(Winner of English Pen Translates Award)
by Xu Xiaobin (translated by Nicky Harman and Natascha Bruce)
This is, at once, both an ordinary and an extraordinary kind of book.
I call it an ordinary book because it is written in an entirely different style to my previous work. It doesn’t have the same richness of description; there is none of the mystery or magic of my other writing—the language is simple and unadorned, devoid of symbolism and metaphor. It is the story of an ordinary female intellectual in China, charting the events of the fifteen-year period between her wedding and her divorce. Reflected in her individual fate, we see the changes wrought in the country at large over the course of those fifteen years of Chinese history.
I call it an extraordinary book because this is the first book by a mainland Chinese author to speak so frankly about sex and Chinese women.
At the first mention of sex, people’s thoughts usually turn to erotica and pornography. If that’s the kind of book you’re expecting, however, you will be sorely disappointed. What interests me is another aspect of sex entirely—namely, the fact that for three decades of Chinese history, sex was a completely taboo topic. There was no such thing as sex education for the teenagers of my generation. As a result, when it came to sex, our behaviour tended toward one of two extremes: sexual promiscuity or sexual repression. Naturally, neither of these two extremes is especially healthy, but that’s how it was. The protagonist of this novel, Yang Tianyi, is thirty when she gets married, and her attitude towards sex is one of absolute terror. Her husband, Wang Lian, is just as clueless—to the point that, one week after her wedding, Tianyi’s hymen is found to be still intact.
While this might seem like a joke to Western readers, I assure you that I did not make it up: this was not an uncommon occurrence among girls of my generation. And those who ended up the butt of this joke were precisely those model students and well-behaved little girls who believed the lies fed to them during that repressive era and, as a result, threw away their youth, the most precious part of any person’s life.. They sacrificed their youth for the party and the good of the motherland. That was a popular slogan of the time. Only many years later would they come to realise that, while they were dutifully abiding by all those rules, their great leader was out there living the life of a playboy. Some of them, incensed by this discovery, went on to be wildly promiscuous in their later lives.
In more recent years, sex has become a tool used to bribe senior officials. Dark corners of every city bubble with seedy undercurrents. There are no such things as state-sanctioned brothels, but there are whorehouse signs hanging over the entranceways to every second restaurant. High-schoolers work as escorts, girls from good families have one night stands—and these are no longer things we’re ashamed to talk about. People will do whatever it takes to get ahead. Sincerity, on the other hand, will simply get you laughed at. This, surely, is an altogether much more alarming set of values.
The damage to women runs particularly deep. During the Mao era, when they talked about equality of the sexes, about how ‘women can hold up half the sky,’ what it meant was that men and women were equal when it came to physical work. That girls had to do the same kind of hard labour as men. It was the age of the much-revered ‘Iron Girls’ and we were girls in the prime of our youth; for us, as for everyone, notions of beauty shifted accordingly. We would think long and hard before wearing an outfit with even a dash of colour. We would curl the ends of our hair—but only ever so slightly—or venture a tiny flash of a pretty collar here and there. If you were fair-skinned, you had to go out and roast yourself darker in the sun, for fear someone would accuse you of being a bourgeois little miss. If you were slim, well, then you had to be even more dedicated, and make sure you worked especially hard, training your calf muscles until they were thick and solid. After this kind of a revolutionary baptism, what hope had any girl of retaining her femininity?
I was sent to Heilongjiang for the wheat harvest. There, male or female, you had to haul 200 jin (100 kg) bales of wheat up a gangplank—try to imagine, underdeveloped girls of fifteen or sixteen, carrying weights of 200 jin balanced across their shoulders, walking up narrow planks, three metres long and set at 45 degree angles, to off-load wheat into grain storage bins. Isn’t it horrifying, to think of it now? Many girls developed ailments that would stay with them for life; many girls, no matter how hard they tried, simply couldn’t do it. Me, for example. I was tasked with carrying 100 jin of urea on my back—and this was considered benevolent of them—but the strain was still so great that I was practically spitting blood. The slogan during the summer hoeing season was especially absurd: ‘Work your hardest while alive, be buried in Heilong when you die.’ Human life had no value. During a mobilisation meeting, our leader said, ‘Every person, every day, one row of crops. I don’t care how many tears you shed in the process.’ And you have to understand, ‘one row of crops’ in Heilongjiang terms, was fourteen li (7 km)! I was only sixteen, suffering from severe dysentery, and the old ox cart that dropped off rice at midday only ever made it as far as the places with the most people. This meant that I, always lagging behind, never got anything to eat at lunchtime. So I had to endure the brutal intensity of the work, plus the sickness, without even a bite to eat. To drink, we’d knock over the water vats and worm our way inside like little dogs, just so we could take mouthfuls of the silty water collected along the bottom. Worse than that, when the fields flooded, we were forced to wade through water that came up to our knees and dredge up the wheat plants. This was November, it was bitter winter, and there we were, fishing hemp out of glacial river water; even when we had our periods, there was no respite. Thirty-eight girls slept on two big wooden bunk beds. It was fifty-two degrees below zero and we had no coal to burn. In order to survive, we’d burn bean stalks we dug out from under the snow and drink melted snow we collected in our chamber pots. And every day we had to praise the Great Leader, wishing him a long and prosperous life. I’m still amazed that I made it. Perhaps the only explanation is the natural resilience of youth! That is certainly the only one I can think of.
The ‘Iron Girls’ era finally passed. Things did not improve, however, because what came next was the era of the ‘Little Woman.’ What mattered now was not your IQ, but your EQ—your emotional intelligence. And what did it mean to be emotionally intelligent, Chinese-style? It meant that a woman knew how to charm a man; how to charm her boss. There was no question of falling in love, because to fall in love was to lose the game. There was a female student I knew in the 70s, for example, who was not particularly attractive and suffered from a series of physical disabilities. And yet, she would have several men at the same time, all eating out of the palm of her hand. It was about strategy: whenever she needed someone, she’d calculate her moves very carefully, as though carrying out a detailed piece of operations research. She was proud of herself for this; she felt like she’d won. Lots of girls were the same, even the so-called ‘elite’ ones. They thought they had life all figured out. They knew how to play on a man’s emotions in order to win his favour, how to manipulate their way into relationships and wrap these men around their little fingers. They’d figured out how to get rich and they thought this a fantastic achievement. They were the envy of hundreds of thousands of female students, who considered them prime examples of ‘high EQ’.
The way I saw it, however, this behaviour showed a serious lack of dignity and self-respect. It was even more degrading than the times of the Iron Girls.
My protagonist, Yang Tianyi, is, without a doubt, a girl of ‘low EQ’. In this society where money reigns supreme, she stays true to herself. She has spent her adolescence immersed in romantic novels, from China and abroad. She imagines for herself an ordinary, loving marriage, and a happy family to call her own. But, amid the dramatic social upheaval of the period, her romantic hopes for her future are relegated to the stuff of wistful daydreams. She marries a man who holds a set of values entirely at odds with hers, but she refuses to sit back and accept the hand fate has dealt her. She continues to love another man from afar, unable to give up on her notions of romance. She lives believing she is sexually frigid, before eventually realising that she is simply not the kind of woman who can separate love from sex. She would rather remain celibate than force herself to endure loveless sex. During the Tiananmen crisis, however, she musters her courage and goes to the aid of the man she loves. Her husband soon finds out. The two start to quarrel incessantly, and the tension between them worsens by the day. Finally, after fifteen years, their marriage implodes. Fifteen years makes it their crystal-wedding anniversary. The book, then, is the story of that girl called Yang Tianyi, and her life over the course of those fifteen years between 1984 and 1999.
Yang Tianyi has no interest in politics, just as I have no interest in politics. I was born into a family of intellectuals, descended from a long line of scholars. That’s right, China does have intellectuals; we are not all peasants. And the misery endured by China’s intellectuals during the Mao era was extreme—indeed, unprecedented.
My father was a very honest, kind-hearted man. He was well-educated and became, at the age of twenty-nine, the youngest Assistant Professor at Jiaotong University. He was loved and trusted by fellow teachers and students alike. His unsparing dedication to his work caused him to contract tuberculosis but, even when he was spitting blood, he continued to take students out on field trips. As a result, he survived unscathed the many political movements that shook China in the latter half of the twentieth century. Even during the terrible Cultural Revolution, the worst that happened was that a few big-character posters accused him of being a ‘bourgeois academic authority’. However, his honest and sensitive nature suffered from having no one to open up to, and the pressures that built up led to his untimely death.
I was his favourite child, and the one he worried most about. I began painting at two or three years old, and a picture of ‘The Parrot Girl’ that I did at the age of five was spotted by the head of the university’s costume doll group and used by her to create a new doll. (These costume dolls were among China’s few exports at that time.) At the age of seven, I wrote my first poem in Chinese classical metre, and two years later I read the great novel, Story of the Stone (also translated as The Dream of the Red Chamber). My outstanding academic results won me all sorts of prizes at primary school and made my father very proud. Interestingly, a fellow student at my primary school was Wang Yi, China’s current foreign minister; he was also at secondary school with me, and we did military service together. When I completed primary school, my teacher came to tell my parents that he was putting my name forward for admission to an elite secondary school. At that time, there was a quota from each school of one or, at most, two students, and my school chose Wang Yi and me. Only just then, the Cultural Revolution broke out and everything ground to a halt. To start with, I was intensely curious and rode my bicycle from campus to campus reading the big-character posters. My natural scepticism made me wary of the official newspapers, and I wanted to know the truth. However, I soon lost interest in the slanging matches between the warring factions, and steered well clear of the bloody violence. When I witnessed our elders and betters being paraded through the streets in dunces’ caps, the nursery school head being put on a stage in the searing summer heat and spattered all over with paste and ink, the adults around me committing suicide, my father working day and night without a break, my mother being forced to learn the ‘loyalty dance’, it dawned on me just what the truth was …
Both my parents were professors and, although they loved to read literature in their spare time, literary studies in those days were not held in high regard. The watchword was ‘maths, physics and chemistry will get you anywhere’. Even though the schools were closed during the Cultural Revolution, I often got together with school friends on the university campus and we amused ourselves by conducting physics and chemistry experiments, for instance, boiling water in paper cups over a candle flame, and engraving designs on eggshells. Maths was my chief love, and I dreamed of becoming a scientist when I grew up; reading was just something I liked doing in my spare time. But the Cultural Revolution shattered all our hopes and dreams. Looking back on those days, I realized that my father was intensely anxious about what might happen to me; it was for this reason that, cleverly playing on my love of reading, he brought out the collections of books we had at home (we were fortunate in that they had not been confiscated by the Red Guards) and added to them works translated from western writers, such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Resurrection, the complete Comédie Humaine by Balzac, and works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Mérimée, Zweig, and Stendhal borrowed from the university library. Imagine how bizarre: outside the windows, loudspeakers blared amid a sea of red flags, while behind closed doors, a young girl, bent over those then-prohibited works, was drawn into a whole new world, completely at odds with the spirit of the times. The fantasy world I lived in then is the subject of a novel I wrote years later called Sunshine on Judgement Day.
In using books to keep me out of trouble, my father could hardly have imagined that literature would lead me on a secret inner journey; nor did he know that this inner world would prove even more dangerous than the tumultuous world outside. At thirteen years old, a girl is on the threshold of adolescence, getting her periods, beginning to notice subtle changes in her body, feeling the first stirrings of love. An encounter with literature can make her restless for the rest of her life.
Four years later, when I came back from Heilongjiang to see my parents in Beijing, I wrote my first novel, Young Eagles Spread their Wings, about two young people from different backgrounds who fall in love. I never finished it but the parts that I had written did the rounds at university, in notebook form. I was always being asked by my friends: ‘And what happened next?’
This was the beginning of my literary career. In 1981, I published my first complete novel. From then on, my writing took a completely different path from that of my fellow writers. By 2005, at a time when people’s political and moral values had become more sharply divided than ever, I found myself increasingly marginalized. I had to laugh when, a number of years ago, a completely unrealistic story about Heilongjiang appeared. I found out later that the writer had never done a day’s labour in the countryside, having been a cadre for his entire life. All these years later, he is still a favourite in literary circles; true, he has made a few comments apparently critical of the system in order to make himself popular with the reading public, but he has also been careful to protect his personal interests. The truth is that in any society, he would be among the elite, because he has a chameleon’s ability to assume their colours. He is one among many such chameleon-writers in China: loftily apolitical to the general public, while behind closed doors they scrabble for power and influence, smoothing their career paths with gifts and letters. On Weibo and Weixin, in their blogs and in social media, they pose as honest intellectuals genuinely concerned for their country and their people; then they suddenly turn up in the USA with a green card. As if that is not enough, they claim benefits and tax relief in the USA on grounds of poverty, before reappearing in China to take top official positions on high salaries. These people are clever; they are also the kind of freaks that the system produces. Writers ought to maintain a tension with society, see themselves in confrontation with it, but those who flourish here have done so because they have learnt how to tell lies and make people laugh, how to say what people want to hear, how to win over all and sundry, young and old, men and women, high-ups and humble … They have cleverly persuaded the government to hand over the vast sums of money that it has invested in China’s ‘soft power push’, and they continue to reap the benefits of this ignoble venture. They have become superb actors, indeed superstars, feathering their own nests, while also making themselves nationally popular.
In my novel, Feathered Serpent, the hero says: ‘The past ten years have allowed the genie out of the bottle; the devil has slipped out and can never be put back in the bottle. The country will rise, economic material will be gained, and we will catch up with advanced countries; but what about the realms of the spiritual and metaphysical? Will they ever be restored? This is a quandary that is more frightening than being poor.’ Sadly, all my predictions in Feathered Serpent have come true.
As a young woman writing Feathered Serpent, I felt acute grief for my beloved country but powerless to change the situation. Along with this pain, I was suffering personal heartache, so every word was written in blood and tears. Crystal Wedding, on the other, is a simple record of what happened. When I wrote Feathered Serpent, I still had tears to cry, whereas now I am dry-eyed. If anything, hurting and not being able to cry runs even deeper and is even harder to cure.
My thanks to Nicky Harman, whose fine translation and hard work in finding a publisher for Crystal Wedding has helped make this book available to Western readers; to my publisher, Roh-Suan Tung, without whose perceptiveness and courage this translation might have taken a lot longer to come out; to Eric Abrahamsen, China expert, for his support for this book; and to my agent, Joanne Wang, who brought my previous novels to the outside world, for which I am extremely grateful.
I hope that Western readers will enjoy Crystal Wedding.