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.