Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2126
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’...
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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 Other World,” and “Today’s Agenda” are Zhang stories on social subjects. The title of the first story should have been “What’s Wrong with Her?,” “What’s Wrong with Them?,” “What’s Wrong with Me?,” and ultimately “What’s Wrong with the Society?” Unlike her earlier stories, Zhang here discards the conventions of narrative strategies. The story contains no unifying plot, chronological order, or psychological details. What links all characters and phenomena together are the theme of madness and the space of a mental hospital. The pervasiveness of madness reminds the reader of Lu Xun’s “K’uang-jên jih-chi” (“The Diary of a Madman”). Unlike Lu Xun’s madness, however, which is Kafkaesque paranoia caused by fear of persecution, Zhang’s madness is schizophrenia, developed from repression of perversion or violence. Repressing his rage at the authority’s corruption, Grandpa Ding turns to burning a tract of cotton that he has grown and becomes a Peeping Tom. Driven by insomnia and political discrimination, Doctor Hou Yufeng engages himself in a bloody fight with his roommate, a young carpenter, and finds his freedom only in becoming a madman. In order to get a decent room for receiving his foreign friends, a doctor in an eight-square-meter cell dreams day and night of a larger room. Finally, he finds three big rooms in his imagination and goes to the leadership to offer his two imaginary rooms for those in extreme want of housing.
This world of madness is patriarchal. Though women are not Zhang’s sole concern, the exposure of sexual discrimination pervades the story. She perceives that men want to marry not women but vaginal membranes and that men call any woman of independent thought “neurotic.” A sexually objectified woman is passed like a ball from an ex-convict to a thief, to a rogue, then to a nameless ugly man. The specter of the victim leads her mad daughter to rape the father.
To heighten the madness, Zhang adopts violent verbal expressions, weird imagination, and stylistic fragmentation. For all these features, her self-image of a “witch” is recognized by Chinese critics. Xu Wenyu actually pictures her as a witch spitting incantations and says that “there must be something wrong with her.” The author is indeed mad; her madness lies in her unscrupulous power to snap off the evil of socialist China and penetrate into its dark consciousness.
“The Other World”
“The Other World” is a humorous satire reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881), only more savage and absurd. The protagonist, Rong Changlan, is an unknown painter. When his talent is discovered by a foreigner and he is invited to go abroad, he is showered with overwhelming attention from politicians, writers, painters, reporters, and women. Because of Yi Yang, a conventional painter, Rong’s authorization to go abroad is revoked, and he suddenly becomes a nobody again. Upon returning to the country, he finds countless lice and their eggs in the seams and throughout the fibers of his clothes, which obviously stand for corruption, nepotism, and hypocrisy at large in Chinese society.
When reading “The Other World,” one is completely unaware of its narrator. In the absence of a narrator, irony functions as the most effective weapon. Yi Yang appears as the most ardent supporter of young artists such as Rong Changlan. Knowing that Rong cannot drink, Yi Yang offers him one drink after another until Rong gets drunk, barking at the dinner table like a dog. Consequently, Mrs. Hassen revokes her invitation to Rong because of his deceptive (Rong had told her that he does not drink) and barbarous behavior. Comrade Ke, the Party authority of the International Cultural Exchange who first insisted on accompanying Rong abroad, now imposes on Mrs. Hassen a delegation of three—Ke, Ke’s son, and Yi Yang.
Another melodramatic device in the story is Zhang’s use of comic-strip characters. Through this device, Zhang lashes out most fiercely at conventional women. Unlike her other stories, “The Other World” contains not even one positive image of women throughout the whole farce. Women writers and reporters, in order to go abroad by marrying Rong, fight bloodily. More absurd, a woman who calls herself Yu Ping comes to the hotel to force Rong to admit that he is the father of her illegitimate child. When the woman is challenged, she suffers an epileptic seizure.
The title of the story “The Other World” is particularly significant. The city, full of corruption and absurdity, is the other world to Rong Changlan. He is fooled by this world and finds his freedom again upon his abandonment by the city. In Zhang’s view, Rong Changlan is an artist with a soul. His painting A Ruined Pagoda reminds the reader of T. S. Eliot’s vision of the wasteland. Europe, which could have been the other world of artistic inspiration for artists such as Rong Changlan, is abused as the other world that only spurs Chinese selfishness and political corruption. To some extent, the story is also a caricature of the demoralized China, following its open-door policy.
“Today’s Agenda” is a satirical story against bureaucracy. Jia Yunshan, the bureau chief, cannot have breakfast because of the irresponsibility of the Water Bureau. When he drops dead at his routine meeting, readers learn that the day’s agenda concerned the building of a new block of flats for high-ranking intellectuals and the tracing of a robbery case that took place during the Cultural Revolution. After tedious trivial arguments over Jia’s funeral expense and fighting for the position left by the dead man, the new cabinet continues to dwell on the old questions. The old agenda of the bereau remains forever today’s agenda. In this story, Zhang uses a repetitive narrative structure to echo its thematic monotony and tediousness. Although it is a good story, probing problems in the process of China’s industrial reform, for a more artistic and insightful treatment of the subject one must read her novel Heavy Wings.
“Nobby’s Run of Luck” and “Something Else”
Among Zhang Jie’s fabulous tales, “Nobby’s Run of Luck” and “Something Else” are the most significant. The former portrays the life of Nobby, a prodigious circus dog. Nobby not only can do arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry but also has all the noble qualities: He remains a bachelor in order to devote all of his energy to the circus show, he is never arrogant and domineering, and he shares any extra food with his colleagues. Yet when Nobby loses his mathematical brilliance as a result of constant political slandering, he is kicked around. He suffers from insomnia and eventually finds consolation in the majestic scene of the sea and the waves. The story ends with Nobby swimming into the ocean, in spite of the calling of love from Feiffer, a female dog. The reader is left to ponder whether Nobby drowns himself or commits a symbolic action to submerge into the world of nature and imagination.
“Something Else” is the story of a cat and his master, a bully. The cat is fed the heads and tails of fish eaten by the master and is beaten and kicked at the master’s will. Even so, the cat thinks that he should stay with the master and be content, because the neighbor is rumored to eat cats and because the grass is not always greener on the other side.
These two well-written fables are also political satires. Nobby’s luck can be everybody’s fate, particularly that of an intellectual in China, while the cat’s philosophy reveals an enslaved psychology and a conservatism that hold back the nation from rebelling against its tyranny and catching up with the Western world.