“On their first date, in the park, they got down to some serious petting. He gave Tianyi a blow-by-blow account, making her blush with his frankness: ‘She undid her bra so I could feel her breasts,” he stammered. ‘Then she pushed my hand down there . . .’
‘Is she pretty?”
‘No, but she’s curvy, and she’s really hot.’
‘So she fits the bill?’ Tianyi asked with a touch of sarcasm.
‘Yes, she does,’ Jin went pink. ‘So I need your help, I’ve been wanting to do an experiment, to watch a girl’s reaction to having sex . . .’
‘That’s not fair, if she really loves you . . .’
‘But I might fall in love with her during the experiment. So there’s nothing unfair about it . . .’
It’s not every day you come across a novel in which a mainland Chinese author writes openly about women, sex and corruption − affording the reader a voyeuristic glimpse into intimacy and relationships, Chinese style.
The narrator’s description of her frustrations and confusions living in a barren society in which women will do anything for the man they love, husbands are violent, and marriages stale, made me think of the oppressed position of women in Victorian British society. Domestic violence may have been criminalized in China in 2005, but the rights and entitlements claimed by Western women, and supported by law and local custom, are the stuff that dreams are made of. Women seeking to gain greater equality and advocating for legislation against domestic violence in China generally get harsh treatment. In March 2015, the arrest of the ‘Feminist Five,’ provoked a domestic and international outcry.
Xu Xiaobin’s Crystal Wedding reads like a roman-à-clef. It will not be published in China because it is so explicit. For it to come out in Nicky Harman’s excellent English translation is a risky undertaking for the author. It is the story of an ordinary female intellectual, spanning the fifteen years between her wedding and divorce during the eighties and nineties when China was undergoing huge change.
The society, culture and politics may be different to the West, but human nature and how men and women relate are pretty similar the world over. In the West most women nowadays develop personal lives before love lives. It seems educated Chinese women are striving to do the same.
Tianyi marries age thirty one, in order to escape from a miserable family life marked by loud quarrelling. Her beloved father, a professor with a sinecure at the Academy of Letters, has died and she is taunted by her mother and siblings. Of all her suitors, Wang Lian is the least attractive, but she feels sorry for him. In her view a handsome man is trouble, unlike one who is not. Her sisters warn her about Lian’s temper, but she overrides their concerns. “Love seemed like an illusion . . . she would marry anyone who was good to her.” Two months after meeting, they wed.
Her generation had grown up terrified of sex: a taboo subject. During the Cultural Revolution, girls sacrificed their youth for the party and the good of the motherland, (while their great leader lived it up like a playboy). Good girls were submissive and subservient; stifled their anger and strove for perfection; quashed their desire and femininity. Good girls were ‘Iron girls’, labouring alongside men in fields and factories, enduring inhuman treatment. In the mid-1970s the pendulum swung the other way: young women pandered to men and used flirtatious manipulation and sex to bribe senior officials, and get ahead. Love was still frowned upon, and emotional paralysis the name of the game. Women veered between promiscuity and sexual suppression.
Schools were closed during the Cultural revolution and intellectuals – “bourgeois academic authority” – were crushed. Tianyi’s father had a secret collection of Western literature in translation which was not confiscated by the Red Guards. So she read European classics, describing a world totally odds with the one around her, and realised life could be different.
Tianyi and Lian both enter marriage shackled by ignorance. Neither one has any idea of how to form a long-term emotional attachment. Chinese men are tied to their mother’s apron strings and Tianyi hates it. She pushes away feelings of discomfort when they visit his cold mother who has a sharp tongue, piggy eyes, and serves up foul food (Lian is a good cook). Consummation of their marriage takes a week because they are both so inexperienced.
The couple is poor, so live with her family, but everything sours. The pair move into a Daoist temple. She does not want a child, but ends up pregnant. Watching films at the French Institute keeps her occupied while Lian is working at the Planning Commission. He is affectionate to his wife; writes her love letters when away, regurgitating Maoist quotes. Although being a mother feels like a life sentence, she does love her beautiful baby boy, Niuniu. The next child, a daughter, is aborted.
Love and marriage are two different things. Tianyi lives in a fantasy world, and dreams of being rescued by her Prince Charming like in a fairy tale. An aesthete, to her beauty is more important than anything else. She gets a job working for a commune and is appreciated as an accomplished calligrapher and writer. Her occasional “petty bourgeois sentimentality” is forgiven.
The couple finally gets a two bedroom apartment in a modern block: communal living with one or other of their families is a thing of the past. Tianyi’s husband is rudderless. Now she becomes his rudder: more mother than wife.
The eighties are a time of social and sexual liberation. A friend brings her porn films and she watches Last Tango in Paris, but does not like Marlon Brando’s “nightmarish sex”. Tianyi writes stories to sublimate her desire. “She sat for twelve hours a day, so engrossed in writing that she forgot to eat. When she did eat, she did not taste it. This was her way of escaping the world, of escaping herself.” Lian accuses her of neglecting her family duties and is more and more angry. Husband and wife lead increasingly separate lives.
Her top selling novel, The Tree of Knowledge, brings in royalties, and she joins the production company that makes it into a film. Her book about women and sex, Drowning, is too controversial and is quashed. The literary scene is as corrupt and parasitic as everything else. She is successful, but only to a point, because she does not play the game of politics. “Her failure lay in being too honest.” This is also the cause of her problems with men. There were the good ‘noble’ ones whom she had really liked – a young doctor and a colleague at the commune – and they liked her, reluctant siren that she is. But she always misses her chance.
Her great love is Hua Zheng, an intellectual activist who is much more her type than her husband. He opens her up to new ways of thinking too. China may have caught up with advanced countries and be economically powerful, but its traditions have been lost; the spiritual and metaphysical downgraded. “Most of the world’s rulers impose their rule by means of religious faith, but China is a country whose religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, have all been smashed. Even Maoism has been smashed . . ! There are no standards, no bottom line, so value judgments are confused.” After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 he is sentenced to thirteen years in prison. The chaos and unhappiness in her own life is mirrored in what is going on around her in Beijing.
Lian is increasingly out of control and continues to wallop Niuniu, who hates him. Tianyi finally snaps, and asks for a divorce. “When he was in a rage, he was terrifying. His eyes paled to yellowish-brown, and his mouth gaped as if he was going to devour them both. Tianyi looked at him and thought how capricious the human face was: when he and she were dating, his face had been soft and gentle, and now it had turned so ugly. The most dignified and cultured of men could turn into anything, once the mask slipped. It made her suspicious of the very nature of marriage.”
Free at last, Tianyi takes up an invitation to go on a lecture around America and heads off to LA, Las Vegas and Rocky Mountain University.
Crystal Wedding is an extraordinary and unusual story, especially for a Western reader, and it is told very well indeed. This novel is perfect for readers who relished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
Buy it. Read it. Spread the word.
Crystal Wedding by Xu Xiaobin trs. Nicky Harman | Balestier Press | 2016 £12.99 304pp PB | ISBN: 978-0993215490 | English Pen Translates Award | Financial Times / OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards (Longlisted)