Wang Anyi’s career coincides with an important historical juncture in contemporary Chinese literature. Prior to the death of Mao Zedong and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Chinese writers were required to play a subservient role and serve the immediate interests of the government. After the introduction of the economic reform in 1978, however, a relatively ameliorated environment allowed writers to pursue authentic and diversified means of expression with a certain amount of liberty. Wang is one of the young writers who seized such an opportunity. Although she once regarded herself as independent of literary movements, she admits that she has benefitted from trends such as the Literature of Wound, the Literature of Transvaluation, the Literature in Search of Roots, and the Quest for Urban Awareness. These tendencies are evident in her works, but her style is peculiarly her own, and in the end, they also culminate in a uniquely lyrical form of humanistic expression.
“And the Rain Patters On”
Representative of Wang’s short stories is “And the Rain Patters On,” which is reminiscent of the Literature of Wound, a groundbreaking literary trend that has as its theme the injuries, injustices, sufferings, and aftermaths of the Cultural Revolution. In this story, meticulously crafted from lyrical flashbacks, symbols, and motifs, Wenwen, a woman sent to the countryside as an “educated youth,” returns to Shanghai and finds herself to be a spinster and out of place in a world being transformed by modernity. Unable to catch up with the latest fashions, she finds romance to be elusive. While her family has been trying to arrange for her to meet and date a marriageable man (Xiao Yan), she dreamily yearns for a relationship that would somehow be different. One rainy night, after missing the last bus home, she is given a ride on a bike by a man about whom she feels ambivalent. The man is simply an ordinary good Samaritan who happened to pass by, but Wenwen is touched by his casual remark about the beauty of street lamps in the rain and by his account about his having been saved by another good Samaritan. She begins to hope and even trust that she will run into this stranger again. Claiming that she has found a boyfriend, Wenwen rejects Xiao Yan, though to the chagrin of her family it is clear that she is simply daydreaming. Toward the end of the story, the narrator asserts that there are many pleasures in life, and dreaming is one of them; one has to insist on believing that dreams will come true, or else life would be unbearable. Encouraging and disturbing at the same time, this message exemplifies the tensions between the ideal and the real, and the conflicts between the inner life and the outer world. “And the Rain Patters On” also typifies Wang’s persistent efforts in juxtaposing idealistic yearnings and realistic pressures, combining these opposites into a new humanism through lyrical expression and psychological representation.
Such efforts can be found in most of the short stories in Lapse of Time—for example, in “Destination.” In this award-winning piece, because of the mundane pressures of life in Shanghai, Chen Xin is confronted with his family’s suggestion that he arrange to marry any woman who has a room to offer as dowry. Realizing, however, that “ahead of him there would be another ten, twenty, and thirty years” and that “he must give his future some serious thought,” Chen Xin refuses to compromise and is embroiled in a familial conflict, which is left unresolved at the end of the story. In spite of this conflict, however, the story contains an important touch of humanism as the family, fearing that he may commit suicide, comes searching for him after he has disappeared into the streets for the entire night after a quarrel. Finally, Chen Xin is described as being reconciled to the thought that he will be in search of his true destination—a paradox typical of Wang Anyi’s fiction in that her protagonists are deprived materialistically and yet remain spiritually unvanquished.
“The Base of the Wall”
Whether consciously or otherwise, in many of her stories Wang’s new humanism focuses on the pervasive phenomenon of alienation under the socialist regime, though in an existential manner she decides that her protagonists are capable of rising or staying above the mire. For example, in one of her most triumphant stories, “The Base of the Wall,” A’nian (son of a working-class family)—chooses to befriend and assist Duxing (daughter of a supposedly antireactionary family from the other side of the broken wall) after he has had a glimpse, through a diary that he has stolen, into the inner life of the sensitive, intelligent, and ostracized “class enemy” whom he and the other kids used to abuse. By eliminating the bigotry from the children of his own neighborhood and by bringing children from both sides of the wall closer to one another, A’nian has dismantled the barrier arbitrarily set up to pit one part of humanity against another.
Lapse of Time
All the above themes—tensions between the ideal and the real, conflicts between the inner life and the outer world, the paradox between spirituality and materiality, the triumph of humanism over alienation under socialism—are explored to a fuller extent in Lapse of Time. The novella is a series of sketches chronicling the awakening, growth, and transformation of a housewife during the Cultural Revolution. Duanli, a college graduate, is married to Wenyao, the son of a Shanghai businessman. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the properties of the family are seized by the Red Guards. Wenyao is a superfluous man incapable of meeting the new challenges of life; his brother, Wenguang, for fear of being implicated, distances himself from his father. The responsibility of caring for the family of nine falls on the shoulders of Duanli, who finds it difficult to cope with poverty. No longer a “bourgeois lady of the house,” she learns the meaning of life anew, starting from the basics of survival. Gradually, Duanli has in effect become the “guardian” of the household. Upon restitution and the return of the family properties after the Cultural Revolution, fortune again seems to smile on the family, and everyone feels complacent and justified in demanding a better life to make up for the losses of the fateful decade. Duanli, who has become a practical person, feels the same and quits working, but after two years of tiresome and unauthentic social life, she is troubled by the loss of her sense of vitality previously gained from the fateful decade. In the end, she decides to resume her job at the factory, not only to fight boredom but also to continue with her search for the meaning of life and to prevent life from lapsing into oblivion. Full of details about quotidian struggles and the sordid nature of life in contemporary China, the novella most likely will pluck at the heartstrings of millions of readers who, having emerged from a decade of hardships, find themselves entrenched in a whole series of struggles not only to achieve a better economic life but also to establish a significance for themselves.
Whereas Lapse of Time enlarges on urban consciousness as a condition for the definition of humanity in an alienated...
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