In 2010, Mai Jia (real name Jiang Benhu) received a record-breaking 5 million RMB in royalties for spy thriller Wind Whisperer, set during China’s War of Resistance against Japan.
Mai, 48, is a retired military propagandist and telecommunications specialist who served in the People’s Liberation Army for 17 years. It's a former life that has infiltrated his novels and screenplays, infusing his books with moral abstruseness, myriad half-truths and secret depths.
In Decoded, later made into a TV series, Mai links five tales of espionage. In the Dark (currently being translated by Penguin) follows characters from Intelligence Unit 701, first introduced in Decoded. As it progresses, the novel reveals the hidden heroes of three divisions: the radio-surveilling ‘Wind-Listeners’, code-breaking ‘Wind-Watchers’ and ‘Wind-Catcher’ field agents.
Mai’s stories of code-crackers, spies and criminals have translated into mega-hits on the big screen – and mega-bucks for Mai. A 2007 adaptation of Wind Whisperer, titled Feng Sheng (The Message), grossed 250 million RMB. But despite him winning accolades such as China’s esteemed Mao Dun Literature Award, Mai’s family is still disappointed with his chosen career.
‘They think that I am well cultured and should listen to my own voice,’ he tells Time Out. ‘But I think they wished that I had become an official – even if it was just a village mayor. This is their so-called “culture”.’
You grew up during the Cultural Revolution. What was that like?
Hemingway once said that a bitter childhood is an author’s best training.
I spent my childhood in a village in Zhejiang province. I was born in the 1960s: it was an era where the political composition of your family was of great importance. There were three ‘black hats’ in my family.
My father was deemed an ‘anti-revolutionary’, my maternal grandfather was a landlord, and my paternal grandfather was a Christian. At that time, Christians were as scary as the devil. In short, I felt as though I lived through hell, filled with misery.
So why did you enter the army?
I was chosen by the military academy after I took the university admission examination. I applied for the academy to change the political status of my family.
I also wanted to go away – to not live in view of people who had been despising me since I was young. I stayed in the army for 17 years. It could be said that my youth was spent in the barracks.
In the army you worked at a top-secret intelligence unit. How did that influence your writing?
This not only had a significant impact on my writing, but also affected how I grew as a person. For example, I have written a lot about people who decipher passwords or secrets, which was what I specialised in during my military academy days.
But the feeling one has for literature, the ability to express oneself using text, the capability to comb and penetrate into the thoughts of people – this all relies on talent. Talent is something that cannot be forced.
Spy thrillers make up a tiny percentage of books in China – why?
It's a foreign concept. But the spy game is just a cover: I write about people.
People who experience occupational alienation: their spirit, their fate, their inner pain and love – this is what I am concerned with.
Spies are a particularly problematic subject in this country. Has state censorship been an issue?
Although what I write is fictional, I have touched on some sensitive topics. In the past, almost no one had touched on these before; therefore, I had some trouble when I started publishing, and the censorship check was much more complex than in more general works.
If I lived in a foreign country, I believe I would have published more books. But in China, there are a lot of things that no one dares to write about, including me.
Your most recent book came out last year. What’s next?
This is my reading year, not writing year. To read is to shake hands with the soul, and the most convenient way to open up the mind.
Besides, in recent years I have written enough! Every year, there has been a new novel. Literature is not something you win depending on the number of works that you have written; writing more is not necessarily good in itself. I would like to take a break, adjust, and enrich my knowledge.