Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Self and Other: Narrativity in Xinran's the Good Women of China and Sky Burial

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Self and Other: Narrativity in Xinran's the Good Women of China and Sky Burial

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, a number of Chinese diaspora writers have attained worldwide fame and sparked the interests of historians and literary critics. Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian aside, one of the most prominent figures is Jung Chang, author of the best-selling and award-winning memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1990), while Xinran (her full name Xinran Xue) is a much more recent example. Also born in the 1950s and an emigrant to the United Kingdom, she is the author of The Good Women of China [Zhongguo de haonuyan] (2002) and Sky Burial [Tianzang] (2004), both of which were originally written in Chinese, before being translated into English and other languages and sold all over the world.

Despite the popularity and high appraisal of Xinran's works, to date no critical study of either of them has been documented. This is probably because they have generally been categorized as auto/biographical literature and social documentaries, appreciated more for the realistic portraits which they offer of Chinese women as well as their socio-cultural and historical backgrounds, than for the literary and aesthetic values which are by no means lacking in these genres. This essay aims to explore the images of Chinese women, but especially how the first-person narrator, or "I," interacts with the female characters in a genre that traverses fact and fiction. It will pay particular attention to the narrative structures, which help to bring out the concepts of "sameness" and "difference" in the representation of female subjects.

The Good Women of China is a collection of true stories gathered by Xinran when she worked as the host of Words on the Night Breeze, the first radio talk show in China. The program stemmed from her obsession with the question: "What is a woman's life really worth in China?" (Lambert). After much persuasion and many meetings before getting approved at Henan Broadcasting, it ran from 1989 to 1995, first as a pre-recorded ten-minute slot subject to much editing and examination, and later in the form of hotline, enabling people to openly discuss such personal matters as family, gender and sexuality. As such, the program attempts to offer a realistic and multifaceted picture of Chinese women while fulfilling a therapeutic outlet for them, a large number of whom have lived through the chaos and general poverty in the early days of the Communist takeover and during the Cultural Revolution, to the post-Mao era and the mid-1990s, in a more liberal society with generally better living conditions.

As Liz Stanley explains, most auto/biography is concerned with "great lives" (4),1 but the obsession with the "great and in/famous" would lead to many gaps in history, and stories of "obscure" people are very often more significant historically (8). The artfulness of auto/biography becomes a concern for feminists, as those important enough to have written their own stories, or to have their stories being written, are infrequently women, except those who are "infamous," "glamorous," and those who are "stars" and/or the wives of famous men (26). Describing the lives of ordinary women in Chinese history and labeling them as "good," Xinran not only helps to fill the gaps in Chinese history, but questions the traditional Chinese standards of a "good woman," which stipulate that she must be demure and gentle, a good housewife and a good lover, and that she must produce a son. If Xinran's criteria of a good woman are not exactly obvious from her book, then at least she stated them clearly during one of her interviews: "If we don't look down on ourselves, we are good. If we know how to love, how to give love, how to feel toward other people, then we are good" (Hong).

These good women, among others, include a girl whose only way of escaping from her sexually abusive father is to make herself sick so that she can stay at the hospital; a university student who, after receiving a kiss from her boyfriend and subsequently labeled a "bad woman" by her neighbor and parents, kills herself; a widow and caring mother who turns into a garbage collector so as to be dose to her son, who is now an important government official and lives in the city; a woman trapped in a "family without feelings," whose marriage was arranged by the Communist Party, and who has been used by her husband to prove his upright character, but with neither a wife's rights nor a mother's position; a woman with a lot of "feelings but no family," who was forced to part with her lover during the revolution, only to realize that he has long married another women with three children when they meet again after 45 years; a Nationalist Party general's daughter who, failing to flee to Taiwan, is tortured by the Red Guards and villagers and loses her mind; a "fashionable woman" whose successful career is born of her failed marriage and an unhappy romance; women in a far-off village whose only pleasure in life is the bowl of egg with water and sugar after they have given birth to a boy, and who typically have prolapsed wombs caused by the dry leaves which they use as sanitary napkins. …

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