Famine, War and Hairbreadth Escape; Chinese History Unfolds as Sisters Struggle, bloom.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: John Derbyshire, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The 20th century was an "interesting time" in China, and almost any Chinese person who lived through much of it, especially the earlier part of it, has a story worth telling. I have sat with quite ordinary people, in pleasant apartments in Peking or Taipei, and heard them tell of the most astounding adventures - stories of famine and war, of desperate flight and hairbreadth escape, of humiliation and redemption. If you spend much time listening to the talk of older Chinese people, your own life starts to seem very tame.

Annping Chin's "Four Sisters Of Hofei" illustrates this very well. In it, she tells the life stories of four Chinese sisters, born between 1907 and 1914, and all still alive at the time of writing. The sisters belonged to a small-gentry family in the Chinese heartland, and their biographies are prefaced with family history stretching back two generations before them, into the middle 19th century. There also are sketches of the lives of the womens' nurse-nannies, poor country widows engaged as family servants.

The most absorbing part of the book, for anyone already acquainted with 20th-century Chinese culture, is the account of the third sister's marriage to the writer Shen Ts'ung-wen. Shen is a major figure in the literature of the 1930s, a writer of short, impressionistic fictional and autobiographical pieces dealing with the lives of country people, soldiers, petty merchants and "national minority" folk.

Shunning both the bottomless despair into which the previous generation of writers had sunk, and the facile revolutionary optimism of the rising "progressive" school, Shen distinguished himself as, in the words of critic C.T. Hsia, a "major example of artistic sanity and intellectual incorruptibility" in a harsh time. He stood up well under the communists, basically refusing to write the dreary socialist-realist boilerplate they demanded, and died a peaceful death, with his reputation and integrity intact, in 1988.

Shen's marriage to the third sister, Chao-ho, is revealed - for the first time in English, so far as I am aware - to have been one of those peculiar matches that, while fundamentally unhappy, still somehow manages to satisfy key emotional requirements of both parties. Chao-ho was of a practical, frugal and self-sufficient nature, yet Shen's adoration appealed to her at some level of which she was perhaps hardly conscious. "What she wanted was her husband's yearning for her all his life. This was her only vanity."

Shen found in this unsatisfactory relationship support for his view of himself as "a tragic character." He seems to have understood his wife - and, indeed, himself - very well indeed, with a born writer's cold eye; the first of those understandings was not reciprocated.

Chao-ho was the only one of the four sisters not to be involved in some way with kun opera, which is the older and less popular of the two great national styles of Chinese opera, and the style out of which the other, Peking opera, originally developed. First Sister, whose name was Yuan-ho, actually married a retired performer of this art. The word "retired" there conceals tragedy of a different kind.

This husband, Ku Ch'uan-chie, had been an outstanding singer; but the troupe he belonged to was wound up - kun opera was dying on its feet in the early 1930s - and the patron offered to send Ku to college so that he would be able to earn a respectable living. Ku therefore gave up singing professionally, and when his education was complete, he went into a number of lines of work and business, failing at all of them. …