(Yicai Global) Aug. 7 -- Liu Zhengbo is a stocky crane operator at Benxi Iron & Steel (Group) Special Steel Co. He works in a two-square-meter crane control room about 15 meters off the ground. His blue uniform usually smells of engine oil and sweat. Outside the factory, he is a novelist known by his pen name -- Gui Jin. He started his literary career as a horror fiction writer and later became an award-winning writer of serious literature. The novelist and crane operator published two works this year.
Having worked on tower cranes alone in midair for 23 years, Liu now perceives the world as something comprised of two parts, one below the crane and one above. Sometimes, he ponders philosophical topics like god, but most of the time he feels that he is a repressed prisoner. He is released from fatalistic captivity only when he is writing.
“In the world of novels, I’m my own king,” he said. “[It] feels like moonlight on water.” He fell into a trance and became sentimental while recalling what happened last night. He wondered if he is the ‘Liu Zhengbo of the steel factory’ or ‘Gui Jin, the novelist.’ “Why should a crane operator write novels and take photos?” he wrote in a WeChat post.
Yicai Global: Why did you give yourself this pen name, Gui Jin? What does it mean?
Gui Jin: There was a little store selling Tibetan accessories and silverware in the shopping mall here. It was called Gui Jin. Later I became a fan of Guangxi writer Gui Zi and American author Stephen Edwin King (whose name is transliterated in Chinese ad Sidifen Jin), hence the name Gui Jin.
Yicai Global: How does it feel working in the control room 15 meters up? Prisoner's consciousness is always present in your work, so do you still perceive yourself as a prisoner in the crane control room?
Gui Jin: I feel I can see the world from the God’s vantage point. I sometimes even fantasize that I can see all living beings in the world, ‘being merciful to all.’ But most of the time, I feel that it keeps me in captivity, and it sometimes reminds me of Lu Xun’s iron house. The control room, the plant, the society and the universe -- the very existence of these spaces is a proof of the inherent prisoner’s consciousness that exists among all human beings. I didn’t think about this when I was young. Back then, it was just a job. Now I’m older, and the consciousness has become more visible.
Yicai Global: Do your colleagues at the factory know that you’re writing novels? What do they think about your writing?
Gui Jin: We’re mostly co-workers. I don’t talk much in the plant, and I’m a listener most of the time. I seldom respond to what others say too. Only the plant manager knows that I’m writing novels, and he’s been nice to me. Since there is no one to receive royalty payment slips at home most of the time, I usually ask publishers to send them to the plant, and the manager will give them to me. Other people only care about how much I earn. The royalty for a novella is about CNY4,000 (USD595) to CNY5,000, and they think that writing is a well-paid job.
Yicai Global: You’ve gained a certain degree of recognition as a writer, and could easily become a professional writer. Why do you keep emphasizing that you are a crane operator?
Gui Jin: Actually, I’m not emphasizing my identity as a crane operator. Even if I had another occupation, I could still write good novels. I just didn’t have the opportunity. Fan Yusu once observed, “Writing hasn’t changed my existence.” I like her motto. Writing hasn’t changed my existence too, but it changed my mind. So, I told myself to be sober-minded at all times. Existence and spiritual life are different things. Whether a change can be made depends on personal efforts as well as external factors.
I also feel discontented, because of my existence as a crane operator. But I also have other identities such as writer and street photographer, so I always try to strike a balance between them. If I feel unbalanced, it always leads to psychological problems and a [negative] emotion. Now I try to calm down, telling myself that I’m not a writer no matter how many novels I write, and I only exist with one identity -- that is, crane operator. Whenever I feel that I’m unfairly treated, I remind myself that my identity is a crane operator, then wealth and fame don’t seem to be that important any more.
Yicai Global: All poets and novelists are romantic at heart. So, have you made a compromise between your true feelings and reality?
Gui Jin: I have no options. I must balance the two if I want to lead a peaceful life. If the need for survival dictates that I must make some sacrifice, I can stop writing and go to work, and I can adjust myself after work. One must be sensitive to be a good writer and street photographer, but if I bring the sensitivity to my work as a crane operator, it’ll distress me, make me feel frustrated and even drive me to despair. Such a sense of despair can be reinforced in the steel factory. I often feel hopeless, but I always can cure myself of the feeling.
Yicai Global: Your novels have a general depressed and gray feeling about them and contain many descriptions of people’s desires. Is this how you overcome your emotions and vent your inner feelings?
Gui Jin: When I write about human lives, I prefer to base my characters on ordinary people that I’m familiar with. What they do to survive reveals the barbarity of human beings. The first several chapters of my novel Yong Yan Lie, Zuo Cheng Shi Zi De Zong Fa [Using Tears as the Lion’s Hair] are an example of this. They are a vivid portrayal of my inner feelings. I like Japanese and South Korea movies, especially those directed by Kim Kidder and Park Chan-Wook. I can find my inner world in their work. Descriptions of desires in my novels convey a sense of repression and barbarity.
Yicai Global: Many of your books have their settings in the steel factory and the surrounding areas. Could you tell us a bit more about how your life experience affected your writing?
Gui Jin: Sometimes I draw inspiration from the steel factory and from my real-life experiences. I was transferred to a school in the city for the second term in my first year of middle school and lived in a shanty town near a coal mine where my father worked. Residents in the neighborhood were people of the lowest social class.
In Yong Yan Lie, Zuo Cheng Shi Zi De Zong Fa, there was a woman who killed her husband and was escorted back to her home to identify the crime scene, where she met her son. This is a real-life story. When I was in middle school, I went to a judgment pronouncement rally with my classmates. The rally was held near a bookstore. The criminals were sent on a shame parade after the meeting before they were executed. I saw a little girl standing on a platform in the distance, waiving a yellow scarf in her hand. She waived the scarf for a long time. Perhaps, one of the criminals was her relative. I could never forget what I saw that day.
We can always learn something from our lives. I’ve been writing about my life experiences in this particular living environment, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t write once I’m outside this environment. People can get different life experiences living in different environments. What really matters is that we continue to write about them. So, I think my life is multifaceted. I’m a crane operator, a writer, a street photographer and a graffiti artist. All these identities make me complete.