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Chinese Women Bear Literary Witness : ONE HALF OF THE SKY: Stories From Contemporary Women Writers of China; translated by R.A. Roberts and Angela Knox (Dodd, Mead: $15.95; 143 pp.)

July 31, 1988|Carolyn See | See reviews regularly for View.

"Like many other cultures," Frances Wood writes in an introduction here, "China has no tradition of women's literature." The women who write these contemporary stories, then, are operating from an interesting position of dual chaos: As writers, they are telling things never told before, and as artists, they write in the colloquial instead of the formal style which has been the backbone of Chinese literature for centuries. These ladies are out there taking every kind of chance.

There are so many things to notice about these stories! First, the silly pitfalls of translation--even though translators R. A. Roberts and Angela Knox do a very decent job. Where exactly is Zhang Kangkang talking about when, in an autobiographical note, she says she volunteered in the '60s to serve in "Northeast Wasteland?" And in Kangkang's story, "The Right to Love," the hero gives the heroine his unpublished manuscripts and "after considering the matter," she conceals them in "a sack of fried flour which she took back to the commune hospital and put inside her pillow." Does that mean she deep-fried the manuscripts?

In that same story, when the girl admits she loves her writer-friend but tells him, "If you love me then don't have anything more to do with social science, it's a pit of hell. . . ," is it a failure of translation, or the reader's understanding, that makes this sound wacky? God knows, the stories here--and the lives of the authors--deal with the saddest and most serious of subjects.

The second thing to notice--the staggering jolt of these stories, and their accompanying autobiographical sketches--is that life in China for the last 60 years has been a real hell pit. Yes, we read and hear and even write about the dizzying round of ups and downs in the Chinese Revolution, but to think that one comparatively ordinary woman might, in one life, be jailed three separate times by three totally separate factions for essentially the same set of social beliefs is literally mind-boggling. Thus, some of these women have been jailed in the '20s by the Kuomintang for being "left," and again in 1957 for their "independent thought," and in the Cultural Revolution of the '60s for being "right."

Many of these stories are about the effects of these dizzying shifts on ordinary men and women: what it is like, hanging on for dear life as your country goes through monster spasms that no one can keep track of from one day to the next. Life, in so many of these stories, comes down to "seven square meters" under a thatched roof; a life-companion, and a pure love of the land, which no one can dent: "The wooded hillside was lush and moist after the rain, and inside a fence at the back of the hill, they found a profusion of wild jasmine flowers in full blossom that seemed to hang in the air like a delicate, scented cloud."

This sentence, written in 1922 in a story by Bing Xin, is about two little cousins just hanging out, splashing in puddles in the family courtyard. Or, in "Lillies" by Ru Zhijuan, a young woman revolutionary on the eve of a bloody battle notices that "the crops on either side of the track had been washed a brilliant emerald-green and sparkled like jewels in the sunlight."

But in the foreground of this gorgeous landscape, brave people live squalid, imperiled lives. Again, in "The Right to Love"--a long, lovely story set in the northern city of Harbin--a young girl is so traumatized when her brother plays a Western melody on his violin in a public park that she faints dead away.

She's right to be terrified; both her mother and her father have been tortured, terrorized and finally destroyed because they loved Western music and culture. But can you stay away from everything that you love and still be alive? This story asks and answers that question on several levels. The American reader can appreciate but not fully understand such misfortunes, such courage.

The last story, smaller in scope, plays out against that same immense panorama of misfortune. In "Because I'm Thirty and Unmarried," a spinster mourns 10 years spent out in the country; in that cruel political exile she lost her youth and joy, and must search now listlessly for a spouse (now that she's been rehabilitated) to be eligible for shelter, to have a child, to snatch once again at life. This story is a reminder that there's more than one way to have your life "taken. . . ."

There's courage, here, on every page.

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