Mai Jia 麥家

Mai Jia is arguably the most successful writer in China today. His books are constant bestsellers, with total sales of over five million. In 2010, he became the highest paid author in China with his new trilogy, WHISPERS ON THE WIND. He has achieved unprecedented success with screen adaptations of his books: all of his novels have been made – or are being made – into major films or TV series, the screenplays of which are often written by Mai Jia himself. He is hailed as the forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction, and has created a unique genre that combines spycraft, code-breaking, crime, human drama, historical fiction, and metafiction. He has won almost every major award in China, including the highest literary honour – the Mao Dun Award.

Despite the popularity and media attention, Mai Jia remains something of a mystery. He is an intensely private person and, ironically, perhaps the most misunderstood writer in China today.

Mai Jia was born in 1964 into a family of "bad elements": his father was a rightist, his maternal grandfather a landlord, and his paternal grandfather a Christian. He spent his childhood in solitude and learned to “talk to himself” by keeping a diary, which had grown to thirty-six volumes before he even started writing fiction. Through a chance encounter, Mai Jia was recruited by the Army Engineering Academy. The purpose of the training, unbeknownst to him, was to create army intelligence officers. In short: spies. Mai Jia did not become a spy, but during his time working at this top secret unit, he got to know a group of people of startling intelligence, “alchemists of wisdom”, who work in obscurity either by choice or by order. They were to form the prototypes of many of Mia Jia’s future characters, unsung heroes fighting a dangerous war of the mind, an abstract and metaphysical battlefield beyond any normal person’s imagination.

Mai Jia spent ten years writing his first novel, DECODED (Jiemi, 解密). Published in 2002, it tells the tragic story of a math genius who becomes China’s greatest code-breaker, only to be driven mad by the unfathomable darkness of the world of cryptology. The book went through countless revisions, at one time running to over a million words. The protagonist, Rong Jinzhen, is a classic Mai Jia character, possessing exceptional intelligence, who is yet also deeply flawed and fragile as a person.

In 2003, Mai Jia published his second novel, IN THE DARK (Ansuan, 暗算), significantly expanding the world of underground espionage first explored in DECODED. Told through five linked stories and spanning thirty years, it is a stunning epic of radio surveillance, code breaking and secret missions in which physicists, revolutionaries and math geniuses fight for survival. It was an instant bestseller, and Mai Jia was hired to adapt the book for TV.

Two years later, Mai Jia was given the Mao Dun Award, the highest literary honor in China, along with heavy-weight literary figures such as Chi Zijian and Jia Pingwa. Because IN THE DARK was already a bestseller and the basis of a popular TV series, many regarded Mai Jia as a “commercial” writer. His winning Mao Dun thus created a significant amount of controversy, pushing the book back to the top of bestseller lists.

By then, Mai Jia had already published his third novel, THE MESSAGE (Fengsheng, 风声), a brilliant deconstruction of the classic locked-room mystery set during the Sino-Japanese War. With this book, Mai Jia won the prestigious Chinese Media Literary Award as the Novelist of the Year. In 2009, THE MESSAGE was made into a major film by internationally renowned Taiwanese director, Chen Kuofu. The movie was a huge hit at the box office, and generally regarded as the first large scale, Hollywood-level production Chinese spy thriller. It was so successful, in fact, that the film company soon announced plans for a prequel as well as a full-length TV series (which began running in March 2011).

In 2010, Mai Jia completed the scripts for WHISPERS ON THE WIND (Fengyu, 风语), his latest – and possibly last – spy thriller. The TV series soon went into production, and this time Mai Jia started adapting the other way around, from screenplay to novel. Due to its extraordinary length, he decided to split the book into three volumes, for which he was offered a staggering advance of 7,500,000 RMB (over one million USD), the highest advance ever paid to an author in China. 

People call Mai Jia the “Dan Brown of China” based on his unrivaled sales and a seemingly similar focus on codes and riddles. Yet their works could not be more different, either in subject, execution, or literary ambition. The only real thing they share is that their books sell and sell and sell. Mai Jia’s literary influence comes more from Borges and Nabokov than Agatha Christie. His literary thrillers may seem patriotic and politically correct at first glance, but are in fact located in a grey zone of moral ambiguity, celebrating the will power of the individual instead of singing praises of the Party. Despite his popularity and fame, he leads a simple life in the outskirts of Hangzhou, often shutting himself off from telephone and internet access in order to focus on his writing.

Like his books, Mai Jia is a riddle, a living paradox. 

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