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||Wang Anyi (b. 1954) written also: Wang An-yi|
Chinese writer who has in particular depicted Shanghai life. Wang Anyi represents the generation of writers whose formal education was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. She is among the most widely read and anthologized authors of the post-Mao era, a breaker of taboos and a speaker for China's younger generation. Wang's most acclaimed Shanghai novel is the nostalgic Changhen ge (1996, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow). It follows the aspirations and muted sufferings of a beauty pageant winner, from 1940s Shanghai through the political storms of China.
--'How was it in those years?'
Wang Anyi was born in Nanjing, the daughter of Wang Xiaoping (1919-2003), a
writer and stage director, and Ru Zhijuan (1925-1998), a noted novelist, who made her breakthrough as a writer in 1958 with Lilies. The
family moved in 1955 to Shanghai, the native city of Wang's
mother. Thanks to the cultured home, Wang recited classical poetry at an
early age; she used to read herself to sleep. As a young girl she dreamed of becoming a scientist or a doctor.
Wang graduated in 1969 from junior high school. Because her father, a member of the Communist Party, had been denounced as a Rightist when Wang Anyi was only three, she was unable to continue her education. At the age of sixteen, a member of the "Urban Youth" generation, she was sent to the Toupu Commune in Huabei Wuhe County, Anhui Province, an impoverished area near the Huai River, where she was supposed to learn from the peasants.
Wang became an activist in the study of Chairman Mao's thoughs and in 1972 she joined the Communist Youth League. Eventually she managed to escape from the hard life of the commune by joining the Cultural and Art Troupe of Xuzhous District in 1973. During this period she met her future husband, Li Zhang, who worked as the troupe director. Learning the cello, she traveled through Anhui, Shanxi, and Henan provinces, performing "revolutionary model operas."
Wang had begun publishing stories in the mid-1970s. Her first essay, entitled 'Marble,' was included in Fei ba, shidai de kunpeng, edited by Zhang Kangkang. After the Cultural Revolution and the fall of the Gang of Four, she returned in 1978 to Shanghai to work for the magazine Ertong shidai (Children's Era). Her novel, Shui shi weilat de zhongduizhang won the annual Best Literary Work award of the magazine Shaonian Wenyi (Childhood) and the National Second Prize for Children's Literature. In 1980 Wang Anyi became a member of the Chinese Association of Writers.
Most of Wang Anyi's early writings are largely based on her personal experiences during the 1960s and 1970s, including the short stories 'The Destination' (1981), about students who return to Shanghai after years in the countryside, and 'Life in a Small Courtyard,' which depicted a group of actors and their relationships. Originally this story was published in 1980 in Fiction Quarterly; its first English translation appeared in Chinese Literature in 1983.
The author has said: "I hope that my fiction has this effect-that people will read it and say, "Yes... this is the way things were once upon a time. These are lives that people led.'" Liushi (1983, Lapse of Time) portrays the humiliations and frustrations in the everyday lives of the back-alley residents of Shanghai. In the title story, which won the Prize for Best Novelette of 1982, the protagonist is a strong woman of bourgeois background, who holds her family together through forty years of hardships. She is forced to work in a factory, but she never abandons awareness of her class origins. Baozhuang (1985, Baotown) is an example of the school of fiction characterized as "seeking for roots." In the award-winning novella Wang explored the traditional values still alive in the countryside. The twenty-odd villagers of the story escape their everyday life in dreams, which unite people in a common bond of hope. There is no protagonist; Wang's observing is carried out through loosely structured, fragmentary impressions, which record the minutiae of the characters' daily life.
After participating with her mother in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the United States in 1983, Wang's fiction moved away from socialist realism toward psychological exploration. Trips to various parts of Asia have also been a source of inspiration for her. Wang's short stay in a remote village in north Jiangsu inspired the novella Xiao Baozhuang. However, the most important influence on her work has been the city of Shanghai. The stories about everyday urban life often depict the struggle of the underclass. Her characters are not openly rebellious, but express their inner feelings with quiet self-confidence, and through their strong will for survival.
"Looked down upon from the highest point in the city, Shanghai's longtang?her vast neighborhoods inside enclosed alleys?are a magnificent sight. The longtang are the backdrop of this city. Streets and buildings emerge around them in a series of dots and lines, like the subtle brushstrokes that bring life to the empty expanses of white paper in a traditional Chinese landscape paintings." (in The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, 1996)
In her "Love Trilogy" published in 1986-1987, Wang Anyi explored female sexuality and marriage. "While many literary works were regarding sexual desire, favorably or unfavorably, solely as an ornament for the criticism and evaluation of social morality," said one critic, "Wang Anyi had emancipated human sexual desire from its cumbersome shell and examined it as a whole, an independent aesthetic object." (Feral Children and Prisoners of Sex: Wang Anyi's "Love in a Small Town" by Gu Yaxing, 1989) The short story 'Brothers', published in 1989, contrasted marriage and the emotional attachment between women. Wang Anyi's cool, existential spirit and, to the Chinese public, the unusually explicit depiction of sexual attraction was attacked by conservative critics. The first part, Huangshan zhi lian (1986, Love on a Barren Mountain), ends in a suicide pact between adulterous lovers. Xiaocheng zhi lian (1986, In Love in a Small Town) draws a portrait of an unmarried woman, who is physically and emotionally stronger than her lover, and who ends up as a confident single mother.
Jinxiugu zhi lian (1987, Brocade Valley) starts with the words, "I want to tell a story, a story about a woman." Following a modernist technique, the narrator intervenes occasionally the story in which a young woman, bored with her husband, gains a new sense of identity through a fleeting extramarital affair. It has been noted that the work echoes Flaubert's Madame Bovary, one of Wang's favorite novels, but in Brocade Valley the heroine is more intelligent and self-aware. (Chinese Femininities / Chinese Masculinities: A Reader by Susan Brownell, 2002). Tao Zhi Yao Yao (2004) took its title from the Book of Odes. Set in Shanghai in the mid 20th century, the story told of an illegitimate girl, who grows up in the alleys of city.
Wang once said, "I firmly believe that an individual, and a people, must possess the insight and courage to engage in self-examination. This spirit of self-examination is what guarantees that individuals will become real human beings, and that a people will develop into a strong and worthy nation." (in a talk for the International Conference on Contemporary Chinese Literature, Shanghai, 1986)
In attempts to explore contemporary life from a woman's point of view, the younger generation of writers introduced narrative innovations in Chinese fiction. In the 1990s Wang turned her attention to her family genealogy, and published several works which crossed over the boundaries of mythology and history, personal memoirs and fantasies. Among these works, which critics have found hard to categorize, were Shushu de gushi (1993), a meta-fictional story about storytelling, Shangxin Taipingyang (1994), and Jishi yu Xugou (1994), which traced the roots of her mother's family from the distant past.
Changhen Ge told of the life a beauty pageant winner, Wang Qiyao, and changing times in Shanghai, from the civil war to the post-Mao Zedong era. "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." ('The Necessary Language of the Everyday: On Reading Wang Anyi' by Anjum Hasan, LARB, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 21, 2013) The title of the book refers to Bai Juyi's poem about Yang Guifei, the beloved consort of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong, whose beauty determines her tragic fate. Wang's book, a winner of the Fifth Mao Dun Literature Award, has been voted the most influential work of the 90s in China, and adapted into a television drama series and a stage play. Its film version from 2005, directed by Stanley Kwan and produced by Jackie Chan, did not gain success, both in terms of box office and critical reviews.
Wang has also published essays, journalism, travel writings, literary criticism, and memoirs. In 1988 she started a literary column in the magazine Wenxue jiao (Literary Angle) under the title "Stories and Telling Stories". She has been recognized as a writer with a quest for a friendlier, more egalitarian society. Wang's films scripts include Temptress Moon (1996), a tale of romantic intrigue, written with the director Chen Kaige. This period drama, starring Leslie Cheung, Li Gong and Kevin Lin, was set during the chaotic 10 years that followed the founding of the Republic in 1911. The original idea for the script came from the director, who later noted that "Wang Anyi's work reaches out to a very high spiritual level, which is also something I tend to strive for in my own work. So when you put us together, we are up in the clouds and it is very hard to get us to write a real, concrete story about real people." (in Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers by Michael Berry, 2004)
In December 2001, Wang was elected chairperson of the Shanghai Writers' Association. She is a professor of Chinese literature at Fudan University. After completing a novel is set in Shanghai in the late Ming period, entitled Scents of Heaven, she has found time to collect her lectures into a book. In 2017 she received the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature for her novel Jishi yu xugou (1993, Reality and Fiction).
For further reading: 'Wang Anyi,' in Chinese Fiction Writers, 1950-2000, edited by Thomas Moran and Ye (Dianna) Xu (2013): Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Vol. 2, by Lily Xiao Hong Lee et al. (2003); Chinese Femininities / Chinese Masculinities: A Reader by Susan Brownell (2002); China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature, ed. Yingjin Zhang (1999); Rewriting Gender by Ravni Thakur (1997); Wang Anyi by Hongzhen Ji (1996, in Zhong shen de xiaoxiang); Zwischen ausserer und innerer Welt: Erzahlsprosa der chinesischen Autorin Wang Anyi von 1980-1990 by Ulrike Solmecke (1995); 'Wang Anyi,' in World Authors 1985-1990, edited by Vineta Colby (1995); Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation by Laifong Leung (1994); From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in the Twentieth Century China, ed. E. Widmer and Wang D. Der-wei (1993); Feral Children and Prisoners of Sex: Wang Anyi's "Love in a Small Town" by Gu Yaxing (1989)