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Tales of Gender

Novelist Wang Anyi casts an ironic glance on the transformation of gender relations in China during the 1980s and 90s. 

Wang Anyi 5 April 2018

via Flickr.

Published by Verso in 2003, One China, Many Paths, edited by Chaohua Wang, offers a panorama of Chinese intellectuals who emerged in the 1990s. Wang writes:

Chinese readers have access in their native language to large areas of Western literature and philosophy, political and economic thought, to classical texts and contemporary ideas of the world. But this process of cultural familiarization has been one-sided. Neither the length and depth of traditional Chinese civilization, nor the importance of China in the modern history of the world, are reflected in a comparable range of Western translations of Chinese thought and culture. Classical poetry and fiction have found skilled and devoted translators, but history and philosophy have been much less well served...The voices of Chinese thinkers themselves rarely reach the West without much reduction or mediation. In general, coverage of key debates remains thin and patchy, making it difficult even for those highly interested to follow developments in China.

Included in the book is the two-part essay below by novelist Wang Anyi, a sardonic appraisal of the transformation of gender relations taking place during the second reform period. 

A peach was presented me

I returned a fine jade

I consider myself fortunate. From the time I was born, equality between the sexes was always regarded as normal and desirable, even something protected by law. My grandmothers sit stiffly and solemnly in their photographs, their misshapen feet so remote from me they seem unreal: I can hardly believe we belong to the same century. I once asked, with some curiosity, an old teacher who remained single all her life: was celibacy also fashionable in your day? She looked at me kindly and replied: that didn’t occur to me; I simply realized that most of the married women around me were unhappy. Even this scene is now so eroded by time that its memory is blurred. In her article "Thoughts on March 8," Ding Ling once argued for improving the social position of women, warning against the persistence of male domination in the early years of a proletarian regime. 1 Those disputes have since melted away. It was on the ground prepared by the submission, sacrifice, and struggle of several generations of women that we grew up.

I lived in this society of gender equality in innocence, and even ignorance. In the classroom we drew "38th Parallels" 2 on our desks to mark a clear boundary with the boys who shared them with us. That was how the buds of adolescence swelled. At work, women performed the same tasks and received the same wages as men; they were proud they were not judged inferior. In the family, because they were economically independent, they were on an equal footing with men. Where I live, in Shanghai, husbands are affectionately regarded as henpecked. An equality attained so easily brings its own illusions, obscuring the reality of women’s lives in a relatively backward economic setting. Women paid a double price for their external equality: they were overworked in their manual labour, and obliged to repress their identities as women. In the absence of any challenge in this placid environment, gender equality — won by the tenacious struggle of several generations of women — gradually became deformed, tending to suppress gender difference. I, however, was in luck again.

With the eighties came an ideological emancipation that brought various philosophical trends to us, bearing the fruits of centuries of thought. Starting as a writer at that time, I was lucky enough to benefit from them. I had the chance and means to reconsider gender relations. Many new issues perplexed me. Are there natural differences between the sexes? If they exist, to what extent has society modified them? Is respect for such differences, or elimination of them, more in keeping with our humanity? All these questions and more were endlessly debated over the next twenty years, and conclusions were hard to reach. But doors and windows were opened on ideas that had long been imprisoned, and fresh air flowed in, giving them new energy. Thinking was restored to health. That was a more dynamic period, the vigour of which resonated with my desire for freedom and growth. For a woman writer, it was especially favourable. I was not only able to observe the world as any man might; I had a further perspective on it, as a woman, from an angle that made it clear men and women were not yet truly equal. To some measure, women were still dissociated from the centre of society, wandering in its margins.

This was a time when we joined the worldwide revolutionary community of women. That was like a great festival. In 1994, I went to Melbourne for the Sixth World Exhibition of Women’s Books. It was a female carnival. At the opening ceremony, a male Australian official was allowed to give a speech by the organizing committee, as a financial sponsor of the occasion. He was barely able to finish his first sentence before he was shushed and driven away by hoots from the audience, who stared at each other with surprise: what was he there for? That was a merry scene, but there was something bathetic about it. Women were to celebrate their sweeping successes at an evening party where no man could be present. But after the party, wouldn’t we have to return to our respective lives and face the world together with men again?

At such international conferences, the relationship between the sexes is detached from its social and historical contexts. Its forms become abstract, its circumstances vague, the understanding of it parochial. The inequality in gender relations is abstracted from them, and then reinforced as a simplified confrontation, expanding and submerging every aspect of existence. But my luck still held good.

This time I should particularly thank the world around me. Resisting radical change, reality enjoins us to wise up and face our circumstances. Time flies, and a new century has started. All we see around us is new. Women who used to be plain and modest are now radiant and enchanting. The rediscovery of gender has enriched human nature and confirmed the values of the individual. Onto this lovely stage, women step forth with grace and confidence — a splendid scene indeed. But trouble is where fortune prospers, and fortune where trouble prospers. 3 Making themselves so spirited and vivacious, women slip into the era of the market economy unawares. The fruits of their new-found theory and practice are traded more or less as objects of consumption. Advertisements for every kind of commodity restore the tradition that "women make themselves pretty for those who love them." Newspaper supplements and columnists expose their private lives to the public. With skilful strokes, women writers too, create apparitions of their sex that can also be enjoyed by men. Above and beyond this market, there is a further consumer power — the world’s hegemonic culture. As China is gradually globalized, the inequality its women suffer is redoubled.

As a woman writer from the Third World, I cannot escape what I hear, see and experience. Circumstances, ever more pressing, drive my thoughts forward, never letting them stop or idle. New topics stir my emotions and force me to learn and to understand. They save me from the callousness of this materialistic time and its quiet paralysis. I can remain anxious and ardent, maintaining my writerly energies. I feel grateful to have lived through a half century that allowed me to grow up freely and happily, then opened my mind, and finally forced me to face our present difficulties. I try to express that gratitude in my work as a writer, searching for the words, at least, of a better world. The title of my essay comes from The Odes: "A peach was presented me / I returned a fine jade." The poem has three stanzas, each ending with the same refrain: "Not in exchange / but that our friendship might last." That conveys something of my hope for this existence.

Shanghai, November 9, 2002

For Whom the Bell Tolls

When TV news reports that another criminal gang has been sentenced, when the camera scans one young, indifferent face after another, how often do we think about the circumstances in which they lived, and or where they came from?

A reportage, "Youth: The Proximity of Heaven and Hell," published in four instalments in the Shanghai magazine Shoots, reveals some of these people’s hidden stories.

Its principal figure was born in 1973 and lived in Panhuang, a rural town in Yancheng County, Jiangsu Province. Although the town apparently has a long history, it has been in gradual decline, perhaps since the economic centre of the area moved to Yancheng. Its main street is some 500 yards long, running from east to west, connecting at its western end with a road, regarded as a new street, running from north to south. A national highway passes the town’s perimeter at a tangent. Yet this ancient, decaying town has more than twenty dance halls. We learn that the drying-ground of the Staple Foods Control Office may serve as an outdoor dance-floor, kindergartens become ballrooms in the evening, and the dining halls of certain work-units can also be converted into dance halls. Evening after evening would seem to be filled with revelry, yet this is also a lonely place. One might think of Macondo, and the tumult in its seclusion. Modernity hovers over the town like an iridescent cloud, but its life remains unaltered.

Young people here belong to a generation that has grown up since the Open Door policy came into effect. The consequences of a laissez-faire economy are all around them: small factories, started in haste, swallow up farmland; surplus labour streams from the countryside into the cities; the urban population increases; the job market becomes more and more competitive. In a letter to a girlfriend, the central character of the story described his future perilously: "There is no need to say anything. Now I only want to come top in the High School Entrance Exams. If I don’t get good grades, I won’t be able to go to a good college. If I don’t have a college degree, I won’t find a good job."

Prospects are limited; for a young man from the rural interior, especially so. But now human nature is to an unprecedented degree liberated, and personal desire upheld by opportune theories of individualism, spurning traditional morality. In his diary, the protagonist noted his principle for choosing a wife: "I need another kind of woman — the sort that can support Julien’s attempts to enter politics financially, and help a husband to meteoric success and fame." This lad of little experience and meagre knowledge may not have actually read Le Rouge et le Noir, or had much notion of what individualism was, but he had no difficulty setting himself this goal all the same. 4 A youth caught in a contradiction of this sort — engrossed by fantasies of freedom, and trapped by limitations of choice — is at serious risk.

Such situations have a deceptive sheen of modernity. The shrinkage of farmland, expansion of cities, bustle and disorder of markets, create a mirage of metropolitan life. When the protagonist failed the college entrance exam, he gave up his original ambition and entered society. Unexpectedly, he found he could dabble in different kinds of jobs. Each lasted only a short time, but when he lost one, he readily found another. Life was hard and insecure, yet he assumed great airs. He wrote to his girlfriend: "Although the world is wide, there is no niche for me . . . I need to wait, and until the right opportunity comes, grin and bear it . . . I have always wanted to recover my self, and to pursue my own positive way of life." How would such an opportunity come? People no longer believe in low-efficiency labour based on the notion, "no pain, no gain." Everyone feels pressed by time. Though he said he had to, he was too impatient to wait. Drinking with his companions, he told them: "There’s something I can’t understand. Those who live in villas, own cars, and dally with women aren’t smarter than us. If we’re not inferior to them, why shouldn’t we rise high too?" They replied: "Why not? If we had money, we could buy anything." Question and answer were equally stupid and conceited. They decided to go south, saying: "People below the Yangtze live happily, and are afraid to die. We can use this weakness to get money from them." This plan was also stupid and conceited, and sounds like a dream. But when myths of the upstart abound, any dream may pass for reality to anyone who has the bravery to act on it. Matter of means would be ignored. There were no longer any moral codes to bind them.

This ancient town turned out to be rather open in personal matters. The impact of the Reform Era seems to have broken through many a fortress of private life, where individuals had the most independence to operate. Production might be backward, people still at the mercy of the elements, life impoverished, education scant, competition fierce, and basic gender relations fixed by tradition: when they grow up, all men and women should marry — but sexual conventions had shaken off the old shackles, advancing ahead of all other matters. Such a situation was very dangerous, especially for girls, who lost their customary protection and now had to wrestle with their fate unaided. Often they staked everything on a single throw — sex. But they dressed up their gambles with a shimmering rhetoric of modernity. They were adept at turning expressions of sentimental longing, in letters worthy of any soap-opera heroine. Calling our hero "prince," in a highly westernized style, they wrote of sexual intercourse as "stealing the forbidden fruit." But behind such flights of fancy, reminiscent of campus romances from Hong Kong and Taiwan, lay the relentless demands of their actual lives.

Between the lines of these dreamy incessant whispers of love, the existential realities of these girls peep through. Yuting, probably the most rational among them, withdrew from the battlefield of competition for the prince, consoling herself with the role of a "spiritual lover." Expressing her feelings in the idiom of a pop song, she wrote: "I so want to be your good girl, forever, and you to be my big tall brother." But in another letter, she describes the flooding of her home village in plain language. All the cotton fields were swamped, houses were collapsing, chickens at risk, and though her father was ageing, her second elder brother still lacked the money to marry. The anxiety she betrays is more authentic than her love.

Even love had its practical side. We read that "in places like Yancheng County High, while students were surreptitiously exchanging notes or dating 'underground,' their parents were openly visiting each other to make new connexions ahead of the marriage of their children." Once mentalities had adjusted, peasant families could derive tangible benefits from freer love among adolescents. The boys’ families could perhaps save the cost of betrothal gifts; the girls’ families could hope for the addition of another labourer, or half of one, to the household. It is unlikely the young were completely unaware of such calculations. They naturally welcomed this new version of old customs, which lent a fashionable aura to their youth. But they would have sensed the pragmatic significance of the romantic forms. Zhou Li, for example, unlike other girls who indulged in daydreaming, made up her mind early on to settle the main affair of life — getting married. She had precise goals and was decisive in action. When the moment of crisis arrived, she revealed her uncommon potential. Adopting a severe tone and a stern expression, she reported the "prince" to the school authorities, and he was expelled.

The boy had grown up in this ancient rural town filled with illusions of modernity. He was one of the numerous children of an ill-starred, unstable, destitute family. We are told that his parents were sent to border regions when they were young, and only moved back to their home county when he was five. By then they would have been regarded at least in part, if not wholly, as outsiders. Their social status must have been low, their financial resources few. When he boarded in high school, he was almost always starving. In these difficulties, the affections of girls would have seemed a luxury. He regarded a college education as the key to escaping from his plight, so he studied hard and got excellent grades. To his satisfaction, he was admitted by Geling High School, which is regarded as inferior only to the key-point schools at provincial level. Even after he was expelled from it, he made earnest the plans to complete the rest of the high school curriculum by himself and pass the college entrance exam.

He knew, of course, that he now had to concentrate on improving his situation, but that did not deter him from continuing to accept feminine attentions. Like a stranded fish thrown back into the water, he readily flirted with girls, enjoyed their romantic affections, and accepted their presents with good measure. What is most surprising was his ability to keep his head through all this, like a man whose shoes are never damp, however often he walks along a riverbank. He never let himself be trapped. In his diary, he wrote that his way of attracting girls was "to show affection to many, but never focus on one." Of course, he wished to find a wife who could help him rocket to success and fame. But a wish is only a wish. It must have taken quite some effort and skill to remain so nonchalant. A boy making his debut in society, he acted more like an experienced swindler, impervious to any emotional attack.

When he failed to get into college, he started to drift. The jobs he found he soon lost, partly because times were hard, but also because he was wilful, lazy, and undisciplined. But in his eyes the fault lay with others, and he had a thousand resounding reasons to denounce society. Pouring out his grievances in a letter to a girlfriend, he wrote: "Many people take me for a gullible weakling and treat me roughly." He also noted indignantly in his diary: "Girls possess a treasure. It is neither a permit nor cash, but with it they can go anywhere they want. Eating, drinking, playing, they make merry and sleep with pleasure. But what do men have?" To make their mark, he and his companions went south of the Yangtze River in search of money. During the time of their assaults, only one among them could not endure what they were doing and quit. The others never wavered. They were tidy, and made quite careful plans. Not even once did they fail. After they had killed eleven people, they were sent to the guillotine.

Illusions of modernity created excessive expectations; cruel realities constrained the actual existence of these young men; their unrestrained imaginations gave birth to egotism. The three forces were expanding into each other. Unchecked, they eventually led to tragedy. They, who came from an isolated interior, could not see their part in the bigger picture. We remain a developing country in a global economic system. Surplus capital has flowed into China from all over the world, disturbing a land that for two thousand years relied on sowing and harvesting once a year. Young people assumed that this new development in the economy would bring them progress and happiness.

Shanghai, July 1, 1998

Translated by Gao Jin


1. Ding Ling (1904–1985), leading woman novelist from the late 1920s onwards, who put gender questions at the centre of her writing. "Thoughts on March 8" (Sanbajie you gan) was written when she was a CCP cadre in Yan’an in 1941. See I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling, Tani Barlow with Gary Bjorge, eds, Boston 1989, pp. 316–321 [ed].

2. A term popular among pupils of elementary school in the fifties and early sixties. It refers to the demilitarization line between the two Koreas at 38 degrees of north latitude, indicating a determination to brook no reconciliation. [ed]

3. Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching, Hong Kong 1989, p. 85: translation modified [ed].

4. Both Stendhal’s novel and — especially — a French film version of it became popular in China in the mid-1980s. When commercialization brought many changes to society, the story and its protagonists became frequent metaphors for writers and columnists throughout the 1990s. Hence the boy may not really have read the novel itself [ed].

Filed under: china, feminism, weekend-read