• by Karen Ma
  • Special To The Japan Times


At the opening of Chinese-American author Geling Yan’s best-selling novel “Little Aunt Crane,” a 16-year-old girl by the name of Tatsuru, or “Crane,” escapes a mass suicide that Japanese elders in a Manchurian village order to preserve their honor. The young girl’s problems, however, have only just begun.

Little Aunt Crane, by Geling Yan
400 pages
Harvill Secker, Fiction.

In the ensuing days, Crane discovers that her mother and siblings have all perished in the chaos. She’s then seized by human traffickers who sell her into a Chinese family where she is forced to act as a second wife and secret child-bearer.

The 400-page novel, translated by Esther Tyldesley and recently published by Harvill Secker, is set in 1945 at the end of World War II, after Japan’s occupation of Manchuria has collapsed. Against all odds, Crane forms a bond with the family’s infertile first wife, beginning her ambiguous existence as neither wife nor mother during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent Chinese history.

In an interview with The Japan Times Yan explains that the story is not completely fictional: As a child she’d heard a story about twin brothers in Manchuria who lived with their mother and another woman who seemed to hold an important, but ill-defined, status in the family.

“This woman would kneel down to tie the boys’ father’s shoelaces and make everybody take off their shoes before entering the house,” says Yan, an acclaimed screenwriter and author of over 20 novels, including “Flowers of War” and “Banquet Bug.”

It was later discovered that this mysterious woman was not Chinese, says Yan. “She was Japanese, sold to the family in a sack during Japan’s retreat from China, and was the twins’ natural mother.”

The story stuck with the author as she tried to imagine how this family lived together under one roof, harboring its secret in an ostensibly harmonic household. She was determined to find a way to tell the story.

Yan’s opportunity came in 2007, when friends in Japan helped arrange two research trips to a small village in Nagano Prefecture. There, she talked to former Manchurian settlers and an elderly Japanese nurse who had made it her life’s work to help repatriate war-displaced Japanese women left behind in China.

According to a 2006 Asia-Pacific Journal article by Mariko Asano Tamanoi, an anthropology professor at University of California, some 1.5 million Japanese settlers lived in Manchuria during the early 1940s. Later, the men were drafted into battle, leaving women and children behind. When the Soviets invaded Manchuria in late 1945, these left-behind civilians became easy targets. Many died from hunger, disease or compulsory group suicide.

Although her research trips were helpful, Yan, now based in Berlin, says it was a serendipitous visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Okinawa later that year that gave her the final confidence boost she needed. The museum had an exhibit on the tragic story of 200 female high-school students, recruited as nurses in the island’s last stand, who died, many by committing suicide. The photographs of these young women inspired Yan, providing her a “symbolic understanding to Japanese women’s character.”

In the novel, which was originally published in 2008 in Chinese, Crane is a steely survivor on the wrong side of the war. As a woman caught in a double-identity she quietly accepts her lot, working tirelessly around the house. She later gives birth to three children, including twin boys. She tells herself her body is her only way to create blood relatives and end her alienation in a strange and hostile world.

In stark contrast to Crane is Yan’s portrayal of the Chinese wife, Xiao Huan — a rival, and later confidant, to the orphaned Japanese girl. While Crane is quiet and attentive, bowing in the face of difficulty, Xiao Huan is loud, nonchalant and frequently cracks jokes, even as she remains fiercely protective of her family.

“The foremost difference between the two women is that one is from a country and culture that honors death; the other is from a people that honor life,” Yan says, adding that Xiao Huan’s character is inspired by the lively women she knew as a child while living in the shadow of a steel mill.

Crane’s plight pushes her to contemplate suicide several times. In her darkest moments, she remembers Xiao Huan’s advice to “just make do,” which helps her pull through. The two unlikely family members forge a strong bond, surviving the worst of Mao’s years.

When asked, Yan shrugs off the idea that her choice of topics may be motivated by a desire to address the broader tension and misunderstanding between China and Japan. Rather, she says she was more drawn to the intense human drama brought on by the war.

After all, any war can “bring life, death, love and sex all next to each other,” she says, lamenting the fact that there’s a lack of good Chinese literature and artistic works focused on this particular war.

“So far, mostly (there is) just crass propaganda,” Yan says. “Literature doesn’t stop war, but it helps us understand what wars can do to human hearts, and what worst or best behaviors wars can trigger (in) us.”

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