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‘Woman Warrior’ to ‘Passport Baby’

Since the 1970s, the proliferation of Chinese women's writing has helped pave the way in the West for other Chinese literature

by Steve Finbow

LONDON, SPECIAL TO THE J (AP) Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” opens: ” ‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.’ “

LONDON — Since this fictional memoir was published in 1975, the telling of Chinese women’s lives has become big business in the English-speaking world. Short stories, novels, memoirs and histories by women from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora, have proliferated to the extent that there seems to be more Chinese women’s books translated into English than similar writing from other countries.

Hong Kingston writes in English, as does Nien Cheng, whose “Life and Death in Shanghai” (1986), an autobiographical account of her life under the Maoist regime, is, along with “The Woman Warrior,” the template for subsequent fiction and nonfiction, inspiring works such as Ting-xing Ye’s “A Leaf in the Bitter Wind” (1999), Anhua Gao’s “To the Edge of the Sky” (2000) and Jan Wong’s “Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found” (2007).

However, it was the publication of Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” (1992), the story of the author’s, her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, that exponentially increased the publication of works by Chinese women. “Wild Swans,” also written in English, has been translated into over 30 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies — numbers to make publishers sit up and think.

Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” (1989), also a commercial success, fictionalizes what was to become the standard narrative interaction in future Chinese women’s literature — be it memoir or novel: the grandmother-mother-daughter or mother-daughter history. In Tan’s novels, this anecdotal reference serves to emphasize contradictions between generations, and between China and the West. This method of comparison is used to great effect in Liu Hong’s “Startling Moon” (2001) and Annie Wang’s “Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen” (2002).

It is the latter book, no longer concerning itself with the Cultural Revolution but using the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 as its springboard and backdrop, that has inspired a younger generation of Chinese women writers to explore ideas about China, the West, coming of age, and sexuality.

This younger generation repudiate the common views of Chinese women as victims of foot-binding tortures as in Feng Jicai’s “The Three-inch Golden Lotus” (1994); as the dragon ladies of Anchee Min’s “Madame Mao” (2001), “Empress Orchid” (2004) and “The Last Empress” (2007); or as human beings reduced to a cipher — see any of the above. These subject matters have not disappeared entirely, however, as can be seen in Xinran Xue’s 2007 novel “Miss Chopsticks” (coming out in paperback this July), which recounts the stories of three sisters — 3, 5 and 6 (their numerical names reflecting their birth order) — who move from the country to the city to discover their identities.

For an even younger generation, the autobiographical incidents during the Cultural Revolution as portrayed in Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea” (1993) mean little. The opening sentences (“I was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madame Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching. I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school”) cannot compete with the changing Chinese economy, expansion of the cities, the lure of contemporary fashion, media, sexuality and crime, as can be seen in works like Diane Wei Liang’s detective novel “The Eye of Jade” (2008).

Xiaolu Guo, author of “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” (2007) began her writing career as a screenwriter. Her most recent film “How is Your Fish Today?” garnered nominations for international film festival prizes. “A Concise Chinese Dictionary for Lovers” — short-listed for the Orange Prize — tells the story of Z, a young woman sent to London to get an education. She meets a man in a cinema and falls in love. The novel deals with identity, language, cross-cultural contamination and compromise — a contemporary twist on Geling Yan’s “The Lost Daughter of Happiness” (2001) and Liu Hong’s “The Magpie Bridge” (2003).

Guo’s latest novel, “20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth” (2008), typifies this new writing — ultramodern, media-savvy, sexy and succinct: “So I was the 6787th person in Beijing wanting to act in the film and TV industry. There were 6786 young and beautiful, or ugly and old people before me trying to get a role.” No longer wallowing in past memories, the novel is the essence of present-day China.

Other young writers push at similar boundaries. Wei Hui’s “Shanghai Baby” (2001) and “Marrying Buddha” (2005) incorporate the semi-autobiographical approach of Jung Chang while exploring eroticism and the postmodern city — a sexual rather than Cultural revolution, while Mian Mian’s “Candy” (2003) touches on taboos — AIDS, alcoholism, addiction and suicide.

Taiwan-born 26-year-old Yu-Han Chao’s collection of poetry “We Grow Old” and a collection of short stories “Passport Baby” are forthcoming in 2008. When I interviewed Chao, she summed up the younger Chinese generation’s attitude to writing and China: “I grew up reading classical and vernacular Chinese writers, and later discovered Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Kim Wong Keltner. I am influenced by Taiwan — lurid and violent news, period-costume television series based in ancient China, superstitions, traditional ghost stories, martial arts novels and movies, gaming culture, night-markets, and foreigners from across the world. I write and publish in English but write and draw comics in Chinese. I would love to visit Hangzhou to see the sweet osmanthus blossoms Chi Zun describes in her essay ‘Osmanthus Rain.’ “

Without writers like Yu-Han and her predecessors, Chinese male writers such as Mo Yan, Ma Jian, and Jiang Rong, and writers from the West who set their novels in China — Lisa See, Alma Alexander and Jennifer Cody Epstein — may not have gained such an extensive readership.