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  Beijing Scene

 

 


The Life and Literature of Zhang Jie
China's most famous female novelist Zhang Jie has just completed Without Words - an epic novel spanning the Middle Kingdom's war-torn 20th century.

Zhang Jie, one of China's most famous living writers, exudes a calm that comes from not only surviving the worst calamities of 20th century China, but transforming this suffering into sublime art.

She has just completed her magnum opus Without Words, a more than one million-character semi-autobiographical epic that spans the length and breadth of China's tragic 20th century. Critics are hailing the first installment of the four novel series as 'China's War and Peace.' Film rights to the novel have been optioned by the prestigious Forbidden City Film Studio, with renowned Mongolian-Chinese actress Siqingaowa slated to play the part of Zhang Jie.

Ten Years To Grind a Perfect Sword
Despite her casual attire - blue jeans and a simple sky-blue cashmere sweater - Zhang Jie looks every bit the Manchurian royalty she is descended from. Her large bright eyes, high chiseled cheekbones, and clear taut skin belie her age. At 64, she remains classically beautiful.

Her composure may perhaps be due to the fact that she has just completed what she deems to be the best work of her more than 20-year writing career. 'Critics debate whether my earlier books were more socially engagÄ,' Zhang says with an indulgent smile. 'But I believe that my writing has become more subtle and refined with time.'

The four-volume epic has taken a full decade to complete. She began researching in 1990, and has only just finished writing. The first volume of Without Words was published in December 1999 to critical and popular acclaim. Two more volumes will be published this year, with the final installment appearing in 2001.

Zhang Jie quotes the Chinese proverb: 'It takes ten years to grind a perfect sword,' to describe Without Words. The novel is a radical departure from her earlier writing, sometimes criticized as being overly sentimental. Without Words employs a stream-of-consciousness writing style, with place, time, and narrative voice shifting so frequently that author's notes are required to keep the reader from becoming confused.

The title of the novel derives from the classical Chinese aphorism: 'The largest shape is without border, the largest noise is without sound' (da xing wu xiang, da xi wu sheng). 'And the grandest story,' Zhang adds 'is without words.'

'Words are so inadequate to convey the epic tragedy of 20th century China,' Zhang continues quietly. 'But as an artist with a strong social conscience, I was compelled to try.'

Without Words portrays characters from all levels of society: government officials, military commanders, merchants, artisans and workers. All pursue their own ideals: riches, love, power, -isms, and at the end of their life, each one asks the simple question: Was it worth it?

'Without Words represents a radical departure from her earlier work for Zhang Jie,' comments renowned literary critic Zhou Jingbo. 'With this epic, she has really come of age as a novelist.'

From Manchuria to Machine Building
Zhang Jie has travelled a long hard road to her present serenity and success. Born in 1937 in what was then Manchuria, and is now Liaoning province, her early years were spent fleeing from the invading Japanese Imperial army. Her mother, Manchurian royalty by birth but reduced to poverty by China's perpetual war and revolt, was a primary school teacher before the Japanese invasion. She raised Zhang as a single mother, first fleeing the northeast to the hard-scrabble inland mountains of Shanxi province before settling in the south-central Chinese province of Henan.

Zhang Jie was a precocious if willful child and student. Under her mother's tutelage, Zhang absorbed China's classical Book of Songs, and the refined poetry of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. But her strongest passion was for Western literature. She consumed the complete works of Russian novelists Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Punin, and reserved a special affinity for the American humorist Mark Twain.

Zhang credits Western literature with imbuing her with the principles and ideals that she still lives by today.

'During the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution, I was criticized as being deeply poisoned by Western novels,' Zhang says. 'I secretly congratulate myself and say that if I have one iota of human feeling, if I do not move up in the world by stepping on other people, do not use others to gain advantage, it is in large part due to the influence of the humanism in classical Western literature.'

At the age of 18, Zhang entered Beijing's prestigious People's University. Despite her love of and facility for literature, she was assigned to the much more utilitarian study of command economics.

'I still regret having missed out on a diverse liberal arts education,' Zhang laments. 'That China continues to emphasize specialization over a well-rounded education remains one of the fundamental flaws of our contemporary system.'

Upon graduation in 1960, Zhang was assigned to work as a statistician in Beijing's Ministry of Machine Building. She brought her mother to live with her in the capital, and, after marrying a professional colleague, gave birth to her daughter Tang Di in 1963. Then, for the next 15 years, political storms engulfed China.

'It was one campaign after another,' Zhang derisively recounts. 'I could barely keep them straight.'

The 1964 Socialist Education Movement was followed soon after by the Cultural Revolution. In 1968 Zhang was sent to work on a prison farm in the southwestern province of Jiangxi, thousands of kilometers from her family in Beijing.

'I tended pigs, worked in rice paddies where the water came up to my hips╔my sole focus was on survival,' Zhang reflects with a visible shudder.

More difficult than the physical hardship was the four-year separation from her beloved mother and young daughter. When the worst of the political storm had subsided, Zhang was reunited with her family and resumed her government work in Beijing.

Love Must Not Be Forgotten
Following Chairman Mao's death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping's ascendancy to power on the promise of liberalization, Zhang Jie harked back to her early literary inspiration to pen the deceptively subtle novella Love Must Not Be Forgotten in 1979.

Love tells the story of one middle-aged woman's passionate but unrequited love for a married man. As a result of her mother's suffering, the disillusioned daughter-narrator challenges traditional attitudes toward marriage in modern society, and resolves to remain single despite society's disapproval.

Love Must Not Be Forgotten was criticized by remnant Maoist cultural officials for 'undermining socialist morality,' and defending love outside of marriage. But the novella proved extremely popular among young Chinese, and won a prestigious national book award. As a result Zhang left her job as an economist to become a full-time professional writer.

In 1980 she published the novel Heavy Wings, praised at the time as 'China's first political novel.' Heavy Wings takes the modernization of China's economy as its central theme. The book reflects Zhang's strongly-held views on the value of the individual, and that social and political reform should accompany economic reforms. Conservative cultural figures criticized Zhang's book as being 'Anti-Party and anti-Socialist.'

'I took strong exception to this criticism,' Zhang recalls with visible indignance. 'I believe in the ideal of Communism. My work criticized the way ideology is used to cover up corrupt feudal practices. This remains a problem today.'

Zhang's 1981 novel The Ark recounts the daily struggle for survival of three professional women separated from their husbands. At the time it was widely hailed as China's first feminist novel. But in her trademark independent style, Zhang resisted this label.

'I don't consider myself a feminist,' she says. 'My work opposes all social injustice.'

Zhang remained prolific throughout the 1980s, producing a string of successful works and travelling the globe as her writing gained critical and commercial international acceptance.

A Room of One's Own
Despite her celebrity, Zhang leads a simple writer's life. She rises shortly past dawn each morning to a steaming mug of coffee (a habit she picked up while traveling in Europe) and her own fresh-baked whole-wheat bread. Then she writes until noon, when she breaks for lunch and a short nap.

She writes through the afternoon into early evening, and her nights are occupied with newspaper reading, catching up on her correspondence and visits with friends. She retires before midnight to be fresh for another day in her world of fiction.

'I cried when the first installment of Without Words was published,' Zhang confesses. 'It was like saying goodbye to an old and dear friend.'

She is a staunch advocate of the notion most often attributed to Virginia Woolf that women must have a room of their own and adequate income to create literature.

'Money and time (you qian you xian),' Zhang cites as the two prerequisites for modern women's literature. 'These conditions should be a priority of society; humanity will benefit immensely from women truly being permitted to hold up half the sky.'

Gathering Wheat
A short story by Zhang Jie

What country girl wouldn't know about gathering wheat stalks! Let me tell you a story of long long ago when you might almost say wheat gathering time was when girls' imaginations were the most alive.

In the early hours of the dawn, under a waning moon and a sprinkling of stars, what would a girl with a basket on her arm be thinking of as she walked along the ridges in the fields on her way to gather wheat stalks? When a thin mist hovered over the fields and the moon rose silently again as if it had wakened from a stolen nap, what was the girl thinking of as she walked back home with a basket on her arm filled with wheat stalks? Well, what else could she think of? If you've never been part of that life, you will never know the dreams these stalks of wheat scattered in the fields could conjure up.

She stoops and bends with no respite to pick the scattered stalks. She will sell the wheat, and save the money, and on a market day, she will go to the market and buy flowered cotton cloth and colored thread. Then she will return home and cut and sew and embroider. Nobody has seen her wear her finery, but on her wedding day, she will invariably stuff these sartorial treasures into her bridal baggage, as all the other girls do, though no one has seen them making an agreement.

But the dreams they dreamt while gathering wheat were nothing more than dreams. In years the girls would realize how naive they had been, how different were the men they had married to the men of their dreams as they gathered wheat and sewed and embroidered. They had let themselves be married off so docilely. As they put on their new clothes and new shoes, the thrill that had gone into the making of them had disappeared.

And so what! Nobody would sigh for them, or commiserate with them for their lost dreams. Even they themselves would not yield to excessive grief: at most they had lost a beautiful dream. Who would be so foolish as to hold on to a dream!

When I was old enough to be running about on my own, I would trudge behind my elder sister to pick wheat, with a basket too on my arm. The basket was always too big for me; it would bounce against my legs or drag along the ground. Often it made me stumble. I rarely filled my basket. Either I missed the wheat stalks lying in the fields, or I was distracted by grasshoppers and butterflies. Sometimes even the stalks in my basket tumbled out as I chased after butterflies.

One day, my second aunt saw the few stalks of wheat in my basket and asked me: "Oho! so our little Dayan can gather wheat. Now aren't you going to tell auntie why are you gathering wheat?'
I was not at all embarrassed: 'For my trousseau.'
Auntie laughed derisively and winked at a couple of women who had gathered around us. 'And whom are you going to marry?' she asked.
Yes, whom was I going to marry? I thought for a moment and suddenly remembered the old man who sold sticky candy. I said: 'I'll marry the old man who sells sticky candy.'

They all burst out laughing, sounding like a gaggle of geese. What is there to laugh at? I was angry. What's wrong with marrying the old candy seller? Was he too good for me?

How old was the candy seller? I didn't know. The lines on his forehead gathered at the ends of his eyebrows and then crept down his cheeks on both sides to disappear into the corners of his mouth. These lines added a kindly humor to his face. As he walked on his way balancing a shoulder pole carrying his goods, his bald head shone like a gourd, and the long straggling white hair growing at the back of his head quivered with each movement of his body as he walked to the bounce of the pole balanced on his shoulder.
Very soon my words reached his ears.

One day, he came to our village with his goods. He saw me and smiled: 'And so, you want to be my bride?'
'Yes.'
He laughed. The few strands of white hair at the back of his gourd-like pate also quivered.
'Now why do you want to be my bride?'
'I want to eat sticky candy.'
He took out his pipe and banged it against the sole of his shoe. 'Well, you are too small.'
'Wait till I grow up,' I said.
He patted me on the head and said, 'Before you grow up, I'll be in the ground.'
I was worried. If he dies, what shall I do? My eyebrows knitted together in perplexity.
He put a piece of candy into my hands. I grinned and said:
'Don't go and die, wait for me to grow up.'
He smiled and said, 'All right, I'll wait for you to grow up.'
'Where do you live?'
'This shoulder pole with two baskets on either end is my home. Wherever it takes me, that is home and hearth for me.'

Thereafter, whenever he passed our village, he would bring me a little gift. A piece of candy, a melon, a handful of dates╔ 'For my little bride,' he would say jokingly.

On my part, I imitated the big girls and made my mother cut out some pieces of cotton cloth for a tobacco pouch and even made her mark out a flower pattern on it. I sewed and embroidered for days, and finally my tobacco pouch was done. My mother exploded with laughter when she saw it and said it looked more like a piece of pork liver than any tobacco pouch. However, I asked mother to keep it for me. I said I would give it to my husband when I marry.

Year by year I grew until I reached the wheat gathering age, and realized what a fool I had made of myself with those childish words. The old peddler of sticky candy had long ago stopped making jokes about me being his little bride. But he still gave me small gifts. I knew that he was sincerely fond of me. And I had also grown fond of him. Whenever he passed through our village, I would always see him off. As we said goodbye, I would stand at the top of a high ground and watch his receding back until it vanished among the hills. Year by year I could see his back bend more and more under the shoulder pole. Now I was really worried that he might die.

On the day before the Eighth of the Twelfth Moon Festival, I expected that my old friend would come by our village on his rounds. I stood at the top of a hill beneath an old persimmon tree and watched the road in the valley below, waiting for him to appear.

At the very top of the old persimmon tree, there was one last fruit. Under the winter sun, it blazed out in a concentrated brilliance of redness. Probably because of the sheer height, it had not been picked. Strange, though, that it had not been blown off by the winds, nor pelted down by rain, nor crushed by snow.

Someone carrying a shoulder pole appeared on the road below. As he approached I saw that two baskets were balanced on a shoulder pole. But it was not my old candy peddler. I greeted the stranger and inquired after my old friend and learned that he was dead. I stood under the persimmon tree, looking at the lone little persimmon. Its flaming redness was a joyous sight, but I cried for the strange old candy peddler who had been so fond of me.

Later on, I wondered why. For no other reason than that I was a foolish little thing who loved sticky candy, with few to love me because of my plain face.

When I grew up, I could never forget that apart from my own mother, no one had loved me so fondly and so disinterestedly.

I often think of him now, and have tried to find that tobacco pouch that had looked like a piece of pork liver. But I don't know what became of it.


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