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The difference of principle between Western feminism and the contemporary Chinese feminism lies in the fact that Western women fought for equality rather than their difference from men. Chinese women always had to prove that they were different, even in terms of such female attributes as clothes, makeup, and hairstyles (Liu, 2008, p. 150). In the novel A Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi raises main questions Chinese feminists were concerned with.
Choosing a woman who had given birth to a child and had stayed unmarried for her whole life as a protagonist, which was unthinkable in previous centuries, Wang Anyi questions the traditional roles of the Chinese woman – mother and wife (Liu, 2008, p. 164). Making her main character beautiful and coming third in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant Wang Anyi allows her to experience the female gender anew (Shu-mei, 2002, p. 101). Being equated with men Chinese women were devoid of the possibility to express their femininity. Chinese females were granted equality by the Party’s directives, and their parity was defined by the state and the Fulian. What they really needed was “an awakening of female subjectivity,” which is “a reverse trajectory of Western women’s pursuit of equality from the state” (Shu-mei, 2002, p. 105). Wang’s protagonist openly adores herself, thereby emphasizing her need to find herself (Wang, 2002, p. 685). By making her main character search for her identity Wang Anyi subverts “patriarchal discourse” (Liu, 2008, p. 164).
The Chinese Communist Party shaped many fields of human life. In A Dictionary of Maqiao, Han Shaogong gives a critical evaluation of it by showing through the life of Maqiao villagers the degree of their parochialism and bigotry. In his article Why did the Cultural Revolution end? Han explains that the spirit of rebellion that fueled the Cultural Revolution was a positive force, but it was crushed by the totalitarian methods which eventually resulted in the discontent of the common people. William states that the dominant defines what is acceptable in the society. This idea is supported in Han’s A Dictionary of Maqiao by an example of “speech right” where mostly wealthy mature men with active political position could be holders of such rights, unlike women, the poor, and young people.
Another interesting problem raised by Han is the fluid relationships between the signifier and the signified in the novel. The protagonist is surprised to hear how the male villagers boast about being lazy as it became their equivalent of having a good life, while laziness is still a negative trait for women. Jameson (1981) posits that “interpretation grasps literary works as symbolic practices which provide imaginary and ideological solutions to otherwise unresolved socio-political contradictions” (p. 81). The “streetsickness” was probably unconsciously invented by the villagers to justify their parochialism. Extending this metaphor to the policy of the ruling regime the author reveals the narrowness and isolation that Communism imposed on the people of the country.
In The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung critiques the mass amnesia about the existing political violence for the sake of stability. In 2011, a whole month of the martial law was erased from people’s memory (Koonchung, 2009, p. 13). Valuing stability over chaos the Chinese people preferred to forget about atrocities of the Communist Party in exchange for financial stability. Stability arrived, and there was no more a reason to worry and remember about the violently suppressed protests on June 4, 1989, negative sides of the Cultural Revolution, and other artificially created disasters of the Maoist period (Koonchung, 2009, p. 53).
Koonchung’s The Fat Years falls into the spectrum between utopia and dystopia. Jameson (1981) offers another term “anti-utopia” “given the way in which [such novels] are informed by a central passion to denounce and to warn against Utopian programs in the political realm” (p. 199). Having similar characteristics, Koonchung’s The Fat Years shares the world of abundance with Orwell’s dystopia Brave New World I, while with Orwell’s 1984 the novel has in common “the loss of the past” (Jameson, 1981, p. 200). The story is left with an open ending because it is difficult to choose the only correct outcome for the country. As the author puts it, it is more the choice between “a good hell and a fake paradise” or “live together or die together” (Koonchung, 2009, p. 118, 289).
Jameson, F. (1981). The political unconscious: narrative as a socially symbolic act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Koonchung, C. (2009). The fat years. London, UK: Doubleday.
Liu, L. H. (2002). Invention and intervention: The making of a female tradition in modern Chinese literature. In S. Brownel & J. Wasserstrom (Eds.), Chinese femininities/Chinese masculinities: A reader (pp. 149-174). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Mo, Y. (2003). Red sorghum. (H. Goldblatt, Trans.). London, UK: Arrow.
Shaogong, H. (2005). A Dictionary of Maqiao. (J. Lovell, Trans.). New York, NY: The Dial Press.
Shu-mei, S. (2002). Towards an ethics of transnational encounter, or “When” does a “Chinese” woman become a “feminist”? Differences: Feminist Cultural Studies, 13(2), 90-126.
Wang, A. (2008). The song of everlasting sorrow: A novel of Shanghai. (M. Berry, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Wang, B. (2002). Love at last sight: Nostalgia, commodity, and temporality in Wang Anyi’s Song of unending sorrow. Positions, 10(3), 669-694.