Chinese literature has really grown and taken off over the past twenty or so years, with some major voices emerging with some really interesting things to say. Also emerging are the stories of foreigners involved with China in various ways. For those of us interested in reading literature from and about China, we’re no longer limited to Dream of the Red Chamber or Lu Xun. This week I’m taking a look at just a few of the female voices that have emerged in modern China. In a country where 100 years ago women had no voice, the women of China have become a powerful force in all walks of life, and some of the most remarkable authors coming out of China in recent years have been women. Whether you’re a man, a woman, a China scholar or just a fan of China, if you’re interested in China you’ll enjoy these selections.
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Guo Xiaolu
Guo Xiaolu has been something of a sensation as of late, having been hailed as the “voice of her generation.” Pushing the boundaries of Chinese feminism, her characters talk dirty, defy tradition, and cross cultural boundaries. Her prose is witty, gritty, and speaks in a voice that is perhaps unique to modern China. Her recent book, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, follows the acclaimed A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, and fans of hers will be glad to know that she’s yet again delivered an edgy look at the modern Chinese woman.
Fenfang is a girl from the countryside who comes to Beijing to chase her dreams. Her contempt for her hometown and the peasant lifestyle of her family pushes her to become something completely different – Fenfang will be a modern woman, drinking coffee, renting an apartment on her own, dating a foreigner, and working as a movie extra. The story follows us through Fenfang’s transformation, as she goes from being a seventeen year old straight from the village to a worldly, jaded citygoer. We also watch as she becomes more and more disillusioned with her life in Beijing, a city which, when she first arrived, captivated her. Over the course of the novel the reader watches Fenfang struggle with love, survival, gain some perspective on her own humble beginnings, and grow into adulthood. Fenfang often comes off as a detached from life and the mood of the book, while it has its funny moments, is often rather bleak. Still, for those who can’t get enough of modern China and want some insight into what might compel a country girl to give it all up and head for the bright lights of Beijing, and what transformations might take place once she arrives, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth won’t disappoint.
Repeat After Me by Rachel DeWoskin
Repeat After Me is the first novel from Rachel DeWoskin, the author of Foreign Babes in Beijing. While there have been many books written by male expats in China, very few have covered the experience of being a young foreign woman in modern China, and Foreign Babes in Beijing not only did just that, but wrote about experiences that I think almost all of us living in China, and especially us women, can relate to. So when I saw that Rachel DeWoskin had published a novel, I immediately picked it up, and was glad I did so.
February Flowers by Fan Wu
February Flowers by Fan Wu again takes a look at young Chinese women, and although her book is very different from Guo Xiaolu’s work, some of the same themes are explored – coming of age in a changing China (February Flowers takes place primarily in the 90s), sexuality, rebellion, and what it means to be a young woman in China. The setting here is mainly a university in Guangzhou, and February Flowers gives vivid descriptions of dorm life, where girls are packed 6 to a suite and live in many ways more intimately than family. When Chen Ming, the protagonist, strikes up an unlikely friendship with resident “bad girl” Miao Yan, her life is changed forever. Miao Yan gives Chen Ming insight into a world she didn’t realize existed, a world where a woman’s best chance for survival might be pinning herself to a rich man, where studies are not the primary focus of college life, and where friendship is not innocently holding hands on the way to the cafeteria, but something that is, at times, darker. Fan Wu also explores the sometimes sexually confusing nature of close female friendships through Chen Ming’s own confused feelings for her friend Miao Yan.
February Flowers shows Fan Wu’s promise, even though the story gets a bit melodramatic and predictable at times, and the author falls back on Han stereotyping for the character of Miao Yan, a minority girl from Yunnan. The book shines when it is describing the trials of young adulthood, Chinese university life, and exploring the changing nature of girlhood friendships. The story gets a bit messy towards the end and Fan Wu struggles a bit to pull it altogether by jumping forward in time and finding the girls again, many years later, still haunted by their past friendship. A simple coming of age story might have served the authors purpose better, but Fan Wu is an author worth looking at for fans of modern Chinese literature.?
Where to Buy Books in Shanghai
Where to Buy Books in Guangzhou
Black, White, and Read All Over: Books in Beijing
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