The tragic story of China's decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is no longer unfamiliar to Western readers. The ordeal of both older victims and youthful Red Guard perpetrators has been vividly recounted in several gripping memoirs, the legacy of survivors who have begun to reconstruct a painful and still not fully explicable past. Zhang Xianliang's sensitive and controversial novel, "Half of Man Is Woman," written in 1986 and translated into English the following year, powerfully expands that discourse by focusing on the experience of a group ironically protected from the nearly pervasive violence. The dubiously fortunate ones who escaped this senseless struggle were already prisoners, their refuge a labor reform camp in China's inhospitable Ningxia province.
The autobiographical central character, also named Zhang and like the author sentenced to hard labor in the remote Northwest, suffers the consequences of having written a poem judged counter-revolutionary in the anti-rightist campaign of 1957. Like many other intellectuals so suppressed, he is not to be rehabilitated until 1979. For more than 20 years, he exists on the margins of society, a pariah dressed in prison black who learns to numb his mind and concentrate on the task of sheer survival. The one yearning he cannot entirely subdue, however, is the need for a woman.
By 1966, Zhang has been made a field supervisor, the reward for his years of uncomplaining and energetic labor. One noontime in the blistering summer heat, he sets off to inspect the irrigation ditches that border the rice fields under his charge when the sound of splashing suddenly attracts his attention. Parting the razor-sharp reeds, he confronts a naked woman, another prisoner who has stolen the chance for a solitary bath. Flooded with desire, Zhang watches but cannot approach. He is held back by his sexual inexperience and by an ingrained caution. But even more important in his restraint is an instinctive compassion; in the woman's eyes, he sees mirrored his own pain.
Eight years later, the two inmates meet again, transferred from their separate labor reform camps to the same prison farm. Responding to each other's need and resigned to the prospect of unending confinement, they decide to marry. At first, their union is marred by Zhang's sexual impotence. So shriveled have his normal human emotions become that he cannot express affection or even his long suppressed lust. When finally his passion is unleashed, he still cannot fully love Huang, a beautiful young village woman accused of promiscuity. In fact, her patience, generosity, and tender domesticity only intensify his fear that marriage will obliterate the remaining shreds of his personal freedom. He adopts a posture of calculated heartlessness, determined to escape from the shed Huang has painstakingly transformed into a home. Somehow he must find a way to pick up his pen once again and engage in the intensifying political struggle of the mid-1970s. This intellectual's mission, he believes, his uncomprehending wife cannot share.
The issues raised in the novel are timely, as marriages in China are today being reassessed and the role of intellectuals debated. But Xianliang's overt exploration of the sexual urge, always in revolutionary China a taboo topic, has aroused predictably contradictory responses. Some Chinese readers have found the novel crude and vulgar, offensive in its exposure of a subject that has long remained shielded from public scrutiny. Other readers have applauded Xianliang's artistry and praised his courage in challenging the censors and expanding the boundaries of acceptable literary subject matter.
Meanwhile, everyone engaged in such discussion realizes that the representation of sexual impotence in the novel is merely a metaphor for the more profoundly troubling impotence of China's intellectuals. Like compliant prisoners, Zhang implies unmistakably, intellectuals as a group have remained on the margins of society. They too have been pariahs who worked mindlessly and uncomplainingly, forced often to think only of survival, with no hope of freedom, influence, or accomplishment. "Half of Man Is Woman" thus affords not only an intimate glimpse of a marriage that cannot survive its initial circumstances, but an unsparing indictment of the system that has rendered impotent its most dedicated and creative members.