Profile: From an illiterate granny to a young writer

Source: Xinhua| 2019-10-30 17:46:37|Editor: xuxin
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HARBIN, Oct. 30 (Xinhua) -- Jiang Shumei, 82, is a legend: an illiterate granny who learned how to read at age 60, became a writer at 76 and is now an author of five books.

Three months ago, Jiang published her new book, a collection of folk songs and stories from her hometown in east China's Shandong Province.

"If I didn't record them, they would be lost," she said with a strong Shandong accent. "I also drew all the illustrations in the book."

Over the past six years, Jiang has turned herself from an illiterate granny to a prolific writer -- five books of nearly 600,000 total words. Besides her own story, she writes about other people too, such as a woman with bound feet, a mute wife and rude bandits.

Despite worsening hearing and vision, Jiang has no plans to stop. "I am an old granny but still a young writer," she said.


Born in a small village in Shandong Province in 1937, Jiang did not have a chance to go to school because of poverty and war. She had to make clothes during the day and spin cotton at night.

In 1960, Jiang and her husband migrated from Shandong to northeast China's Heilongjiang Province to make a living, where they worked in a brickyard until retirement.

Jiang's husband died in a traffic accident in 1996. She lived with depression for a long time after that.

"Why don't you learn to read?" Jiang's daughter Zhang Ailing asked, hoping to distract her attention from her husband's tragedy.

Of course, learning to read was not an easy task for the Chinese grandma, who was already 60 years old. But it is never too old to learn.

Zhang received the first letter from her mother three months later, which took the old lady over a month to finish.

"It was not really writing since she didn't know the strokes of Chinese characters. It was more like a painting," Zhang recalled.

In order to learn new characters, Jiang would ask her children to write them down first and then copy them. She even invented her own rhyming songs to help her memorize new characters.

Jiang also asked people in the street to teach her whenever she saw new characters, whether they were words in leaflets, bus stations or billboards.

She gradually learned how to read and was attracted by the literary world. Not only did she become proficient enough to read books, but she also started to write at 75.

"I have many stories in my mind. I want to write too," said Jiang after reading books borrowed from her daughter who is also a writer. The sufferings she had experienced and witnessed in life became the inspiration for her stories.

She is diligent about her writing -- getting up at 4 a.m and writing on anything next to her from wrapping papers and grandchildren's exercise books to patients' handbooks.


"My brother laughed at me when I said I was going to write, but after reading my books, he cried, saying my words brought his memories back," Jiang recalled.

Six years ago, she published her maiden work "Poor Time, Troubled Time," a collection of short stories mainly about ordinary people in China's countryside who suffered from years of famine and turmoil.

Unlike a history textbook that tells readers the facts of what happened in the past, Jiang's work depicts history with flesh and bones, and is accompanied with vivid details and personal stories. Her works are also full of dialects due to her down-to-earth background.

In summer and winter holidays, Jiang would go back to her hometown in Shandong with her daughter to gain inspiration for her books. She enjoyed talking to her relatives and senior villagers and wrote down these incredible, sometimes even cruel tales that would otherwise be buried.

Wherever she goes, she brings her pen, notebook and recorder just in case she hears something interesting.

She always has a sense of crisis. Once she met a granny who was good at story-telling. Several months later, Jiang re-visited the lady. She knocked on the door but nobody answered.

"She had passed away," Jiang said.

"As a traditional Chinese woman, my mom has experienced a lot of hardships and suffering over the years. But now she is chasing her dream. Writing has opened a new window for her to see the world," Zhang said.

"Many grass-root writers have benefited from the internet in recent years. My mom is one of them," Zhang said.

She sorted out the stories written by her mother and posted them on her blog, most of which were well received by online writers and readers and offered Jiang an opportunity to have her books published.

"Don't cry when you read my books. I'm not writing to tell how hard life was in the past, but to advise people to cherish what we have now," Jiang said.