The Message

Background Information

Mai JiaThe Message author Mai Jia

Feng Sheng book coverFeng Sheng book cover

Author Mai Jia’s Espionage Novels

by Shinzei

The Message (pinyin: Feng Sheng; simplified characters:《风声》), initially published in 2007, is the spiritual sequel to novelist Mai Jia’s 2003 book Covert Operations (An Suan:《暗算》), which spans the Republican era from the 1930s until the early 1950s. The book and now major motion picture event, set amidst the War of Resistance and the occupation of Shanghai, comprises the final third of the author’s trilogy on Chinese military intelligence that he first explored in the 2001 novel Cracking Codes (Jie Mi:《解密》). Mai, a soft spoken and somewhat retiring figure, was born in Fuyang, Zhejiang in 1964.  Joining the People’s Liberation Army in the final years of the Cultural Revolution, Mai eventually graduated from the PLA’s Institute of Military Engineering in 1983 as a military telecommunications specialist. During his seventeen plus years in uniform Mai showed early promise as an army inspector and local unit commander but after tentative forays into propaganda production, superiors soon noticed his gift for writing and encouraged him to publish in various periodicals from 1986 onward. 

In addition to releasing novels and short stories, Mai has also penned non-fiction essays, poetic verse, magazine features, and dramatic scripts for both stage and screen.  His first civilian job outside of the army was as a screenwriter/script doctor for Chengdu municipal television in 1997. On this note, Mai’s current popularity owes a great deal of its substance to CCTV’s 2006 serialization of Covert Operations (adapted personally by Mai for broadcast). The books have long been critical darlings among discerning readers and literary prize committees—Cracking Codes, Covert Operations, and The Message have all won their fair share of esteemed awards from the critical establishment—but it was only by their exposure on national prime time television and now in film that Mai achieved mainstream recognition. He, in turn, has been catapulted into the stratosphere of best selling author status leading to the recent reissue of much of his early out-of-print work.

The trilogy of novels has been embraced by readers to a surprising degree unforeseen by Mai. They deal with matters that have long been invisible to the public.  In the early 2000s when the PLA began loosening its reins on certain classified information, Mai used his credentials as a retired army propagandist to gain access to once restricted colleagues working on cryptology for the military. Using their unexcavated accounts as grist for the mill, Mai gives readers a morally ambiguous view of modern Chinese history stripped of patriotic fervor and cultural nationalism for a more existential appraisal of the past. 

Intelligence work is portrayed as a realm of troubling moral ambiguities that consumes those caught up in its web. It sucks people’s lives of all non-professional meaning as they engage in tense games of cat-and-mouse to snag secret communications and uncover hidden messages before they themselves are identified and outed by adversaries. The lure of forbidden knowledge possesses deadly consequences; rather than encountering the liberating light of truth, Mai’s characters fall into an abyss of uncertainty and confusing half-truth. No one ever sees the big picture as each new piece of information either transforms or contradicts what was previously known (and this, of course, presumes one reads an encrypted message correctly in the first place.) Life becomes a terrifying waking nightmare of staying one step ahead of both real and perceived enemies. One’s friends and family cease being an emotional refuge and become, instead, lingering professional liabilities—one slip of the tongue, one phrase uttered casually out of context and the people closest to a code cracker instantly become latent instruments of one’s potential demise. 

The only individuals that one can truly trust are one’s intelligence colleagues who presumably are comrades. At the same time, however, Mai’s characters realize that their professional associates are also fighting in the same exact campaign of half-truth and mis-direction that they themselves are relentlessly waging. Secret security clearances and shifting alliances prevent one’s colleagues from ever being truly forthright or completely trustworthy recipients of one’s hard won realizations. No one is ever sure who is really friend or foe so everyone must slog on together trying to discover urgent information while avoiding the wreckage of splintered relationships and ever-diminishing trust among one’s gradually shrinking inner circle (attrition is so great that simply surviving sometimes constitutes victory). Men and women working in intel cannot see the forest for the trees and must pray that their superiors at HQ make sense of their subtle revelations before enemy agents, working from within and without, crack a code cracker’s best ongoing efforts. 

The message is thus very bleak: trust no one. The most successful people live out their lives as closed reservoirs of verboten information. Everyone else is cut down too soon or in their prime of their lives as part of the amoral calculus of collateral damage. The greatest moment of apprehension lies in meeting someone years or perhaps decades after the fact and suddenly realizing that said individual is no innocent bystander and is either responsible for killing all those in a person’s life or was the “angel” that rescued someone from a doomed situation but was unable to save anyone else in the process. Sometimes a face from the past was both an angel and demon in one’s personal travails. Faced with such heart rending possibilities, Mai’s characters choose to haunt the shadow realm of fading memories for solace and consolation, burdened by knowledge they can never reveal nor ever truly forget.

Mai Jia and Feng Sheng

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