CHINESE LITERATURE written after the May-Fourth era, particularly fiction, has been recognized in recent years as a potentially powerful vehicle for enhancing Western understanding of China. The rapid growth in the trans lation of this literature into English, both in terms of quantity and quality, is beginning to transform this potential into reality. Within a period of just fifty years, Chinese fiction spanned myriad stages: from the romantic, selfcentered, often semi-autobiographical literature of the early twenties to the more socially and politically oriented literature of the thirties, the literature engagé during the War of Resistance against Japan, the literature that served the socialist society in communist-ruled China, the multifarious flowering in Taiwan literature following a vacuous and “lost” decade in the fifties, and the literature by a generation of intellectual émigrés.
The language, the style, and central concerns of this literature are as diverse as the backgrounds of the writers themselves. However, almost all modern Chinese writers are linked by one common thread—their writings invariably, though to different degrees, reflect the sociopolitical conditions of their times. Through their stories, the reader is brought into touch with the events of twentieth-century China that have shaped, governed, and tortured the lives of the authors. In this literature, the history, the political documents, and the public pronouncements take on real life. Through it, the reader gains personal appreciation for their effect on individual human beings. In short, this literature is the flesh and breath to the bare bones of history. Whereas history records the external events, fiction reflects the mind and soul of society.
Chinese literature of the twentieth century has often been unfairly criticized for its immaturity, crudity, and lack of sophistication. The fact is, the best fiction by Chinese writers of the past fifty years rivals the best in the West. However, alongside the gems of twentieth-century Chinese literature, there exists a huge bulk of secondand third-rate products, some of which have for one reason or another gained sizeable readerships, misleading the nondiscriminating Western critic to form an erroneous low opinion of modern Chinese fiction. The quality of this literature is in fact remarkably high when one considers its relative newness, and especially when one takes cognizance of the fact that for a whole generation, writers struggled for individual expression under the dual pressures of Kuomintang censorship and the erratically shifting “guidelines” of the communists, sometimes risking and losing their very lives in this struggle. Writing under the communist regime has the handicap of having to conform to the didactic needs of a socialist society, and these needs are periodically redefined. The best writers in China have not lost sight of aesthetic values however; they continue to struggle to reconcile didactic needs with aesthetic values, some succeeding admirably on their own terms.
The most emotion-charged and effectual sociopolitical issues of twentieth-century China are perhaps the ones that concern half of China’s people, the women. In less than two generations, China has moved from a society where it was felt that “it is better to raise geese than daughters” to the People’s Republic, in which women’s ability “to hold up half the sky” is publicly recognized, even if not fully realized. The issues relevant to women’s lives in twentieth-century China have been amply and dramatically brought to life in literature by women writers who have a natural propensity to portray themselves and also by male writers who recognized that their own lives are inseparable from those of the women around them, and whose insights into women’s problems and psyche are in many cases acutely penetrating.
This volume brings within reach of the English reader the fiction that concerns itself with women. The selection is based not primarily on the sex of the authors, but on the quality and representative nature of the works. In order to be of maximum service to the field, it does not include works that are readily available in English translations, such as the several powerful portrayals of women by Lu Hsíin and such moving pieces as Jou Shih’s “Slave Mother.” This volume includes well-known writers like Lao She and Chen Jo-hsi as well as hitherto little-known writers like T’ien T’ao. Represented here are stories from the May-Fourth period; the War of Resistance; the period following Mao’s Yenan Forum of 1942; post-1949 China, where the regime’s control over literature became absolute; and the new generation that grew up on Taiwan as well as a few writers who emigrated to the United States.
Although the backgrounds of the writers are widely divergent, some themes recur surprisingly in different social contexts. The age-old prejudice against daughters is depicted in T’ien T’ao’s “Parting.” Women of the downtrodden class mourning the fate of their lost husbands are portrayed in Hsiao Hung’s “On the Oxcart,” set in a war-torn and disrupted China, and again in Wang T’o’s “May He Return Soon,” set in relatively prosperous and stable Taiwan. Though women characters are often oppressed and downtrodden in Chinese fiction, they are rarely portrayed as hopeless whimpering weaklings. More often than not, they are resilient individuals who have great strength to survive, and at times to triumph, like Ch’unt’ao in Lo Hua-sheng’s “Garbage Gleaner” and the protagonist in Ping Hsin’s “Chang Sao.” The struggle between career and domestic life is the theme of Ping Hsin’s May-Fourth era “West Wind.” The perennial theme of ennui and boredom in marriage and domestic life occurs in Wu Tsuhsiang’s “Two Women” and Pai Hsien-yung’s “A Day in Pleasantville,” set in an American suburb. Prostitution will probably be a subject in literature for as long as it exists in society. In this anthology, it is explored in Ch’en Ying-chen’s “A Rose in June.” Some topics are unique to certain historical periods in that they reflect a particular societal condition or consciously promote a certain ideal attitude advocated by the regime at the time. The stories “Born of the Same Roots” by Yang Ch’ing-ch’u and “My Friend Ai Fen” by Chen Jo-hsi fall into the former category, whereas Ts’ao Ming’s “Spring is Just around the Corner” and Sung Shun-k’ang’s “Old Team Captain Welcomes a Bride” both written in post-1949 China, belong in the latter category. The intersexual relationships of men and women have engaged the attention of writers throughout the past fifty years. We find this theme in Lao She’s “Caterpillar” Ai Wu’s “Rain,” Teng Yu-mei’s “At the Precipice,” and Yü Li-hua’s “Nightfall.” This theme, which reminds one of the song refrain “What is this thing called love,” will probably receive writers’ attentionfor as long as there remains a bisexual society.
Through the nineteen stories represented in this volume, the English reader is invited to share the experiences of women in twentieth-century China, their joys, sorrows, and struggles, as portrayed by China’s best modern men and women writers.
I would like to express gratitude to all the friends and students who have collaborated in these translations, to James Shu for his critical reading of the manuscript, and to Joseph S. M. Lau and Leo Ou-fan Lee for their good advice. Special thanks are also due Joanne Thodt, who typed the manu-script and who, as the first to read these translations with the fresh eye of an English reader, provided feedback and suggestions.