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Dusting off a classic
2019-03-22 
The "idiot" played by Yu Entai is narrating the background of the story in the play adapted from writer A Lai's novel Settling Dust. The first part of the two-episode online show has been viewed more than 15 million times on Tencent Video since Dec 10. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A play that offers a new interpretation of writer A Lai's award-winning novel, Settling Dust, is proving popular online.

Recently, Tibetan ethnic writer, A Lai, came to Beijing from Sichuan province to see a new adaptation of his award-winning novel, Settling Dust (also known as Red Poppies), which he first published in 1998 and for which he won the fifth Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2000, the top literary award in China.

The play, starring actor Yu Entai and actress Xu Fan in the leading roles, has been produced as a two-episode online show, the first episode of which has been viewed more than 15 million times on Tencent Video since its release on Dec 10.

As one of the most popular contemporary Chinese literary works, so far Settling Dust has seen more than one million copies sold. It has been translated into more than 20 languages, including English, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Korean and Serbian, and published in over 30 countries around the world, A Lai, 59, says.

Before this play, the novel had been adapted into a dance drama, an opera, a TV series and a Sichuan Opera piece.

When A Lai saw the play adaptation, he says he was pleased to see that the novel has been interpreted and presented to an extensive audience in such a new style.

Settling Dust is A Lai's debut novel. In the first-person narration of an "idiot", the second son of a Tibetan chieftain living in the Tibetan borderland in Sichuan's northwest, the novel tells the stories of the Maichi family and feudal life in the last decade before the People's Liberation Army liberated the area in 1951 and ended the serf system.

At the beginning of the novel, people believe that the second son of the Maichi chieftain, born to his second wife-a Han ethnic woman-is an idiot and poses no threat to his half-brother's future. However, the seeming idiot gradually turns out to be wiser during a key competition between him and his brother, which changes everything

Actor Yu Entai plays the role of the "idiot", the second son of a Maichi chieftain in the play Settling Dust. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A Lai says, in the novel's Maichi family, only idiots can survive the bloody struggles for power. Moreover, the perspective of an idiot gives the narration an objective quality for readers to better observe the society and family.

For A Lai, Settling Dust preserves a sample of a Tibetan chieftain's life at the end of the feudal society in a fictional form.

Tibetan ethnic writer A Lai speaks at an international seminar on his works on Nov 17. [Photo provided to China Daily]

At the end of the 1980s, as a high school teacher, A Lai became bored teaching the same texts year after year and began to focus more on writing poems and fiction in his spare time.

When he turned 30 in 1989, however, he found his work unfulfilling, so he began investigating the local Tibetan history of his hometown in Barkam county in the part of Sichuan where his novel is set.

One day, in May 1994, all the legends, religious and historical stories that he had collected over the years started to boil over in his head. He wrote down the first sentence and just kept writing. In July of that year, during the FIFA World Cup in the United States, he stopped for a month, but returned to it as soon as the final game had ended. By December, he had completed the novel.

The chieftain of the ethnic Tibetan Maichi family (right) and his third wife that he robbed from his headman. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"My biggest motivation to write the novel was to create a book about the history of the region. We all know the major points of Chinese history, but small local historical books are lacking," he says.

"Just like the Maichi chieftain's clerk in the novel, I continued his work to record the local history of that period of time," he says.

Besides Settling Dust, A Lai has published many other works, such as The Song of King Gesar in 2009, a novel based on Tibetan legend of King Gesar, the novel Empty Mountain in 2005, the novella Silversmith in the Moonlight in 1999, and the novellas Fairy Rings and Three Grassworms in 2015.

Actress Xu Fan plays the role of the chieftain's second wife, a woman of Han ethnicity and mother of the central character, the "idiot". [Photo provided to China Daily]

Regarded as a Tibetan Games of Thrones by younger Chinese readers, Settling Dust similarly contains torture, cruel deaths, desire, adultery, love, intrigue, rivalry between siblings jostling for power and revenge, as well as mysticism and the practice of witchcraft.

Guan Zhengwen, chief director and one of the scriptwriters for the play adaptation, hails the novel as an allegory for the entire human race. As one of the first readers of the book, he fell in love with Settling Dust immediately.

"Now 20 years have passed, and I still believe it is one of the best works in contemporary Chinese literature," Guan says.

In 1997, three years had passed since A Lai completed Settling Dust, but all the market-driven publishers rejected his manuscript.

"They said it's a good novel, but the masses would not like it because it wasn't a trendy topic, which did not convince me. Why wouldn't people want to read a good work?" A Lai says

A Lai's awarding-winning book Settling Dust. [Photo provided to China Daily]

At that time, Guan was an editor at literature magazine, Selected Stories, in Beijing. He met A Lai at a literary event in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province. When A Lai showed him the novel, he wanted to run it in the magazine. At the same time, one of the top publishers in China, People's Literature Publishing House, had also decided to publish it.

Settling Dust became a best-seller in 1998. In interviews, A Lai told reporters that he was confident that the novel would outlive other bestsellers of that year. Now, time has indeed seen it hailed as a classic of contemporary Chinese literature. That is why Guan decided to produce a play of the novel and put it online.

"Many people describe it as an elegy to the last Tibetan chieftains, but for me, it goes far beyond that. It's about human society and the fate of humanity. There's not only the relationship between chieftains, but also hierarchy in family and in society, as well as economical life. It's a microcosm of all human life, a window through which you can observe humanity," Guan says.

"It includes ideas that you can see in the best literary works from around the world, such as those by Shakespeare," he adds.

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