Chinese takeaways, Anne French

Ding Xiaoqi
Otago University Press, $24.95

The Chinese Interpreter
James Norcliffe
Hazard Press, $24.95

Burning Boats: seventeen New Zealand short stories
Owen Marshall (ed)
Longman Paul, $19.95

We’ve all become experts on China in the past year or two, with our dog‑eared copies of Wild Swans and The Joy Luck Club to guide us. It takes a writer with the stature of Ding Xiaoqi to show us what we don’t in fact know and can only incompletely understand. Born in 1959, she has already lived through the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre and now lives in Australia. She has written songs, poetry, film‑scripts and plays, as well as short stories, and won many awards in China before the change of climate after Tiananmen Square put her under such pressure from the authorities that she felt she had to leave. Since she has been in Australia two of her plays have been produced, one has received an award from the Australia Council and this collection of translations has been published, drawing on stories from her first two books, with one new story at the end.

Although it may be dangerous to rely on fiction for a view of another culture (what would a Chinese reliably learn of us, for instance, from a translation of The Bone People or Intensive Care?) it is hard to resist the temptation. Indeed, the book’s foreword and the critical essay by one of Ding’s translators explicitly invite us to do so. Furthermore, “given the very particular immediate literary conventions, the taboo area that marks radical departures in these stories is the very terrain to which Western women have been confined, the sphere of …. emotional life …” (as Sneja Gunew explains helpfully). That is, while Ding’s evocation of the inner life of her women characters is familiar territory to us, it is partly this that makes her work controversial in China ‑ although whether it is offensive in itself or because of its actual or supposed reliance on Western models is unclear to me.

Even though I knew I didn’t know much about China, I found the social world revealed by these stories hugely unfamiliar. The protagonist of the title story, a nurse in an army hospital, is 30 and, having dedicated her life to duty, now finds herself stigmatised as an old maid. Emotional connections with other sin her life are few: a boy she grew up with whom she hasn’t seen since she left home to train at the age of 14, a patient she was once attracted to whose letter she was never bold enough to answer. In desperation she accepts the first offer concocted by her matchmaking friends, only to plunge into despair when she finds she has married in haste an unattractive stranger. Her experience of life is confined to the popular songs she has written down into her secret notebook and she longs for love like a soppy teenager. Her achievement, at the end of the story, is to recognise that “she didn’t need anyone right now, not even Commissar Lu or Menghong; she wanted to figure out how to handle her affairs alone.”

In “Indica Indica” a young country girl is sold by her parents as a bride but only dimly understands what it means to be living with the family of her husband and feels both sad and guilty at the way her life has turned out. This story caused trouble for Ding, though not for its explicit description of bride purchase, a practice that was supposed to have ended after 1949, but as “pornography” (because a male character looks down the front of the bride’s shirt). Detecting such nuances unaided is probably beyond us (I have relied on the critical essay) but Ding’s familiarity with decadent Western literature helps to bridge the gap.

“The Other Woman”, one of the technically more complex stories in the book, about an affair between a young playwright and an older married writer, has won itself a huge following in China. After the journal in which it was published had sold out women students made their own transcriptions and passed them around. The subject matter is highly conventional in our terms but evidently it was Ding’s lack of censure of her wilful and therefore immoral protagonist that made it notorious in China. Perhaps ultimately it is not the strangeness of the settings that makes her work seem so foreign as its depiction of the unimaginable womanly obedience central to confucian values in story after story. Keke, the “other woman”, is one of China’s modern women. She rejects marriage in favour of clandestine sex with her lover and refuses to give in to pressure over the staging of her play, yet she is as confused as a Joanna Trollope heroine when she visits her lover’s flat and meets his wife, laid up in bed after an abortion. “She left him lightfooted and unburdened. She didn’t know what lay ahead or what was behind her.”

After the real thing, James Norcliffe’s stories of China are attractive fakes. Norcliffe spent three semesters teaching at Nankai University, Tianjin, between 1986 and 1988, and has produced a collection of stories with both Chinese and Western protagonists. The best of the former is probably “The Kite”, a morning in the life of an old man with Alzheimer’s, and the best of the latter is “Donkey’s Years” about a Western woman’s encounter with Chinese crowd throwing stones at a dwarf. Norcliffe is much better when it comes to writing about China through western eyes, not surprisingly. Some of his characters have come out of the standard assortment (elderly American tourists, middle-aged Italian businessman, sweet little Chinese interpreter) but Salazar, the American academic in “Holden’s Red Hunting Cap” is a cracker.

Longman Paul had the bright idea of asking Owen Marshall to edit an anthology of stories for schools, Burning Boats comes complete with questions on each story by Marshall and illuminating notes on themselves and their story by the authors. Marshall’s selection of stories is excellent ‑ certainly not to be relegated to the classroom.

Anne French is a fulltime writer and editor. Last year she was Massey University’s inaugural writer in residence.

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