WANG ANYI is one of China’s best-known writers, a reputation she cemented with her novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (1995). It won the Mao Dun prize, awarded once every four years to outstanding works of fiction, and has been adapted for stage, film, and television. Luckily for English readers, a brilliant translation of the novel by Michael Berry and Susan Chang Egan appeared in 2008 from Columbia University Press.
I came to Wang Anyi’s work through the vignette-style stories in the collection The Little Restaurant (2010) and discovered a writer who is largely unknown in the West and whose work is very sparsely translated into English, despite her nomination for global prizes such as the Man Booker International. Reading her is therefore an interesting entry into the concerns of a Chinese writer who has greater national than international appeal. It is possible that Wang Anyi’s low-key voice and her keenness to depict the lives of ordinary people has resulted in her being largely ignored by the West, but this lack of recognition also seems to have given her the freedom to pursue her project without feeling the need to directly take on Chinese history and politics.
Neither has Wang Anyi fully adopted a Western-style psychological realism; her aesthetic — centered on everyday situations and middle-class lives in Shanghai, the city that is her canvas and inspiration – is one in which inner motivations draw from and meld into a larger landscape. It is this landscape, which consists of both feelings and things, both the spirit of the times and the timeless human impulses, that seems to be her real subject rather than only the dealings between people or the sweeping effects of historical changes on individual lives.
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow very effectively expresses this aesthetic. The novel’s heroine, Wang Qiyao, is a young woman in 1940s Shanghai, a cosmopolitan, westernized, prosperous city whose people pursue the good life above all else. The teenage Wang Qiyao gets a taste of this glamour by winning a place in the Miss Shanghai contest of 1948. The novel follows her fortunes over the next forty years, a period during which Civil War leads to the Communist takeover, after which comes the famine of the late 1950s, the Cultural Revolution and then the changes in post-Mao Zedong China. All of these events and shifts are hinted at and characters inevitably feel their effects but this history is not the measure of the long journey of Wang Qiyao, who through a series of attachments and betrayals creates a life for herself as a single woman.
While Wang Qiyao’s grace and perseverance drive the story, what Wang Anyi seeks to capture through this resilient figure is the passage of time; the novel can be read as a reclaiming of human time as against historical time. Accompanying the ineluctable passing of the years is the great desire to hold time down, which takes the form of the will “to live”, a sentiment — and a phrase – expressed repeatedly in the novel, calling out from the longtang, Shanghai’s dense alleyways crowded with houses, where Wang Qiyao’s story is set.
The people in Shanghai’s longtang neighborhoods conduct themselves with the utmost attention and care; all their energy is directed to the way they carry themselves. Their eyes are focused exclusively on themselves, and they are never distracted by their surroundings. They don’t want to create a place for themselves in history; they want to create themselves.
This desire to create oneself becomes the novel’s impetus and is typified by Wang Qiyao who is not an extraordinary beauty but a homely, approachable one, a beauty that is to become the cause of small joys and everyday suffering rather than the stuff of legends. Clothes and fashion make up a good part of the texture of her story (“Nothing is more important for a person than the clothes they wear,” says one character), as do details about architecture, food, shopping, street life, the colors and seasons of Shanghai and the changes it has undergone over the decades.
The Chinese character for time is made up of the characters for light and shadow, points out Wang Anyi, and the play of these two elements is critical to the novel. While there is much nostalgia for old Shanghai, and the lost, dream-like exuberance of the city haunts its characters, this nostalgia becomes a generalized languor, a persistent sense of loss in the face of which the most important thing is carrying on and filling up time. If nothing is at hand, characters will simply sit quietly observing the play of light and shade as Wang Qiyao does when she is the young, eternally-waiting mistress of a busy official (“…she counted how many times the outside light reached a certain point on the wall…”) or as her lover does a decade later when she is pregnant and their fates are uncertain, making shadow animals on the wall to amuse her. As an older woman, feeling cut off from the lives of the young people around her, Wang Qiyao looks to the light yet again, “watching the spring afternoon sun as it moved across the western wall. She recalled many such afternoons in her life. The light with which she is so familiar has shone for hundreds of thousands of years, and it will always be there. People, on the other hand, can never escape the trap of time.”
Wang Anyi’s is not a concisely realist style; it differs yet again from Western realism in giving in to a kind of incantatory repetitiveness, and while her characters are highly distinct figures they are at the same time generic. Wang Qiyao herself is introduced as a type before she acquires the characteristics of a person — she is the kind of reserved yet spirited, dreamy yet practical girl in love with fashion and Hollywood films very likely to be found in 1940s Shanghai. “The longtang neighborhoods of Shanghai are filled with a girlish spirit — the name of this spirit is Wang Qiyao.”
There are other spirits at work in Shanghai, which Wang Anyi captures in The Little Restaurant. The construction boom in the city in recent decades has resulted in a huge influx of migrant labor into the city, and these resourceful and yet fragile individuals are the subject of some of her stories. In general she is drawn to marginal figures — the housemaid with nothing to fall back on, the handicapped boy at odds with society — and is fascinated by the instinct for survival among ordinary folk. This, combined with her feeling for the zeitgeist – as expressed in the small things, in how people speak to each other or what they wear — is what gives her stories their mood of sympathy. In some cases such close attention to things as they are can even make her writing dull but this seems to me a necessary part of her outlook, an urge to remind the reader that the commonplace has to be claimed for literature too. At her best, her vision acquires great poetic intensity and makes her a chronicler of Shanghai easily on par with the great city writers among her contemporaries such as Orhan Pamuk.
The writer she is often compared with is Eileen Chang. Born in 1920, more than 30 years before Wang Anyi, Chang wrote fiction set in and about Shanghai as well as about the lives of Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong. Eileen Chang’s stories about young men and women in pursuit of happiness have a Scott Fitzgeraldian quality of hedonism edged with doom. Both Chang and Wang Anyi are acutely aware, perhaps inevitably as people who have lived through the relentless upheavals of modern China, of how individual lives can snag on the cut and thrust of history. Chang’s famous story “Love in A Fallen City” is set against the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, while her tremendous feeling for Shanghai life is captured in stories like “Red Rose, White Rose.” It is apt that these kindred Shanghai writers are women for as Wang Anyi suggests in her novel, the spirit of the city is a womanly spirit. “Shanghai’s splendor is actually a kind of feminine grace; the scent carried by the wind is a woman’s perfume […] the murmuring sound of Shanghainese is custom-made for women’s intimate gossip. The city is like one big goddess…”