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Illiterate at 60, grandmother now author of six books at 87

Updated: 2024-03-16 10:54 ( Xinhua )
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Jiang Shumei shows her six books at home in Heilongjiang province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Jiang Shumei learned her first Chinese character at the age of 60. Now, the 87-year-old grandmother from Northeast China's Heilongjiang province is the proud author of six books.

"I wasn't educated as a child. I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that I would publish a book one day," says the resident of Suihua city. Her books detail the chaos of wartime and the hardship during the famine, and vividly recount anecdotes over the decades.

Born in 1937, Jiang left her home in Shandong province at a young age and migrated to Northeast China, where she spent most of her life scraping a living in a brick factory.

She learned her first character in 1996, after her husband died in a devastating car accident, when her daughter Zhang Ailing suggested that she learn to read to take her mind off the loneliness and sorrow.

Zhang says that unlike other beginners, her mother drew every single character like a picture.

The elderly woman had her own way of learning. She composed lyrics for songs, and asked children to write them down, so that she could read each character as she sang the songs again and again. Whenever she came across characters she didn't know on pamphlets, bus stops, or shop signs, she found someone to ask.

Once Jiang had learned enough characters, Zhang started giving her books to read. Enjoying the books, Jiang told her daughter that she wanted to write down her own stories to share.

"It sounds unbelievable, and my brother used to laugh at my daydreams," the grandmother says.

She first put pen to paper in 2012, at the age of 75.

It was not easy. Sometimes, completing a single sentence could take a day. As a college teacher and a writer herself, Zhang gave her mother a lot of encouragement and help. She told her that while writing, she should imagine herself telling stories to an audience, so that they would be easier to understand and be full of interesting details.

Zhang was also her first editor. Every time her mother finished writing something, she would discuss the manuscript with her and check it over before typing it on the computer.

"Mom's writing is always concise and straight to the point, so I only needed to correct the grammar and any improper words to preserve its originality," Zhang says.

Her daughter's support became strong motivation. Jiang usually started writing at 3 or 4 am, and revised the pieces several times until she was satisfied. She also traveled back to her hometown in Shandong to interview other senior citizens.

Zhang began publishing her mother's stories on social media platforms in 2013. When they drew the attention of her writer friends, the pair made the bold decision to publish them.

The first book, Time of Trouble, Time of Poverty, was published later that year, and proved to be a success. Some critics even hailed it as the "lived history of a nation plagued by war, death and hunger".

The book earned Jiang a lot of fans and sympathy. "Don't feel sorry for me," the writer says to her fans. "The hardships mentioned in the book are now in the past. Without all of it, I could never have finished this book."

So far, the elderly woman has published six books, totaling more than 600,000 characters in length. In her spare time, she is also learning painting and calligraphy. "I would like to be a writer, a painter and a calligrapher," she says, adding that her dream now is to have her own art exhibition when she is 90.

Jiang did the illustrations for a book written by her daughter which was published last June. In the book, My Mom Is Eight and a Half, Zhang writes: "I taught my mom to write, while she taught me the wisdom of life."

"It is never too late. The knack is not to be lazy," Jiang says.

She lives a healthy life, exercising every day, drinking milk and soy milk, as well as having regular massages. "If I could live as long as 130, would you still say that it is too late for me to start after 60?" she asks, jokingly.

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