(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Zhang Jie writes on a variety of themes and subjects, ranging from the national political and economic reform to an individual’s daily problem (such as Professor Meng’s obsession with finding a bathroom abroad), from an unmarried girl’s idealistic pursuit to a divorced woman’s alienation and hard struggle, and from doctors’ housing problems to intellectuals’ vicissitudes. Her short fiction, written in a vigorous, fresh, romantic style, can be divided into three groups: feminist stories, social stories, and fabulous animal stories.

Love Must Not Be Forgotten

“Ai, shi buneng wangj de” (“Love Must Not Be Forgotten”) and the novellas “Zum lu” (“Emerald”) and “Fangzhou” (“The Ark”) represent the best in the first group. “Love Must Not Be Forgotten” portrays a thirty-year-old woman who wonders whether she should accept a marriage proposal. Like Ding Ling’s Sofia, in her “The Diary of Miss Sophia,” the protagonist finds her tall, handsome suitor to be a philistine who lacks spiritual substance and intelligence. Encouraged by the example of her mother, a widow who has lived all of her life in platonic love with an ideal man who has married another woman out of moral responsibility, she decides to remain single rather than waste her life in a loveless marriage. Although Zhang emphasizes love above all else in the story, she has said that “it is not a love story, but one that investigates a sociological problem.” In the light of Chinese society by the end of the 1970’s, the story obviously protests discrimination against “old women”—that is, either women from the countryside who return there “educated” or professional women who fail to find men whom they can admire. To Zhang, love is actually the spiritual and creative pursuit of the self. By insisting on love, she strongly rejects the increasing commercialism and demoralization of Chinese society. As a feminist story, “Love Must Not Be Forgotten” explores the female tradition through the mother-daughter relationship and advocates female autonomy by setting women free from marriage-bound traditional life. Zhang is brave enough to declare in the story that “a solitary existence” may manifest a “progress in different aspects of social life such as culture, education and taste.”

“Emerald” further creates the image of a strong single woman. The story involves two women’s sacrifices for one incompetent man named Zuowei. When Linger is in college, she falls in love with Zuowei. She nurses him when he suffers tuberculosis, helps him catch up in his studies, rescues him from a whirlpool, and serves as his scapegoat in his political crisis. When Linger is labeled a rightist and is sent to reform in a remote area, however, Zuowei abandons her and marries Beihe. Linger has an illegitimate son by Zuowei, and, in spite of humiliation and ostracism, she bravely brings him up in the role of father-mother. Although Beihe has a so-called happy marriage, her husband weighs upon her like a burden. The story begins with Beihe’s scheming to make use of Linger, a brilliant mathematician, to support her husband as a newly promoted head of a computer research group; it ends with Linger’s agreement to join the group, not as a sacrificial act for any man, but for the needs of society as well as for her own self-fulfillment. As a result of being abandoned twenty-five years earlier, Linger remains active and intellectually keen, whereas Beihe is dragged down by a dull married life. In spite of Beihe’s realization of the slave/master relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, there seems to be no escape for her. Through the characterization of Linger, Zhang further stresses the correlation between female self-fulfillment and liberation from marital bondage.

“The Ark” exposes prejudices against women at all levels of leadership, especially man-created obstacles such as political discrimination against, and sexual harassment of, single women. The story portrays a community of spinsters and divorcées who struggle desperately for equality with men in work, human respect, and professional advancement. Not even one man appears to be free from patriarchal influence. The only hope is pinned on a little boy who lives in the community of women and shares their feelings and language.

Although Zhang wrote these three stories separately, they become particularly significant when viewed together. Through her use of an eccentric, idealistic mother who passes the message of life to her daughter, Zhang shows how an individual woman can achieve autonomy by flouting social codes. By using two boats to embody women running on opposite life tracks, Zhang breaks through the traditional jealous relationship between two women in love with one man to achieve a mutual understanding and a new female consciousness. By employing the image of the ark to represent the women’s community, she demonstrates how female collective power, drawn from women’s shared suffering, is needed to confront the combined patriarchal forces and transform the existing society.

“What’s Wrong with Him?”

“What’s Wrong with Him?,” “The...

(The entire section is 2126 words.)