I was vaguely aware of the controversy around Jia Pingwa's Broken Flowers《极花》(and The Poleflower, going by the earliest translation), so I picked up the book expecting it to be a full-throated defense of human trafficking. I don't remember if I even picked it up, when it came out originally. Probably not. With Jia Pingwa, I'm still stuck in the '90s. But ACA sent me a copy of Nicky Harman's translation and I was impressed (by the translation and by what Jia had accomplished).
The book is about a young woman named Butterfly, a village girl that travels with her parents to the city, where they work as trash collectors. She is tricked by a man she takes to be a recruiter, then winds up on a bus she thinks is going to a trade show in Lanzhou—but he slips something into her drink and she winds up trapped in a gave in a village not far from Xi'an, raped and beaten by a man named Bright. The story is based on events related to Jia by a couple in his home village. In that story, the young woman returned, only to head back to her former captor, missing her child and finding herself unwelcome in her home village; in Broken Wings, Butterfly gives birth to a son and—this is ambiguous—is rescued but finds life in the city without her baby too much to bear, and returns to her captor.
It's not impossible to have sympathy for the backwards and poor villagers in the novel, but Butterfly's kidnap and torture is central. The reader sees her raped, beaten, and locked in a cave. The only ray of light is her son, Rabbit, who she is forced to abandon when she returns to the city. Broken Wings is not a paean to village life or a call to restore traditional ideas of masculinity.
The controversy was mostly a response to comments Jia made prior to the book's release:
Interviewer: Can you lay out the story for me?
Jia Pingwa: It's very simple. A woman is tricked and gets abducted and sent to another part of the province. The novel is about how she lives there, what happens to her when she escapes, what happens to her when she goes back. That's about it. I can sum up the entire book in two or three sentences.
Interviewer: It's bizarre, isn't it? Is this based on a true story?
Jia Pingwa: Of course. I didn't tell anybody that before I sat down to write it, though. The story was like a knife in my heart. Whenever it came to mind, I felt it burrowing its way deeper. When I was writing Happy Dreams, someone from my village that had come to work in Xi'an had his daughter abducted. She got shipped off to Shanxi. Me and Old Sun [孙见喜, Jia's biographer] got involved. We were sitting beside the phone all day and all night, waiting to hear news. Finally, in the middle of the night, the call came that she'd been rescued. Later, I heard about the rescue. The villagers had tried to beat the police. It was like something out of a movie. I didn't want to write about the police, though. There are plenty of other cases with more material, I thought. I could have dug up a case file that was even more bizarre and brutal. What I was interested in was: how come the city is getting fat while the village starves to death? I wanted to understand how people live in those villages, the psychology of the place.
Interviewer: You mean, why they have to kidnap women?
Jia Pingwa: Right. I wanted to describe the life of one of those women. The man whose daughter was kidnapped told me that the village was way up in the hills, and the people up there live in caves. They don't have wheat, so they don't eat any bread. What his daughter went through was horrible. The traffickers had beat her, raped her, told her they'd cut her face up if she caused any trouble, told her they'd kill her and sell her kidneys. She was standing right there when they negotiated the price she was going to be sold at. When she arrived in the village, the man that bought her tied her up and set a guard on her. She was trapped in a cave for months. They only let her out once she'd given birth. Of course, the book is fiction, but that's what it was based on.
Interviewer: The way you talk about it, these people sound like bandits.
Jia Pingwa: In a way, sure. When I first heard the story, I was furious. Human trafficking is cruel. It must be stopped. But the situation is more complicated than I first thought. When the police came to rescue his daughter, the villagers were shouting: Why can't we have wives? You took all thirteen of them! You want our village to go extinct? If you think about it, this must be happening in many other villages, too. There must be an explanation. Why do the men in those villages have to buy wives? Why are women being abducted? In most villages, the able-bodied men are long gone. They have left to find work. The same goes for young women. After they're gone, the only people left in the village are men with no skills to sell, and no money. They can't find women to marry. Most of those men that go out of the village for work will probably return, but the women won't. So, you have village after village of bachelors. The village is going to go extinct. This is a serious problem, but who's going to help them?In a piece titled "Can Jia Pingwa shake the label of 'straight man cancer'?" 贾平凹被批"直男癌"，冤不冤? (zhinanai 直男癌 is basically toxic masculinity/male chauvinism), the author notes the "fierce criticism" 猛烈批评 had come in for and opens with a line from another interview: "If [Bright] didn't buy a wife, he would never have had a chance to get married. If the village gave up the practice, it would go extinct." The writer goes on to attack the idea that the village is being starved in favor of the city, saying that, "There has never been nor will there ever will be a contradiction between town and country. ... The idea of rural destitution is false. Conditions in the countryside have only improved. Nostalgia for a bygone rural social order is not only uncalled-for but completely ridiculous."
They close with this: "In Broken Wings, Jia Pingwa writes about rural ruin and heartbreak. He questions the system that robs villages of their vitality. But what he doesn't do is maintain any curiosity about the human condition, which is especially important in this age of great change. This kind of writing is missing from Broken Wings. The deep pity he tries to express is hollow, confused and suffused with cheap emotion."
That sentiment is expressed again in a widely-circulated review by Hou Hongbin 侯虹斌:
Why will no women marry into a village like that? If a village like that disappears, wouldn't it be a good thing? Most people can provide an answer: the chauvinistic attitudes of the villagers are oppressive, and the women they could have married were murdered as infants. The men in these sorts of villages are poor, lazy, and debased. Look at Bright Black... He lived off his mother's hard work, and once she was dead, the two men, in the prime of their lives, were impoverished. Women are no better than beasts of burden. Their life in the village is hell. I don't know why Jia Pingwa wants to save this kind of village.An old guy like Jia doesn't know how good people in the city have it, so let the villages die:
Large cities are relatively egalitarian. But writers of the last generation probably can't understand that. They can't stand to see how things are going. They don't understand new things and new emotions. They can't deal with the equality of men and women, or people that don't want to get married, or all the various sexual orientations. All of these human rights, freedoms, and rule of law—it freaks them out. Back in the countryside, they are still in charge. They want to maintain these backwards places and cultures.The real problem for Jia's critics—and we're not really talking about the novel, at this point, but deeper issues—is some sort of bad masculinity: men drown their daughters, men are too lazy to support their wives and children, men have chauvinistic attitudes, etc. etc.
It's a popular liberal feminist take, easy enough to find outside of the Broken Wings reviews.
Lijia Zhang says it, too: "The main challenges facing women today is the deeply rooted male chauvinism and the growing gender inequality."
In her 2017 novel, Lotus, the eponymous protagonist is a village girl in the big city who enters the sex trade. Rich men try to take her as a mistress but she is pure of heart and falls in love with a liberal man educated at an elite university, a photographer who loves democracy, marched in '89, but is still kind of a jerk. She views the city as inhospitable and alien but a good place to make money. Village society rejects her. When her brother finds out that she's the mistress of the photographer, he asks her, "How are you going to face our ancestors?" She pleads with him: "I know my shames and sins are so deep. I couldn't clean myself even if I jumped into the South China Sea." At the end of the book, it looks as if she's given up hope on returning to the village, opting for life as a mistress.
The city has given Lotus choices. Lijia Zhang says she was "impressed with [sex workers'] resilience and goodness." The female characters in Lotus are "much stronger than the male ones, which reflects the reality." Sure, the "market economy has placed women in an unfavourable position" but that can be solved by women "[taking] the matter into their own hands." The political and economic system is mostly fine, and the market will sort things out, as long as "activism is tolerated by the authorities."
It all comes down to men. But, as Jia pointed out in his interview, the men are leaving, too. The only ones left behind are those unable to leave or those who have returned.
But why are they leaving? The city is the only place where most can make a living.
The gap between rural and urban net incomes has been widening since 1978. There is a vast gulf between the new urban middle class and rural farmers and working class. And on top of that, income inequality is worse in rural than urban China. Stanford's Rural Education Action Program (REAP) went to rural Shaanxi and found 57% of toddlers were cognitively delayed. "China had 3.6 million villages in 2000 – but only 2.7 million by 2010. In one decade 900,000 villages disappeared, almost 250 per day," as Liu Qin notes in a piece about Broken Wings for China Dialogue.
The hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China are not necessarily escaping the village because they want to, and things are usually shit for them in the city, too, since they're working without official registration, in dangerous and dirty conditions, often separated from their children, spouses, and parents. They become part of the low-end population 低端人口, staying in temporary shelter that can disappear overnight.
Looking at the gendered nature of economic reform and urbanization, Li Sipan 李思磐 in an essay translated by David Ownby for Reading the China Dream sums things up like this:
China’s market reforms, especially since the 1990s, if evaluated in terms of their influence of social gender, have been a revival of capitalist patriarchal control. In the process of the development of the market economy, the state has dismantled the social welfare sector (such as cafeterias, nursery schools and kindergartens formerly operated by work units, while those found in enterprises and government agencies have continued to operate) so as to avoid the inefficiencies of a “work unit-run society,” the influence of which has been particularly disadvantageous for women. Women make up the biggest part of the unemployment problem created by the reform of state enterprises, while young, unmarried women without rights protection make up 70% of the work force in the coastal industrial zone. In this process, labor has been regendered (agriculture and villages are sustained by married and left-behind women; many gendered positions have been created in assembly line production, commerce, and service industries)...The essay is good and worth reading, covering the liberal approach to feminism, which mirrors a Western liberal feminist approach, too: there might be problems (one way Chinese liberal intellectuals differ from their Western counterparts is in trying not to mention feminism at all, though) but the state must be kept out of it because individual rights might be infringed upon.
As Li Sipan points out, "male elite gender privilege" is a problem, but there are deeper structural problems that require more than women taking matters into their own hands. So, it's pretty unfair, shortsighted, and cruel to lay everything on the chauvinism of rural men, who are unlikely to be beneficiaries of those systems of oppression. Full communism and then dismantle the patriarchy, for everyone's benefit.
Zooming in on village life again, what about the horrible local traditions and ingrained patriarchal beliefs of rural men? I think Jia makes it clear throughout this book and the rest of his work that even village traditions and customs and beliefs are not, necessarily, pure, but are filtered through, created by, reproduced by, mediated by economic conditions and state policy. Quoting Li Sipan again, "the consumerist discourse required by the market has flourished, becoming a powerful vehicle singing the praises of women's traditional role in the family and traditional body images, and a powerful disciplining force."
It might be a bit provocative to ask how rural men get fucked over by those local customs and traditional roles... Shen Wenxi 沈文熙 brings it up in her review, talking about the idea of jianvdingnan 甲女丁男 (or 富剩女穷光棍). Basically: women have more opportunity to marry up, into a higher standard of living, while men are bound to return to the village, where prospects are not so good. Now, I'm sure you can see the problem with that idea, but if not, just re-read the Li Sipan quote. But there is something to rural women being able to marry out of the countryside: "...rural women are twice as likely than rural men to marry an urban hukou holder...". (Marriage to an urban hukou is not always peaches and cream, and often involves the women becoming "unpaid reproductive workers.")
But I think the point is made.
I want to get back to the book itself, though, and I appreciate Nick Stember summing it up more elegantly than I have:
The question Jia had then, he writes, was why would she go back? In this sense, [Broken Wings] isn’t so much a defense of rural villages, as it is an indictment of increasingly irreparable divide between the urban and the rural in Chinese society. What he is asking, I think, is for readers to consider the plight of women in the villages who can’t get out—it cannot be a coincidence that most of the women who live in the village aside from Butterfly are mentally or physically disabled. While the idea that the villages should just die out or disappear may seem like taking the moral highroad, it conveniently ignores the fact that the ‘Chinese economic miracle’ of the last 30 years has incentivized the cheap labor and undervalued agricultural products (another theme) made possible by rural poverty.Oh, and I should throw in the review of the novel by Shi Zhanjun 施战军 here, too, which I can't find a copy of online right now, since it makes some of the same mistakes, I think, but from another direction. The review begins: "Despite China's extensive development, this novel reminds us that rural areas still remain in stuck in an economic and cultural 'prehistorical' state." The village isn't in a prehistoric, pure state! The village is fucked because of forces far beyond its own control, its been destroyed by those forces. Hou Hongbin seems to be reacting to this view of things in her article, where she attacks the idea of "pure, traditional" villages—Jia is not describing a pure or traditional place, but that take is floating around out there.
I'll get back to that later. But anyways, so, moving to the next accusation against Jia, that he lacks sympathy for his female protagonist... Here, we can get back to the book.
I'll say this: I don't see it. The men of the Broken Wings, especially Bright, are not monsters, but there are times in the book you wish they'd be crushed by a boulder. Butterfly is the most sympathetic of sympathetic characters. The fantasy of escape scene is moving. You want her to be safe and happy. The descriptions of Butterfly and her son, Rabbit, will bring you to tears. I mean, I just don't see it. Read this:
When One was born, I didn’t want to look at him. I remembered Auntie Spotty-Face saying that, once you set eyes on your new-born, you were bound to it forever, so I decided not to. But as soon as I heard Full-Barn’s mum say: “You’re a dirty little thing!” and realised he’d fallen into the ash basket, I got such a fright I sat up for a look. He was a skinny, tiny thing, like a hairless rat, and his little face was all wrinkled, he was so ugly and dirty, and apart from the ash, his body was covered in sticky white stuff.
I lay down, wordless, a sudden flush on my cheeks. Was this really my baby? And so ugly! Had I given birth to a monster because I’d been raped? What with the long, hard pregnancy and then the breech birth, this baby had nearly cost me my life! Fine, I said to myself, I’ve given birth to you now, and that’s taken away from me all the shame, the loathing and the suffering. From now on, you’re you and I’m me, you’re no son of mine and you can forget I’m your mother.
But at night, when the cave was plunged in darkness, and One started to cry, he had such a loud, clear voice, it was as if a lamp had been lit and the flames leapt up and spirits awakened in everything in the cave – the table, the chairs, the flagons and jars, the bedding and pillows, and all the papercuts stuck to the window and walls – seemed to come to joyous life. I’d never felt like that before, I was filled with a nameless happiness.
“Bring him to me,” I told Bright.
One lay on my breast, and he stopped whimpering and went back to sleep. I touched him all over, kissing his head, his bottom, and his tiny hands and feet. His skin was like snow and his body was soft like jade. This is my son, I thought to myself, flesh dropped from my body. ...
It suddenly occurred to me that my baby should be called Rabbit, because when the goddess Chang’e was all alone on the moon, she had a rabbit to keep her company. I cuddled him and kissed him: “Rabbit, Rabbit.”
“Are you calling One, ‘Rabbit’?” Bright said.
“He’s not ‘One’, he’s Rabbit.”
“Fine, ‘Rabbit’ it is then,” Bright conceded. “That’s a good name too. How long before Rabbit says ‘Dad’?”
He’ll only say ‘Mum’, I said silently. I looked at the ceiling of the cave, though I couldn’t see it, only blackness. I popped Rabbit’s little foot into my mouth again, it was like a sugar lump, ready to dissolve, then I took it out of my mouth. Rabbit, you listen to your mum, one day Mum’ll take you to the big city, we’re not staying in this desperate place.
I had the feeling that the world had shrunk around me till the world was only me, and I was a spirit here in this village, in this cave.Part of it is the ambiguity, I guess, how it evokes feelings and doesn't resolve them. There's no happy ending.
You can ask, like, what could she have done differently? But there's no answer, because there shouldn't be one. Maybe she can escape, but maybe she can't. Maybe she's choosing to stay. Maybe she has no choice. Life leads you down certain alleys and sometimes you end up at the bottom of a pit, not sure if you'll ever get out. There is no way for Butterfly to take matters into her own hands, as Lijia Zhang suggests women should, because how the hell is she going to do that? How the hell are you going to do that?
I always want to quote from Zhang Ailing's 张爱玲 "Writing of One's Own," which is something I reach for whenever I have to talk about writing in a serious way. Zhang worries that "people who like to write literature usually concentrate on the uplifting and dynamic aspects of life" (translated by Andrew Jones, taken from Written On Water, Columbia University Press, 2005). Instead, her goal is to write about the "placid and static aspects of life," because "even if this sort of stability is often precarious and subject at regular intervals to destruction, it remains eternal. ... It is the numinous essence of humanity, and one might also say it is the essence of femininity." Desolation rather than celebration.
The section on characters, I think, applies here:
There are very few people, after all, who are either extremely perverse or extremely enlightened. Times as weighty as these do not allow for easy enlightenment. In the past few years, people have gone on living their lives, and even their madness seems measured. [My characters] are not heroes, but they are of the majority who actually bear the weight of the times. As equivocal as they may be, they are also in earnest about their lives. They lack tragedy; all they have is desolation. Tragedy is a kind of closure, while desolation is a form of revelation.
I know that people are urgent in their demand for closure and, if they cannot have it, will only be satisfied by further excitement. They seem to be impatient with revelation in its own right. But I cannot write in any other way. I think that writing in this manner is more true to life. I know that my works lack strength, but since I am a writer of fiction, the only authority I have is to give expression to the inherent strength of my characters and not fabricate strength on their behalf. Moreover, I believe that although they are merely weak and ordinary people and cannot aspire to heroic feats of strength, it is precisely these ordinary people who can serve more accurately than heroes as a measure of the times.Zhang Ailing's invocation of Michelangelo's unfinished Dawn, "only very roughly hewn and even the facial features are indistinct" is getting at the same thing Jia is reaching for in the novel's afterword and his comparison between ink-wash painting and the style of Broken Wings. Particularly important are the idea of liubai 留白 (leaving blank space) and xieyi 写意 (to suggest a theme or form rather than depicting it in careful detail):
There are many ways of writing a novel but nowadays it seems to be the fashion to write violent, extreme narratives. Maybe that is what today’s readers want, but it does not suit me. I have always thought that my writing was somehow akin to ink-wash paintings, painting in words, you might say. … The essence of ink-wash painting lies in xieyi, the ‘suggestion’ rather than the detail. ... That is the core of this art form; xieyi is not concerned either with reason or with unreason. It is truth, not a conceptual idea."Perplexity, loneliness, affliction and disillusionment are always the dominant characteristics of the mentality of [Zhang Ailing's] characters," and the same goes for Jia's (quoting from "Transgressing Boundaries: Hybridity in Zhang Ailing's Writing and Its Multidimensional Interpretations in Contemporary China" by Yuan Wang, which is here).
And I think Stijn Thomas Wijker gets at something important, perhaps contradicting my points on sympathy, talking about Jia's new orientation toward the countryside:
In 2006, Wang Yiyan categorized Jia’s "nativist writing" as a form of cultural nostalgia similar to writings by Shen Congwen. Wang's critical framework is partly predicated upon the idea that it is Jia’s "mission to reassert Shangzhou's place on the cultural map of China." ... Jia's writing has shifted towards Wang Yiyan's category of nativist writing concerned with "national defects." The focus of Jia's work does no longer only lie on the "innocence" and "a passion for the land, the people and their cultures from 'within.'" Rather, the work starts to show some characteristics similar to the writings by Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936) Su Tong 苏童 (b. 1963). In those works, characters are "hideous and pathetic" and "hostility permeates the small town, where the residents are enemies to the extent that apathy is a virtue." ... Wang senses that Jia's writing has become "increasingly critical of local characters, which is quite different from his previous lyrical, pastoral writings." Novels like The Lantern Bearer and more recently The Poleflower (2016), that addresses the issue of human trafficking in rural China, demonstrate that Jia has indeed developed in that direction.And maybe, I can go from that to drawing together both charges, the urban-rural thing, and Butterfly and sympathy... Butterfly, like many Jia characters, is trapped in between the city and the country (I mean, yes, she's literally trapped in a cave for much of the book, but you know what I mean), the old and the new. Zhuang Zhidie 庄之蝶 fits that mold, but maybe Zhou Min 周敏 and Tang Wan'er 唐婉儿 are better examples from Ruined City 《废都》; and Ye Lang 夜郎 in White Nights 《白夜》, Gao Zilu 高子路 in Old Gao Village《高老庄》, Xia Feng 夏风 in Qinqiang《秦腔》, Happy Liu 刘高兴 in《高兴 》fit, too. For those sojourners and temporary and not-so-temporary residents in the city, the city is the place they have escaped to. Zhuang Zhidie finds fame and fortune in ten short years in Xijing; Tang Wan'er flees her family, her abusive husband, and oppressive village society to find a new life in the city; and Ye Lang is escaping family life and village culture, too, to find himself in the city... Butterfly is disgusted by the village but knows she can't stay in the city, either.
These characters all express nostalgia for a mostly imaginary traditional culture and society, but usually come to find that it's impossible to return to, or it's been perverted or tainted by centuries of modernization and more recent marketization (the fake Tang streets in Ruined City, the opera troupe in Qinqiang propped up by the local government but its performers making a living singing pop songs...) And the promises of the city prove to be illusory. Like the traveling doctor in Jia's fable of the mummified monk, who finds himself reduced to a pile of bones rather than having his body preserved—it's just as impossible to return to the imagined past...
In Broken Wings, the pattern is flipped, in a way, with an urban character arriving in the village. Butterfly is from the countryside but she's most at home in the city, and can't adjust to life in the village. Unlike Xixia 西夏 in Old Gao Village, another urban character sent down to experience life in the village, Butterfly—for obvious reasons, like being chained up in a cave—experiences the village as a prison. The town-country in-betweener is the perfect character to sum up the pluses and minuses on both sides. But the setting, whether city or village, raises questions: Where do I belong? What do I believe in? Should I stay or should I go?