Xinran’s latest is a labour of love. She has worked on it since spring 2013, since when several of its subjects have died, as well as her husband, legendary literary agent Toby Eady, who is memorialised in the foreword and afterword (and occasionally in the narrative). Xinran’s heart is on every page, as is her love – for her husband, for women, and for Chinese women in particular, who have been her perennial subject. This book is about love, specifically talking love (谈恋爱). I’ve always been a sucker for romanticism, particularly that poetic, thoughtful, pained Chinese romanticism, and it doesn’t disappoint.
The book is structured in four parts, all from a single root. A friend had introduced Xinran to an elderly lady, Han Anhong, whose husband’s dying wish was that she take a virginity test. She does so, and is shown never to have had sex in 61 years of marriage. Through Xinran, who interviews her over a long period, Han (known as Red) tells her story, which starts when she was nine during the Chinese civil war with her father arranging her marriage to his friend’s son. He has another love, who has disappeared, and so their long celibate marriage is one of ‘ceiling gazing’ and talking about love; for her, the Cultural Revolution was the ‘longest holiday I had during the “life sentence” of my marriage’. Thanks to his love for another, she is unable to become a wife or a mother.
Hearing the sound of his gentle snoring and seeing the outline of his body lying next to me under the blanket, I felt a mix of anger and grief rise up in me. Nine long years I had waited for this. For this! I couldn’t help but think of the lines written by Li Guan in his work Butterflies in Love with Flowers: there are ten thousand ways in which I miss you, But even these are lost in the vastness of the universe.
Red is one of nine siblings; three died young, three stayed into revolutionary China, and three left. Xinran interviews more members of Red’s family. We are told the story of Red’s sister Green, educated at one of Beijing’s best schools in the early communist period (in one of the most vivid depictions of that time I have read), during which time she falls in love with a man from an extremely poor Shandong background. Xinran then tells us the story of Green’s daughter Crane, who is rusticated during the Cultural Revolution and teaches poetry to her commune while ‘picking up bad habits from the peasants’ and falling in love. After Crane, we hear the stories of a third younger generation.
Xinran has alighted on a fantastically rich and deeply personal trove of stories. There is heartache, tragedy and pure romance, told by a family of women with a deep and abiding love for Chinese poetry. Each person in the family even has colour-based nicknames that translate well to English for readers less familiar with Chinese. It is skilfully composed, reading fluidly as if recounted by her subjects, with amusing and interesting turns of phrase and observations. The sections are punctuated by the occasional short intervention by Xinran herself to remark, exclaim or explain (and Xinran is clearly a talented teacher, and fantastically good at explaining aspects of Chinese culture concisely and effectively). If there is a criticism to make it is that at times it is rather too effective at feeling like your Great Aunt recounting a story, complete with some tangents that are a little rambling.
For the first three quarters we are in familiar territory – the Chinese twentieth century being told through the experiences of one family of women. So far, so Wild Swans. By telling through testimony it can glide over complex history; it feels fresh and is often heart-meltingly romantic. Only the assurance that these are real stories separates them from nostalgic romantic movies like The Road Home (我的父亲母亲) or one of those long Chinese TV series about rusticated youth falling for each other (and for the People too, of course).
But the last quarter is the intriguing and distinguishing part. In this quarter we hear from three of the current younger generation. Xinran has an innocent bemusement at WeChat and the video calling technology she must use for these interviews. Their stories are incomplete, of course, and while they felt a little self-indulgently angsty at times their experiences of modern love are profoundly depressing. Somehow the insights are a little triter and the language a little riper than in the previous sections (“I felt very strongly that her heart was like a clear spring formed from the drops of her tears”). The contrast between their soulless sibling-free world of meaningless sex, online flirting, throwaway mistresses – and marriages – and fatherless children and the earlier generations’ great romances is stark. One of the three subjects links speed dating to the ‘loss of our Chinese civilisation’. But this puts doubts in my mind that Xinran doesn’t explore. Is it true, and is it fair? Is the new generation really so much worse off? It is a deeply pessimistic note to end on if so. The trials of the older generations have an anguished nostalgia – their times do not come across as easy, but they do feel fulfilling and full of life. Did they feel so at the time? One of the subjects compares dating to exhausting travel. When this younger generation looks back on their youth will they only remember the exhaustion and pain, or will they also allow themselves a wistful smile at their ‘journey’ and lost loves in uncertain times?
While the final section did leave me feeling a little hollow, I did love this book. Xinran had originally planned a fifth section to retell some classic Chinese love stories – they are not needed, as there is plenty of love in this book already.