The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi (Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, trans.). Columbia University Press. 440pp, $29.95.
The translation into English of Wang Anyi’s 1996 novel, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, marks an important development in the way most literary Westerners, particularly Americans, view China. For many years now, translation of modern Chinese literature by most American publishing houses has been focused on works banned by the Chinese government, as if that distinction alone proved literary merit. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some excellent banned books introduced to English-speaking readers over the past generation (by such writers as Gao Xingjian, Wang Shuo, Jiang Rong, Ma Jian), but many novels and essays written by those who don’t necessarily have an antagonistic relationship with the Chinese authorities have long been untranslated, implying that to be a writer in China necessarily means opening oneself up to criticism, political persecution, and censorship.
Artists in every culture push the limit, but in China, “incorrect” criticism of society can land one in political hot water. How does an artist know what is the correct way to criticize the Communist Party in China? The authorities react against someone who has gone too far, for instance, unearthing a corrupt Communist Party official, or questioning the use of government funds meant for public projects. Knowing how far to extend criticism is a numbingly complex job, a dangerous dance that the artist (and journalist) in China is constantly learning.
But there are many other, less obvious, ways to criticize. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi’s most well-known novel, does not, on the surface, challenge the authority or rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The novel tells the story of Wang Qiyao, a minor celebrity of the pre-1949 Shanghai elite, whose brief brush with fame changes the force and trajectory of her life. The novel is divided into three parts, each one representing a “break” historically and politically in the changing course of the Chinese nation. Part I chronicles our heroine’s brief moment in the limelight, her doomed love affair with a powerful government official, and the two girlhood friends who will set the tone for how Qiyao will conduct her friendships throughout her adulthood. Part II tells of Qiyao’s life during the long, quiet years of closed Communist rule, when Shanghai’s decadence was shuttered away, the lights dimmed. Part III starts after the Cultural Revolution and we see an aged Qiyao, surviving through China’s dizzying economic growth and the massive changes to the nature of Chinese society.
If Chinese history is typically written by men focused on large ideas, other men, and battles and war, then Wang informs us early on that her story will focus on the minutiae of life that is left in the margins of the male-dominated “large” history. She starts her novel with a riff on gossip and how it travels through Shanghai’s traditional housing units, the longtang:
Gossip is never cynical; even if the thing in question is nothing but empty rumors, the utmost care is still put into their creation. Baseless and unreliable as these rumors may be, they are not without a certain warmth of feeling. They mind their own business; whatever others may say, they will stick to their version—to them even settled opinions are taken under advisement. It is not that gossip takes a different political view, but that it does not take any political view; in fact, it lacks the most basic knowledge about politics.
Gossip, we are told, is the apolitical maneuverings of the sphere of women, but for Wang history happens in the everyday life of the longtang. Rumors play a significant part in Qiyao’s unwilling education in how to lead an independent life. Throughout the novel, Wang only hints at a larger history, suggesting it in details like the covert mahjong playing in Qiyao’s apartment after (what the Chinese call) the liberation of 1949. And it is through her relationships with women, their gossip and rumor mills, that we get a glimpse into how gossip becomes a form of power that can determine and delineate women’s lives.
The heroine of Wang’s book is a typical Shanghai girl in every way. She is pretty, but not overly so. She is neither rich nor poor. Abandoning her family early on in favor of her cyclical friendships with women who vie for her attention, Qiyao is both admired and loathed by her own gender, while men want and fear her. In a brilliant technique that Wang repeats throughout the book, characters are “copied,” offering foils not of the protagonist herself but of the supporting characters that drive the conflict in the novel. This gives a sense of the struggles, the complex relationships that women have with one another in this world: part rivals, part friends, part sisters, part enemies—each of Qiyao’s relationships contain a myriad of complex contradictions, and each is a catalyst that forces Qiyao to explore her own history as a woman of Shanghai.
Wang’s subtle criticisms of the system come into play in the structure of these “copyings.” Qiyao’s first girlhood friend, Wu Peizhen, is traded in her youth for Jiang Lili, whose complex relationship with Qiyao affects her life in fundamental ways: Lili introduces her to the film artist who will encourage her to join the Miss Shanghai pageant. Lili is also the bond that forms (and ultimately dooms) Qiyao’s relationship with Mr. Cheng, a foppish, sensitive photographer who, due to persecution, kills himself at the start of the Cultural Revolution. As Lili and Mr. Cheng cross each other, Mr. Cheng becomes victim to brutal historical forces while Lili becomes an embittered, angry, and aggressive Communist Party member whose rage and fury at the world eat away at her until she dies of cancer. Thus, the system (at least as it’s manifested in China) destroys both from the inside as well as from the outside.
Gossip offers more than subtle criticisms of this system; it shows an alternative vision of power that operates on a far different scale than that of Qiyao’s powerful lover, Director Li, a general in the Nationalist Party. In Wang’s words, rumor contrasts sharply with the government’s official knowledge, often embodied in the revolutions and political maneuverings so common in modern Chinese history.
Rumors deviate from traditional moral codes but never claim to be anti-feudal . . . they wouldn’t hesitate to pull the emperor down off his horse—not in order to install a new republic, but merely as an act of defiance. Despising revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries alike, they themselves are consistently slighted and deserted by both sides . . . they have to be content with making secret maneuvers under the cover of darkness.
It is not an alternative to Communist party rule that most interests Wang; rather, she primarily writes to explore the universal struggle of women’s power in reaction to men’s power. Though that doesn’t make Sorrow a feminist manifesto—far from it. If anything, this is a world where both women and men feel powerless: everyone lives in fear that larger forces might unexpectedly spill into private life.
Yet if Wang’s subtle attacks on the system challenge the ruling party, she redeems herself by sparing no one, not even China’s modern opening, its priming by globalization, its growth and economic might. Here Wang has more leeway to be direct:
The rush to be trendy left no time for elegance or refinement. One was driven about by a succession of waves. Speed and quantity were all that mattered now, and the result was that corners were cut and things got done in a slipshod manner and have eventually to be discarded.
Later, Qiyao feels despondent and disgusted by all the sale signs on Shanghai’s shop windows, by the filth and pollution of the Suzhou River which runs through the city, by her vapid daughter who has no historical memory of the old China. And this, perhaps, is what saves Wang’s novel from the prying and jealous eyes of the Party: its consistent lack of any alternative political ideology. Her criticisms are subtle, but they are even-handed, and this allows Wang’s competing visions of a spoiled if hopeful future and a nostalgic if troubled past to gain power and currency: there are tens of millions of readers of her novels (Sorrow in particular). Cultivating a readership remains the most effective way to criticize and challenge the system.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer and translator based in Montreal. His writing on and translations of Chinese poetry and short stories have appeared in various publications.
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