Books newlight on 29 Feb 2008
Mariella Frostrup asked in her Open Book programme on BBC Radio 4 whether there is a Chinese Jane Austen, whose work a listener’s fourteen years old daughter could enjoy. There are several authors instantly pop into the mind. Eileen Chang (张爱玲), whose short story Lust, Caution on which Ang Lee’s film is based, is the obvious candidate. But I think her work is often too cold. Her sharp words could coolly pick up the shortcoming of the protagonists piece by piece. Her view of the relationship is perhaps too cynical for a fourteen years old. Qiong Yao (琼瑶), the Taiwanese female author published several dozens of romantic novels in the seventies, many of them have since been adapted into films and TV series. Many will regard her work too superficial and melodramatic though. One contemporary author is Hong Kong’s Yi Shu (亦舒). Her stories rarely happen outside the world of rich and beautiful, but the wittiness is very enjoyable. Zhang Xiaoxian (张小娴), another female writer from Hong Kong, is many people’s favourite romantic novelist.
The problem is novel had not been a highly regarded form of art until the turn of twenty century. In the first half of the last century, when the country suffered never ending civil wars and foreign invasion, writers were often urged to come up with patriotic novels instead of romantic ones. Added into this is the less freedom women enjoyed than their counterparts in the west in this period. So it’s no surprise that there was no Jane Austen kind of figure in early Chinese literature.
But if you don’t mind the gender, Lin Yutang’s (林语堂) Moment in Peking (京华烟云), about a big family in early twenty century Peking (Beijing) is a good read, and it was written in English by the author.
For English readers, some of Eileen Chang’s novels have been translated into English, like Lust, Caution (色戒), Love in the Fallen City (倾城之恋), The Rouge of North (怨女), Written on Water (流言). She also wrote in English such as the novel The Rice Sprout Song. I haven’t seen any English translation of Qiong Yao, Yi Shu, and Zhang Xiaoxian’s novels.