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Renowned Chinese author is in a class of his own

Renowned author Yu Hua delivered an open writing class titled "Starting from Pamuk's Nights of Plague" at Beijing Normal University on the evening of Dec 14.

As one of the most representative contemporary writers in China, Yu has published novels including To Live that has been translated into many different languages such as French, English and Korean. A movie adaptation of the novel by Zhang Yimou has become a Chinese classic.

Recently, Paris Review ran an interview with Yu, the first Chinese writer to be featured among the pages of this renowned literary magazine.

As a teacher at Beijing Normal University's International Center for Writing, Yu's literature classes have always intrigued readers. Through livestreaming, his class has reached a broader audience of literature lovers beyond the campus.

At the beginning of the class, Yu said discussing Nights of Plague was a "difficult task", since he needs to get everyone interested in reading the book, but do so while avoiding spoilers.

"Pamuk wrote with great patience, and we need patience to read his book. Once you finish the novel, you'll realize it's much more fascinating than I can convey," he said.

Nights of Plague, written by Turkish author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk in 2016, is set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Ottoman Empire in 1901. The story unfolds on the imaginary island of Mingheria in the Levant, located in the eastern Mediterranean between Crete and Cyprus, which was plagued not only by imperial threats but also by a deadly epidemic.

The Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II sends his most accomplished quarantine expert to the island to control the outbreak, who is subsequently murdered. The sultan sends a second doctor to the island to combat the plague and uncover the killer of his predecessor.

Yu finished reading the 600-page novel in several days in the first half of the year. He said, although the novel tells a story about the early 20th century, it is a tale about the present day.

What novelists write is all about their perceptions and understanding of their current life, Yu said. Whether the story happens in the past, present or future, writers create from a perspective and position they understand, which is usually their currently one, so "all novels are about today, but works from different time are just about a today of that time", he said.

Delving into the details of the novel, he noted that he was impressed by the four dramatic deaths that occur within the first 70 pages.

Recalling his visit to Istanbul in 2014, Yu said that literature brings distant cultures closer. This, he believes, is why people still read classical Chinese poetry, the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, and works by William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Franz Kafka, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The event, jointly organized by the School of Chinese Language and Literature and the International Center for Writing at Beijing Normal University, is part of the Writers' Open Literature Class series.

During the Q&A session, a student asked Yu how to live well in modern times.

Yu said, "I've signed many books for people, and many young people ask me to sign 'live well' on their book. I know how difficult living well is, otherwise people wouldn't ask me to write it.

"I feel it's about effort," he said.

"Especially for you students, the difficulties you may encounter in the future will be much greater than those you face on campus. One thing is important: Every day we face a lot of negative things, so what should we do? The best approach is to diligently seek positive things within them and magnify them. Because any negative thing contains positive content. Once you find it, that is your key to living well. Living well is about making an effort to find positive things in daily life."

The Chinese translation of Nights of Plague by Nobel laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk, published in 2022.