Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:51 PM CST – China

Culture

Xu Lei

ARTIST, ALONE

Despite being one of China’s most successful and well-paid authors, Xu Lei, who writes under the pen name Nanpai Sanshu, struggles to balance celebrity with a deep-seated need to escape from reality

Photo by Dong Jiexu

Wearing a black-and-white striped Breton top and a plaid scarf, the interviewee lounges on a sofa in a café situated in one of Beijing’s top hotels. His eyes, through the lenses of his signature black-framed spectacles, are somber.

A decade ago, then 24-year-old Xu Lei saw his first short story – a thriller about grave robbery – serialized online under the nom de plume “Nanpai Sanshu.” Today, Xu is one of the most successful popular fiction writers in China, with a mania for his Grave Robbers’ Chronicles series sweeping the country.

Described as a cross between Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Grave Robbers’ Chronicles combines elements of the classic thriller with fantasy and the supernatural, weaving together a bizarre world full of myths, secrets and mystery which has intrigued millions of young Chinese people.

Commercial success has turned Xu from a storyteller into a man exhausted by having to constantly switch between multiple identities – writer, film and TV producer, and entrepreneur. In the virtual world that he has built, Nanpai Sanshu the celebrity is threatening to eclipse Xu Lei the human being.

Two Worlds

“Telling stories gives me the strongest feeling of recognition,” Xu told our reporter, emphasizing that he prefers to be described as a “storyteller” rather than an author. An avid reader since childhood, when he would systematically devour shelves of books in bookstore after bookstore, Xu is candid about his mastery of language and literary style. “I used to think I was a person who could play with words,” he said.

To give an example, Xu said: “If I want to write a book about royal conflicts in a Qing Dynasty palace I will read Eryue He’s historical novel, Yongzheng Emperor. After reading it, I can digest his writing style and adapt it into my own. My readers won’t know the difference.”

After graduating from Zhejiang Shuren University, Xu tried his hand at various occupations, from graphic designer to software planner. While working for a foreign trade company, Xu’s desire to write stories, from which he drew the strongest sense of personal achievement, soon overwhelmed his success in the workplace.

In 2006, Xu began to serialize Grave Robbers’ Chronicles on Baidu Tieba, China’s largest online forum, and then moved the franchise to Qidian China, an open-source website dedicated to publishing, writing and reading new fiction. Xu’s dark fable about graverobbers, rich in suspense and supernatural elements, soon earned a legion of fans. The enthusiastic comments from his readership gave Xu a sense of fulfillment.

Xu describes his writing as a process of “digging a pit,” then “filling it in,” before “digging a new pit.” In five years, Xu has filled in nine “pits,” publishing nine separate novels in the Grave Robbers’ Chronicles series. With 20 million copies sold, Grave Robbers’ Chronicles has become the most popular serial in China, making Xu Lei the country’s second-richest writer in 2011, when he earned 15.8 million yuan (US$2.4m) in royalties.

During our interview, Xu is difficult to pin down, an almost rambling figure prone to flights of metaphysical fancy. Writing, for Xu, is a dream-like experience in which he can build another parallel world in his mind, one much more interesting than the real world. He has even concocted an imaginary friend as a companion in his lonely process of creation – a friend he calls “Mr. Charlie,” a name inspired by a forgotten foreign film Xu saw in his youth, which he pronounces with an exaggerated trilling of the tongue.

“When I am alone, my childishness emerges,” he said. “I seem to regress to my boyhood, crouching at the edge of the field near my grandma’s house, talking to a toad.”

Several years ago, Xu described coming across an actual toad while on a run in the mountains. This incarnation of “Mr. Charlie,” he explained to our reporter, was hiding in an insect trap lit with ultraviolet lights.

“I imagined writing as the vast ‘trap’ which my characters use to attract the ‘insects’ they need to survive,” he said. “How I wish I could simply stay in my imaginary world, telling fanciful stories, rather than endure reality. But I know if I continue to do so, I might face problems in my real-world interpersonal relationships. As the imaginary world grows, the real one may shrink.”

Struggle

Reality is proving hard to escape since Xu became one of China’s top authors. With adaptations of popular fiction a hot craze in China’s movie industry, the success of Grave Robbers’ Chronicles has led Xu, with the help of friends, to launch a film and TV investment management corporation to promote manga, video games, films, web series and TV shows based on his franchise.

A perfectionist, Xu felt that his sudden engagement with commerce and marketing meant his life was gradually spinning out of control. He told our reporter that he felt “lost,” and struggled to find meaning in the real world.

“Everything has been quantified,” he said. “My value has been reduced to sales volume and royalties. The only connection between me and reality is a string of cold numbers.”

The situation deteriorated in 2013, when reports emerged that the celebrity author had experienced a total mental breakdown.

In mid-March 2013, Xu admitted, he suffered a severe depressive episode. On March 23 of that year, Xu announced his retirement from writing via microblogging platform Sina Weibo, saying, “I am so sorry, but it’s too much for me to carry on.”

Nearly one month later, on April 16, Xu tweeted a post claiming that he had had an extramarital affair and divorced, a claim later denied by his wife, who stated that they never got divorced, but rather that her husband had been suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder since the end of 2011 and had “stubbornly” refused treatment. Three days later, on April 19, Xu’s father posted to Weibo stating that his son had agreed to be “hospitalized for treatment.” The post was retweeted over 100,000 times.

Xu told NewsChina that a heavy workload finally got the better of him. According to his friend and collaborator Chen Wen, Xu’s brain “always functioned at an exceedingly high speed.” Chen added that in 2013 Xu had suffered from severe insomnia – at one point, Chen claimed, his friend did not sleep for almost five days while revising the draft of Sha Hai, a follow-up to Grave Robbers’ Chronicles.

Sha Hai I and Sha Hai II were published in October 2013. In the afterword to Sha Hai II, Xu described his experience of “going mad” for the first time.

“That was a unique feeling. You are sitting in a place where few people are seated, watching the world and its people from a strange perspective. No matter how hard you try to describe it to others, they won’t understand what you’ve seen,” he wrote.

“I am a lunatic, or, scientifically speaking, a psychopath.” Xu wrote in a blog post on October 29. “But, even now, I still can’t accept this label.” On the subject of being institutionalized, Xu wrote: “It’s possible to get out, but you need a letter of authorization with a strong reason. ‘Saving the world’ is not good enough. If you say that, doctors will increase your meds. Telling a sob story to the nurses is useless as well, for the nurses here all have beards.”

It was not until June 2014 that Xu returned to writing, and to public life. Keeping a low profile remains challenging. On August 17, 2015, a huge group of fans flocked to Changbai Mountain in northern China. They were on a pilgrimage – in the internal mythology of Grave Robbers’ Chronicles, Kyling Zhang, the series’ most popular character, would return to the earthly world on that date. Zhang, according to Xu’s stories, had entered the mountain through a bronze door in 2005 in order to protect his family from reprisals by his enemies by withdrawing from the world to live as a hermit.

While Xu’s fans weren’t expecting to meet their favorite literary character, they were hoping for some degree of “closure” in the form of their beloved author making a surprise appearance. But it was not to be. Xu stayed in bed that day, and his fans were left disappointed. Xu described the whole affair to our reporter as proof of “the connection between the novel and its readers, not with me.”

“Creepy,” was the term Xu used to describe how it would have felt to have given his fans what they were after. He drew comparisons with British writer James Hilton’s adventure novel, Lost Horizon, better known in China than it is in the West. “There was a time when numerous American readers, intrigued by [Hilton’s] novel, went to Shangri-La. This was a beautiful thing. This is the charm of literature. But I can’t imagine Hilton himself appearing [there], waving to everyone, shouting, ‘Hi! You came!’”

“While showing up [in Changbai Mountain] would have appealed to my vanity, I don’t want be driven by my vanity,” he continued. “If I take that step forward, it will sever the connection between readers and my book.”

Solitude

Today, Xu is as busy as ever, and many old habits remain unchanged. “I feel so sleepy today. I didn’t sleep last night,” he apologized to NewsChina during our interview, going on to say that he still misses the past, when all he had to do was write.

“My life is hopelessly busy. There are always tons of distracting ‘incidents’ and ‘emergencies’ that have to be dealt with,” he said. “If someone spreads rumors online about me, I have to find a lawyer to resolve the issue, and then contact media outlets one after another, asking them to delete their false reports. Afterwards, when I try to get back to my writing, another annoying incident pops up.”

Xu hopes that he will still be able to find time to sort out his unfinished drafts, several of which are works on the subject of mental illness that he penned while institutionalized. These stories, he told our reporter, were inspired by a particular group of fellow patients whose doctors were unable to determine whether or not they were mentally ill. “I used to talk to them a lot, and then I conceived my stories and wrote them down,” Xu said.

He also wants to expand his literary horizons, but is finding it hard to get support for anything not on the subject of his previous mainstay subjects – grave robbery and treasure hunting. His current pet project is a story titled “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” unrelated to the prizewinning novel by Gabriel García Márquez.

“Every time I try to sell this idea to my editors, they look at me like they’re staring at a madman,” Xu told NewsChina. “They think I don’t know the meaning of my own title.”

Xu started the story when he was still a student. It is the product of the author imagining himself to be the only person left in the world, facing a lifetime of utter loneliness. “I considered what such a man would think about, and how he would feel about his loneliness.”

“At the thought of being absolutely alone in the world, you immediately forget about the bothersome trivialities in your life,” he continued. “As the only person in the world, you would know what you really want, and your decisions would follow your heart in the purest sense.”

“Do you really know what you truly want?” Xu asked our reporter.

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