My degree is one intimately concerned with literature and yet there are whole great areas of this domain that I remain entirely unfamiliar with. Chinese literature is one such area, and so I was interested in taking just a very small step to remedy that. I attended an event that was held as part of the Writing Chinese project at the University of Leeds (the project looks to bring together writers, translators, publishers, literary agents and academics working in the field of contemporary Chinese literature, in order to foster closer links and dialogues and help promote contemporary Chinese writers in the UK) in which esteemed writer Xu Xioabin 徐小斌 visited to discuss her new novel, The Crystal Wedding, and talk about how she established her craft.
The first half of the talk focused mainly on Xioabin as a writer. Although, unlike other audience members, I had to rely exclusively on the translator for understanding, her charisma was evident. When asked about how and why she became an author Xioabin covered a great many subjects and discussed at length her formative years, covering her educational development and political awakening. She recalled the primary influence of the paralysing Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and continued for a decade. She also spoke about her rebellion from a young age and her mistrust of the government and scepticism of the media, no doubt influenced by her scholar father who abhorred the political humiliation of intellectuals and widespread mistreatment occuring at the time. Concerned about Xioabin’s guarded fascination with their political climate, he tried to distract her with literature; the likes of banned works by Russian literary wonders Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Xioabin learnt about many things while the suffering around her continued unabated. She read about philosophy and romances and much of the classical canon as only a young girl. She used wonderful metaphors as she spoke, comparing her budding adolescent physicality with her fraught geographical circumstances. She pithily comments that this literary emersion only handed her from the arms of one dangerous obsession to another. Although essential for her development as a writer, she become too well acquainted with unfamiliar and fantasy worlds that had little practical bearing on her circumstances. This all conveyed to me that from a young age politics and literature were irrevocably combined for Xioabin. The very act of reading became a form of rebellion and defiance. At this early point, it seems Xioabin began to understand the tension existing between political interests and honesty/morality in the dissemination of literature.
She then talked about what happened when she was ‘sent-down’ to the province of Heilongjiang, during the era of the ‘Iron Girls’ (this video looks at gender equality in China, examining both the role of the ‘Iron Girls’ under Mao and the current phenomenon of the ‘Leftover Women’, something Xioabin is highly concerned with) and coerced into undertaking the most debilitating acts of manual labour. In these dire circumstances, Xioabin recalls that she stepped into the role of storyteller by accident, and found she occupied it well; providing the only entertainment among 38 girls as they gathered around warming soybean and ham soup each bitter winter night (she recalled this particular memory with a smile). She had soon exhausted her repertoire of established stories and so began to make up her own tales. Xioabin’s value and talent was affirmed as her peers did all sorts of odd jobs for her, provided she continued to share her gift with them all each evening.
The second half of the talk saw Xioabin discuss her newest novel, The Crystal Wedding, one that has been translated immediately into English with the talent of Nicky Harman, and not yet published in her native China for reasons of censorship. The narrative toes two lines that are increasingly sensitive to the government: politics and female sexuality – both key themes in the novel. The Crystal Wedding deals with both the effects and patterns of oppression and the role of the ‘leftover woman’ in China. The heroine, the passionate and intelligent Yang Tianyi, must deal with a loveless and ill-suited marriage or go against the grain, and seek out ‘true love’ and lasting companionship. The novel provides a vivid and painfully honest depiction of the conflicts and concerns facing many Chinese women, as well as exploring issues that affect women all over the world, such as sexual oppression and indeed, sexual ignorance. The chaotic political backdrop of 1980s/1990s China allows Xioabin to draw a number of parallels between the public sphere and the private domain. For example, how the stifling climate of a loveless marriage shares similarities with the political suppression of an individual’s creativity and expression.
So what does one do when they are dealing with a political atmosphere that still exerts powerful and negative influence over its writers? Well, Xioabin feels a writer should have a slightly fraught relationship with their society and surroundings; that it is a moralistic and integral struggle to establish truth, or a representation of it, in literature. She is aware of the extraordinary nature of her book, in how it so unabashedly examines sex and femininity, but she is dedicated to bringing the female perspective to light. As she explores abuses of power in China she refuses to play the part of apolitical ‘chameleon’ writer, an artful role that she is aware many of her literary fellows have perfected. Her talk was an eye-opening look at the relationship between literature and all manner of effects- protest, education, subversion, liberation, comfort, escapism, justice.
Naturally, once the talk was over, I rushed over to the book stall to buy the The Crystal Wedding and asked Xioabin to sign it. She graciously obliged and I thanked her for her brilliant words.
N.b. all images (besides portrait) were created by Xioabin, who is also a skilled artist!