Ling Zhang talks Aftershock and Gold Mountain Blues

Acclaimed Chinese author and academic Ling Zhang’s bestselling novel Aftershock, set in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, delivers an intense and devastating look at the events and aftermath of the horrific event that toppled a city and life as it was known forever.  

Among its victims is a woman who loses her husband and daughter when she’s forced to choose during the rescue efforts.  She chose her son but her daughter survived and managed to create a good life despite what she’d been through.  The book was filmed in China and with its budget of $20M, Aftershock stands as the most expensive film ever made there.  

Monsters and Critics spoke with Zhang.  

M&C: Ling, were you in the Tangshan quake? Or did you have people close to you go through it?

Zhang: No, I lived in Wenzhou then, a small city in southern China more than 2000 km away from Tangshan.  My hometown in 1970’s was a quite isolated town and I had never really traveled very far from home at all.  We heard about the earthquake through the then highly censored media.  More complete knowledge came much later when I started the research.  

M&C: The film opens with one of the most devastating scenes imaginable.  The earthquake is chilling, and brilliantly executed.    How did you feel seeing it?

Zhang: I had an opportunity to be with the film crew in New Zealand for two weeks, as the director had originally planned to work with WETA (Lord of Rings) for special effects.  However, it didn’t work out for cost reasons.  During the time I was in New Zealand, I saw with my own eyes how meticulous the director wanted the earthquake scene to be, down to every single detail.  

When I finally saw the quake scene on the big screen, I started to cry before any of the story elements began to unfold – it just chilled me to the core.  

M&C: In your story a woman is forced to choose one child over the other for rescue. The discussions go on within earshot of both children.  To me that defines the film more than the earthquake.

Zhang: The choice the mother made not only affected the children but also changed her own life forever.  Sadly I do not believe in an easy remedy in this situation.  No amount of therapy can heal a heart so torn and broken.  Some choices in life are meant to haunt you for the rest of your life, hence the title – an aftershock that might last way after the landscape has been repaired.  

The movie is based on the book, but the movie is not the book.  The book has a dark motif, opening up the wounds supposedly long healed, exposing the unpleasant supposedly long forgotten, and forcing people to re-examine the cruelty of life in the face of disaster, whereas the movie intends to comfort, to heal, and to urge people to bury their hatchets and move on with their lives.

M&C: How accurate is the portrayal of everyday life in China?

Zhang: I don’t think there is such a thing as absolute truth.  Everyone’s memory of the past and account of the present are always tinted with subjectivity which makes art multi-dimensional and fascinating.  An artist, be it a movie director or a novelist, should be given a great deal of freedom with which to interpret what he sees, or what he feels he is seeing.  As long as he is true to himself in his interpretation, then the end product will be an accurate portrayal of life as he sees it.

M&C: Aftershock is the most expensive film ever made in China.  It must have been surreal as the author to learn of this.

Zhang: Although I have no share in the income from the movie, I am truly happy for the people who produced it, as they certainly put their heart and soul into it.  It has won quite a few awards, including the best movie in the prestigious Asian Pacific Film Festival.

However, I am more excited about the fact that this movie has touched the hearts of the movie goers all over the world.  I do have one big regret though: this movie was not shot in Toronto (for cost reasons), as a major portion of the book sets in Toronto.

M&C: It must be hard for you and so many others in the world to be reminded of what they went through when other natural disasters strike.  How can people deal with that?

Zhang: Tangshan earthquake happened in 1976 at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution.  This was a period when everybody, me included, was made to believe that men for sure could conquer nature, and stoicism was the only way to cope with losses.  Therefore the surviving children from the quake have never been given a chance to grieve openly, and, as a result, they have carried their emotional scars all the way through to their adult lives.

This was why thirty some years later and thousands of miles away in Toronto, I decided to poke around, looking for the tears that have not been shed, the pain that has not been dealt with, and the wounds that have not been healed.

M&C: How did you deal with writing it?

Zhang: I was then working as a full time audiologist, and could only write in the evenings and weekends.  The research was hard but the actual writing process was a smooth sail – it was completed in six weeks.  I felt as if the story had been in me for so long and all I needed to do was to take it out and lay it on a piece of paper.  I could hear voices urging me to go faster and faster.  The daughter’s sad eyes still haunted me weeks after the story had been finished.

M&C: It also shows how important the event was in Chinese cultural history.

Zhang: 1976 was a year so many major events took place in China, e.g. the death of Mao and two other big heads in the Chinese government, the earthquake that claimed more than 240,000 lives and wiped out the entire city of Tangshan, and the downfall of Mao’s regime.  This earthquake has been, and will remain to be, an unforgettable page in Chinese history.
M&C: You’re an academic so you would want the film to be as accurate to your novel as possible.  Were you able to consult?

Zhang: The move actually is very different from the book. Mr. Feng Xiao Gang is one of the best known movie directors in China and anything he lays his hands on seems to turn to gold. He has convinced me that everybody loves a happy ending. And he is right. I’m afraid I’ll continue to write my dark stories as a lonely novelist whereas he keeps making warm movies which people, me included, love to watch and cheer.

M&C: Tell me about Gold Mountain Blues.

Zhang: Although Aftershock brought me to public attention the way none of my other works did, and made my life as a struggling novelist a little easier, I have never considered it my best work. The novel that came three years later, the Gold Mountain Blues, is the most important work of my life.

Gold Mountain Blues,  a result of years of research and several field trips to China and western Canada, is a multi-generational saga of a Fong family that have fought against seemingly unbeatable odds to build a better future for their children.

Covering a span of one hundred and thirty years and shifting back and forth from village of  Kaiping in southern China to Canadian Rocky Mountain, Gold Mountain Blues unfolds stories of people who braved the ocean to come to a wild land called British Columbia, leaving their aging parents, newly wed wives or young children behind, to pursue dreams of wealth and prosperity that quickly eluded them; stories of husbands and wives separated by Head Tax, Chinese Exclusion Act as well as a vast span of ocean, yet keeping their marriages alive for decades because of a strong common will to build a better and more secured home for their children; and stories of a lengthy and profound journey of two races finally becoming reconciled after a century of distrust and rejection.

Gold Mountain Blues is a heart-breaking tale of unspeakable human suffering and hardship, endured with dignity, courage and a touch of humor.