let him fall in love with words.
You served in the army for 17 years. How much military life has gone into your novels?
I learned little in the army from the traditional military perspective. I didn’t even touch the most ordinary rifle, though I was in the army for years. I only fired six pistol bullets. After graduation, I worked in a technical armed force for a short time. Maybe you hope that I can tell you what kind of armed force it was. I am sorry, I cannot tell you because it involves state secrets. Each country has its own secret — the world isn’t so peaceful and loving as we expect.
What did your parents think about you giving up a stable job in the army to become a writer full-time?
I was 33 and my parents were over 70 when I left the army. I showed filial obedience to them, but I trusted my judgment. I didn’t talk to them before I made the decision and I didn’t ask how they felt after my decision. Five years ago, my mother saw me walking along with the mayor on TV. She asked me euphemistically, “Since the mayor is so kind to you, can you ask him to offer you an official position like the head of a township?” My answer was, “No, I cannot.”
Who are your favorite spy writers?
I don’t read spy novels in my spare time. I don’t think I am a spy writer. Spies are an occupational identity in my novel. What I focus on is the inward world of these people — their loneliness, fear and changes in humanity under a special system.
You deal with sensitive issues in your writing. How has censorship affected your novels?
Because of their topics, my works have to pass strict censorship. I can do nothing about it. Every country has its own taboos, especially in affairs concerning state security. “Decoded” was rejected 17 times. After publication, it was accused of revealing state secrets and banned. However, I firmly believe that “Decoded” doesn’t involve any problems of revealing state secrets because what I wrote is about the spirit of human beings and their inward world and fate. Finally, after much argument, the ban on sales was lifted. This isn’t a limit on my writing, but a test, I think. A truly creative writer will not be restricted.
The problem is that I don’t know what else I can do besides writing novels. I am not interested in the real world. I prefer to live in a virtual country, and that is the world of novels. I think I will write more novels in the future. I am addicted to the occupation just like drug addicts are addicted to drugs: filling my life in a fictional manner.
Photograph: Mai Jia