Literature Huang Fan

A writer on the road

Back in Taiwan, Stephan Thome had already said he’d visit me from Marburg when I got to Göttingen in early June. The plan seemed somewhat over-the-top: he wanted to drive five hours there and five hours back in a single day to perform his duty of hospitality for only four hours in Göttingen, which entailed treating me to a good meal and introducing me to Göttingen culture. I found out later that he had made special preparations and asked his sister, who had studied in Göttingen, where to get good coffee in town, which restaurant had something special to offer, where the museums were... 

When I came to meet him on the platform, he walked towards me in student garb, wearing a T-shirt and jeans with a brown leather bag slung over his shoulder. By the time we’d happily slapped each other on the back, it already seemed only yesterday we’d last seen each other, not two years ago, as though we were merely resuming yesterday’s conversation. Two years ago he’d come to Nanjing from Taiwan and, the very first time we met, was already complaining how dry Nanjing air was compared to Taiwan, he even had to use moisturizing cream here. This time around it was German air he was on about, adding with a laugh at himself that in this climate he feels like a lady, has to wear lotion on his face all day to keep his sensitive skin from drying out. I opened my eyes wide and looked him over: his well-proportioned face did indeed have a rather greasy sheen. That a man should fret so much about his skin bespoke an underlying sensibility – quite in keeping with the sensibility of his successful new novel Grenzgang [“Border Walk”]. The same sensibility was evident in his impish manner. As we strolled through Göttingen, which has pretty many traffic lights despite its small size, towards the Old Town, I’d stop without thinking about it at every red light, even if there wasn’t a single car on the street. Stephan was amused: “You act like a German! Why stop if there’s not a car in sight?” Taking me firmly by the arm and with long strides, he led me across at a red light, then looked at me with a mischievous grin as though he had long since turned Chinese. Frank Meinshausen, a Munich Sinologist, once told me the Chinese were regarded in Germany as “Asia’s Italians” because they have the same high regard for food and family and the same disdain for rules and laws... That Stephan should take the Chinese approach here, in a country where laws control everything, reminded me of Balzac, who said: “To eat, drink and sleep at fixed hours” would be the end of him. That Stephan refused to cross the street “at fixed times” also goes to show that writers value more or less the same things, ideally just their own ideas and their freedom...

The Old Town was packed with people. When Stephan found out I didn’t have a map of Göttingen, he took me looking for the tourist office, which we soon found inside the city hall. Why wasn’t there a tourist office at the station, as in Taiwan? It occurred to me the Weimar tourist office was also located mid-town. Stephan came to Germany’s defence, pointing out that there’s a DB rail information office at the station and that the tourist office also provides car rental service. I persisted: “So travellers have to walk to the city centre to hire a car?” In the same breath I then railed against German rail: it beggars belief that trains are always running late in Germany, changing tracks, cancelled, and that the same trains run at different times every day, which is totally confusing to newcomers. Surprisingly, his reaction was all the more amused: “You have the wrong idea about the Germans. They’re all people, and a person doesn’t function like a machine. But how do you keep the trains running so punctually all the time in China, same time every day, unless you’re...” Laughing, we continued our battle of words as we walked on.

He was firmly resolved to get me onto the scent of German culture. Map in hand, he led me down streets and alleys till we found ourselves quite unexpectedly facing the municipal museum. When I noticed the name Brahms inscribed over the entrance, my interest increased immensely. My daughter and I were great Brahms fans: for years we’d listen to his Hungarian Dances first thing every morning after waking up. Stephan asked around in German: the incised name was to commemorate a recital Brahms once gave in this building. As I stepped onto the wood floor, it creaked like an old person’s joints, which really gave me a sense of being in a place that was steeped in history. Upstairs were several 19th-century pianos, evoking the splendour and grandeur of the days when Göttingen was a hub of German piano manufacturing. The faded murals, relics of the 18th-century heyday of chinoiserie, showed the Germans’ conception of China at the time. I saw similar references to China in Frankfurt and Munich. In Frankfurt’s Goethe-Haus, there’s a stove which, unlike the usual cast-iron radiators in Germany, was lined with Chinese porcelain tiles. Possessing Chinese porcelain in Germany at the time was comparable to possessing, say, a Roman glass goblet in 4th-century China under the Wei and Jin dynasties: both items symbolized wealth and taste. The Munich Sinologist Frank Meinshausen even saw history embodied in Munich’s Chinese Tower: once you’ve seen the Chinese Tower, he says, you understand the history of Munich, city of the royal residence.

With no definite purpose we walked into a bookshop that dates from the year 1735. Much to our surprise, the owner turned out to be a Stephan Thomes fan, two of his novels took pride of place on the book rack, one was even marked “Top-Bestseller”. The bookdealer was quite reverential towards Stephan: he folded his hands together, almost the way they do in China, and bowed slightly. Lest I be overlooked, Stephan did his best to present me to the bookdealer. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but it was clearly pointless, seeing as only a few of my short stories have come out in German translation. The bookdealer’s smile stuck in my mind as we left his shop: it was a smile one seldom sees on German faces, very discreet and respectful. Hardly had we walked out than Stephan now took seriously my observation that bookshops here, as in China, hardly carry any English literature and he promptly set his mind on taking me to every bookshop in Göttingen. It is not particularly worth noting that we did eventually find a few English books, but more to the point, I learned what a great many bookshops there are in this town. Compared to the 30,000 students, there really are a whole lot. There are about a dozen big bookshops alone, every one of which carries Stephan Thome’s novels. And a place that sells such serious novels really must be well-informed.

The subsequent eating and drinking in Göttingen went pretty much according to Stephan’s plans. After a copious meal, we found our way without any trouble – each of us with an ice lolly in his hand – to the café his sister had recommended. It seemed to be a favourite with middle-aged and elderly women in particular. According to Stephan, German women are often unemployed at that age, and killing time chatting with girlfriends over coffee becomes their only amusement. No different, really, from the masses of women in this age group in China indefatigably dancing on public squares.

That same day I came up with the rather horrid idea of trying to find an ugly house somewhere in Göttingen, the kind of house you see all over China. But I was unsuccessful. And not only in Göttingen, but also in Weimar, and later in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich – wherever I went, I couldn’t find one. Dehui, an acquaintance of Wolfgang Kubin’s and a writer in Frankfurt, had married a German who said Frankfurt is the ugliest city in Germany on account of all its modern buildings. The modern buildings there don’t look ugly to me at all, on the contrary: I find them fashionable and pretty, besides blending in well with the conventional buildings around them.

So the day on which Stephan Thome proved his hospitality to me also gave me a new pastime: to consider everything in Germany from the positive and negative sides and not trust in preconceived notions. That was my attitude when, the day after saying goodbye to Stephan Thome, I began my tour of Germany...

  •   Meeting of Huang Fan with the writer Stefan Thome in Göttingen ©Huang Fan
    Meeting of Huang Fan with the writer Stefan Thome in Göttingen
  •   Reader Talk with Huang Fan in Göttingen ©German-Chinese Institute for Intercultural German Studies and Culture Comparison at the University of Göttingen
    Reader Talk with Huang Fan in Göttingen
  •   Reader Talk with Huang Fan in Göttingen ©German-Chinese Institute for Intercultural German Studies and Culture Comparison at the University of Göttingen
    Reader Talk with Huang Fan in Göttingen

Huang Fan (黄梵) (b. 1963) is from Huanggang (黄冈), Hubei Province. He is a poet, novelist and assistant professor. His works to date include Swimming Colours (浮色), The Eleventh Commandment (第十一诫), Paean to Nanjing (南京哀歌), Waiting for Youth to Pass (等待青春消失), Girls’ School Teacher (女校先生) and Chinese Wanderers (中国走徒). His debut novel, The Eleventh Commandment, was serialized on the Sina website, where it was viewed over three million times and recommended to teenagers as one of the two “novels most worth reading since the Cultural Revolution”. His poem Middle Years (中年) found its way into an anthology of “a hundred new poems of the century”. Huang Fan’s poetry is acclaimed in Taiwan; according to the feuilleton editor of the United Daily News (联合报), he is the “mainland poet with the widest readership in Taiwan”.

Huang Fan has won a number of honours, including the Golden Short Stories Prize awarded by the magazine Zuojia (作家), the poetry award of the Beijing Literary Prize, the Biennial Prize for Poetry in Chinese, the Nanjing Literary Prize, the Biennial Culture and Art Prize of the magazine Houtian (后天) and a Chinese poetry fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation based in the US. His works have been translated into English, German, Italian, Greek, Korean, French, Japanese and Persian.