Bloomsburied in China: Hong Ying’s ‘K'

The Nation (April 4, 2003).

View article at The Nation: "Bloomsburied in China."

Hong Ying

A divide exists between Chinese literature and movies written, produced, read or viewed in the West, and those written and produced in mainlaind China. Witness the controversy surrounding the publication of Ha Jin’s Waiting and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Gao Xingjian (author of Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible)–works produced by Chinese expatriates living in America and France. Or note the Chinese objection to the banning of Zhang Yimou’s films in China and their popularity in America. Mainland Chinese critics and readers often accuse expatriate artists of pandering to Western values and politics or “orientalizing” images of China.

This divide with a new twist is revealed again in a sensational libel case against Hong Ying’s new novel, K: The Art of Love, which has played itself out in mainland Chinese courts over the past year. Hong Ying, an expatriate author now living in England, fled China after the Tiananmen violence of 1989, a turning point in Chinese political and cultural life. She is just the kind of writer America and England love to love and China loves to hate. She has had what the Chinese call “the curse” of an interesting life, beginning with her early years of poverty in Chongquing, a depressing river town as revealed in her moving autobiography, Daughter of the River.

Hong Ying appeared in the Changchun, Manchuria, court (where the periodical Writer is published) last fall to face allegations that her novel K slandered the reputation of Ling Shuhua (1900-90) and Chen Yuan, well-known intellectuals and writers in the Republican period. Chen Xiaoying, the daughter of the couple, also living in London, objected to fictionalized pornographic descriptions of her mother engaged in Daoist sex rituals with Julian Bell. In listserv discussions, Hong Ying has denied the charge, asserting that Lin (thus fictionalizing Ling) is a composite character. She contends that all she wanted to express in the novel is that “Woman is not by nature passive in sex.”

Some of the book’s best-written passages, if we can judge from translation, are Hong Ying’s sensuous descriptions, her articulation of desire in that Chinese bed now spinning in international fictional space. If there is a dominant, surrealist image in Hong Ying’s book, it is this bed, “a bed that seemed to have expanded to fill the universe, to be actually moving in space.” It is what happens out of bed, or in the minds and cultures of the protagonists, that remains, unfortunately, opaque in her novel. If fiction’s focus is this development of the inner life of characters (as opposed to history and biography, which describe another reality), it is here where this novel fails.

Erotic pop fiction like Hong Ying’s finds a market both in China (mainland and Taiwan) and abroad. In 2001 Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby was banned in China, and 40,000 copies were burned because of its eroticism. In fact, a “banned in China” blurb is often the best advertisement for sales in the United States. Predictable polarities are set up in Wei Hui’s novel as in Hong Ying’s: East-West lovers; love versus desire; impotent-potent. Both novels tout sensationalized sex with Western men as female liberation. In Wei Hui’s novel, Coco (after Chanel) is involved with Tian Tian, her impotent artist soulmate, but passionately drawn to Mark, a sexy, married German businessman. It became an international bestseller when the rights were sold in nineteen countries. Japan alone printed 200,000 copies. Similarly, K had large sales when it was first published in Chinese in Taiwan in 1999; when parts of it were serialized in the mainland periodical Writer and a digest in Sichuan Youth Daily; when Dutch and Swedish editions appeared in 2000; and when it was published in the United States in 2002.

Fredric Jameson has posited that Chinese works may more often reveal a “national allegory,” writers longing to articulate repressed and interwoven personal and national desires and dreams. This brings us back to the politics of reading. It’s possible that the Chinese may be socialized into reading allegorically, unlike the American reader. In the 1920s, in some stories like Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” the Chinese male is portrayed as impotent, mirroring China’s political powerlessness against foreign powers. In the puritanical culture of China (which still survives, in some respects), where sex was rarely discussed openly and affection rarely displayed publicly, the protagonist of Yu Dafu’s story cries out, “What I want is love./If there were a beautiful woman who understood my suffering, I would be willing to die for her…. For what I want is love from the opposite sex.” His despair over his inability to find and enjoy love and sex while living in Japan parallels his own “sinking” feeling about China, then prey to aggressive foreign countries (Germany, France, Russia, England and Japan) and subject to unequal treaties. The perceived humiliation of the Chinese nation by foreign powers is projected into literary images of weak Chinese men.

This despair over the “sinking” of desire and China reverberates in Ha Jin’s prize-winning novel Waiting. Here too we can read a “national allegory” that interferes in the fulfillment of desire, but it is not a foreign force or country. It is the Chinese state in the figure of a provincial judge who controls the desire of Lin Kong. Lin Kong is bound to an illiterate woman in an arranged marriage (representing old China), and because of the state’s punishing marriage and divorce laws, is unable to marry the “city girl,” Manna, whom he passionately desires. He waits for eighteen years.

What, then, is the national allegory for and Shanghai Baby, novels written by the “beauties” of the Deng Xiaoping era? These are novels about gender and politics: female desire, weak Chinese men and sexual power plays with foreign men. The women break their cultural and “mind-forg’d manacles,” as Blake called them–the traditional image of Chinese feminine passivity–to realize their erotic desires. Some might say these authors represent the new liberated youth of China, who are drawn to the West and rescue the Chinese novel from puritanism and the party censors; others will charge them with clichéd sentiment and imagery and cultural backpedaling.

Hong Ying acknowledges in the foreword to her novel that it is based on a “true story” of the romance of Julian Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf and son of Vanessa Bell, and Lin (Ling Shuhua), a writer of romantic stories. This romance, documented in letters and diaries, actually did take place in China in the mid-1930s, between Julian Bell, poet and activist, and Ling Shuhua, a writer and painter who was the daughter of the mayor of Beijing and the wife of Chen Yuan, a prominent historian and literary critic. It was a mercurial relationship, and when the affair was discovered by the gentlemanly husband, Bell’s academic dean, Bell left Wuhan in a cloud of scandal. He then joined the ambulance corps of a British Medical Unit in the Spanish Civil War, against the protestations of his mother and Bloomsbury friends. He died in Fuencarral, north of Madrid, days after his arrival, at the age of 29. embellishes upon the lives of Julian Bell, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell, as well as Ling Shuhua and Chen Yuan, all the while mixing “facts” and “fiction.”

This isn’t the first time that Chen Xiaoying’s famous parents have been misrepresented. How familiar, we wonder, are Chinese readers with the history that Hong Ying embroiders upon in her fiction, against those who have distorted the reputations of Chen Xiaoying’s parents in China for political and allegorical purposes in past decades? Their reputations waxed and waned during the Republican period; they were vilified for their association with the Crescent Moon group, Western liberalism, English tastes and literature, and the Nationalist cause. Ancestry law in China, unlike America, prohibits defamation of the dead. The Supreme People’s Court has issued explicit stipulations that the reputation of the deceased and their blood relatives is protected against libel for three generations. Chen Xiaoying demanded that the presses be stopped. She also asked for 200,000 yuan ($24,000) in damages and a public apology from Hong Ying for slandering her parents in the guise of fiction. On December 3 a Manchurian court ruled that Hong Ying had “[violated] the reputation of the plaintiff’s ancestors.” Now cannot be published in any form in China, film-rights negotiations must be suspended and Hong Ying has been ordered to pay 140,000 yuan (about $18,000) to Chen Xiaoying for “spiritual consolation” and financial damages.

This blurring of genres is familiar to American readers accustomed to the fictional work of Philip Roth and others, and the new “biographies” such as Dutch, by Edmund Morris. Morris dramatizes Ronald Reagan’s life and leaves the reader to sort out the facts. The reader of K is left with the same dilemma. Hong Ying, however, defensively writes in her foreword:

I was, after all, aiming to write a novel not a biography. It was my prerogative as a novelist to use my imagination in developing the story from its historical basis and my tale does not claim to be a factual account of the lives of the two lovers.

Hong Ying tries to have it both ways. Though the foreword to the novel is presented as fact, it is a tissue of inaccuracies. Ling Shuhua was on the margins of the Crescent Moon group, a loose association of literary friends, not a “member” of a formal literary “New Moon Society.” Also, Julian Bell did not believe that “Oriental women were all docile sweetness.” In his letters to his mother, he describes Ling Shuhua, for example, as “subtle, sensitive, very complicated–also torn between an introspective and analytic part,” and “at once self-possessed, sure of her world and devilish.” Here history is more interesting than Hong Ying’s fictional stereotypes. In addition, Hong Ying hides her scholarly sources in claiming “no one else had drawn the two halves of this story together.”


Despite all this cultural spin in England and China, K comes off as a pat treatment of East-West romance, never quite living up to the psychological and cultural dimensions of the historical relationship. Though Hong Ying denies it in her foreword, Julian Bell is indeed presented as a “cartoon imperialist,” riding in a rickshaw upon arrival in Wuhan, observing the desperate poverty around while arrogantly announcing “that he had seen more poverty in London’s East End.” The chief protagonist, Lin–whose romantic writings Hong Ying announces she admires–becomes a stereotype seductress with secret knowledge of the Daoist arts of love. Lin, “a witch in bed,” practices these arts upon the hapless Englishman, reduced to moaning about becoming a “sex toy.” Experiencing multiple orgasms, vowing to learn to “rein back the white ox,” he vows to measure up to this “Chinese blue-stocking.” Near the end of their affair, Lin takes Julian to the folkloric opium house for a ménage à trois, and here she throws off her last sexual inhibitions. The facts of the actual relationship were less sensational on this point, though. In one of the letters that Julian actually wrote to his friend Eddy Playfair, he described Ling Shuhua as an “admirable mistress,” but he said, “on the whole I shouldn’t put her very high in bed; on the other hand, she’s so charming out of it that I don’t mind.”

As if the real Bloomsburian antics weren’t enough, Hong Ying’s erotic imagination extends further into the Bloomsbury cast. In one passage, Julian says that “when his mother was pregnant with him, his father, Clive Bell, had a relationship with Aunt Virginia. After his birth, Mother took Roger Fry as her lover, encouraging his father to pursue her women friends.” Virginia Woolf had a flirtation, perhaps, with Clive Bell, as suggested in letters, but it is sensationalism that transforms it into a full-blown affair in the novel. Hong Ying lifts other episodes straight from Bloomsbury letters and diaries, as when Lytton Strachey walked boldly into a room and pointed to a spot on Vanessa Bell’s dress, asking, “Semen?” At another point, she recounts the plot of Ling Shuhua’s autobiography, Ancient Melodies, and remains discreet about her sources. And so Bloomsbury glitter, immorality and bashing now travel to China as a model of liberalism or, perhaps, barbarism.

In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay, in his professional ambitions, gets to the letter “R,” having longed for “Z”; in this novel, Julian Bell gets to K (number eleven), assigning letters of the alphabet to his sexual conquests. The book is a transparent reaction to Chinese puritanism and censoring of sex in novels. Even the cover of the book, an embroidered golden “K” overlaid on a nude female body, has traces of Hester Prynne’s “A.” And the language is, at times, breathlessly and laughably Harlequin: “Duncan loved to paint male models in erotic positions, sometimes a few of them together in acrobatic sexual poses, with Mother [Vanessa Bell] watching appreciatively.” At another point, Lin’s “fox fur coat slid to the floor with a rushing whisper.”

The house of fiction has a million windows, Henry James wrote, but in China, the windows have long been shaded by the Writers’ Union, the literary agents of the Communist government. We begin to see more through these windows than just sexually liberated Chinese nymphets romping with Westerners in the bedroom, as in Hong Ying’s K. One longs for more translations of stories like Li Rui’s Silver City, a sprawling novel that takes us from the intrigues and struggles of the Li and Bai clans during the pre-Communist 1920s to the Communist takeover, and then up to the Cultural Revolution. Or tales like Wang Anyi’s Lapse of Time, quiet and probing portraits of the inner lives of people enduring the adversity and sadness of China’s tumultuous history, such as the Cultural Revolution or times when people went nearly mad from hunger. Nevertheless, now that the book has become a commodity in Chinese culture, commercial glimmerings on the mainland and abroad–like Hong Ying’s K–begin to illuminate the many windows that will develop in the house of Chinese fiction.

View article on The Nation: "Bloomsburied in China."


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