Early in March, we learned of the...

Early in March, we learned of the passing of Ding Ling, the Chinese writer whose own life reflected much of the passion, torment and triumph of China's struggle toward liberation and revolution in the 20th Century. Born in 1904, she published her first works of fiction in 1927 and earned early prominence among the progressive intelligentsia; Ding Ling was imprisoned by the Nationalists in the mid-'30s but went on to positions of honor and influence in the Communist regime. Indeed, she was rumored to be one of Mao Tse-tung's lovers, but such intimacies did not spare her more than 20 years of internal exile after she was condemned as a "rightist" in 1957. Only in 1979 was freedom restored to Ding Ling along with an official apology from the government that had oppressed her.

One sign of Ding Ling's rehabilitation is the inclusion of her work in a new, quasi-official series of contemporary Chinese fiction in English translation. Published in Peking and distributed around the world under the imprint of Panda Books--a colorable imitation, by the way, of the venerable Penguin mark--these books allow us to penetrate a dimension of China that we might never otherwise glimpse.

Miss Sophie's Diary and Other Stories by Ding Ling (Chinese Literature/Panda) is the most startling and compelling of four new titles (three reviewed here; the fourth available is "Mimosa" by Zhang Xianliang) from Panda Books, each of which may be ordered directly from the distributor, China International Book Trading Corp. (Guoji Shudian), P.O. Box 399, Peking, China. (No price information has been provided by the publisher.)

Ding Ling provided a brief but illuminating preface to "Miss Sophie's Diary," acknowledging the influence of Dickens ("I wandered through the streets of London with his earls, marquises, aunts, boys and girls") and other Western writers. "And in 1957, a time of spiritual suffering for me," she wrote, gently alluding to the beginning of her two decades as a nonperson, "I found consolation in reading much Latin American and African literature." In "Miss Sophie" and her other early stories, gracefully translated by W. J. F. Jenner, we can understand why one of Ding Ling's colleagues observed that "the heroines of these stories . . . would find friends abroad."

Miss Sophie, for instance, is a tubercular young woman whose exquisite self-absorption and restless sexual yearning have nothing in common with the revolutionary ardor that later came to dominate China's image of itself. Written in 1928, when China was only beginning to emerge from what Ding Ling calls "the dark era of feudalism," the story treats Miss Sophie's assertive sexuality with sympathy and candor. And, for the doomed Sophie, Eros is at war with Thanatos: "God wants people to live patiently, so he arranges so much suffering before death that people want to keep their distance from it," Miss Sophie confides to her diary. "As for me, I seek the good things of life all the more keenly because my life is going to be so rushed and short. Day and night, I'm always dreaming of things that would enable me to have no regrets when I die."

Ding Ling's later fiction is more of a concession to agitprop and proletarian heroics--her novel, "The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River," won the Stalin Prize in 1951--but there is resonance and poetry even in her propaganda. When she evokes the death of her husband at the hands of Nationalist executioners in "A Certain Night," she depicts him and his comrades as political martyrs ("What spread out in front of them was the brilliance of a new state being founded"), but there is also much tenderness and poignance in their act of self sacrifice: "Most of his hatred and regrets disappeared," she wrote of her husband in describing the moment before his death, when he glimpses a cherished friend among his fellow prisoners. "Affection and something else that can only be called life filled his wounded chest. All he wanted to do was to hug that face and kiss it."

By contrast, Ru Zhijuan's Lilies and Other Stories is far less subtle in its depiction of the collective struggle. Ru Zhijuan was born a generation after Ding Ling, and she began publishing her work only after the triumph of communism in China. So we are not surprised to encounter undigestible chunks of socialist realism in her prose: "Finally the first brigade went into action," she writes in "A Badly Edited Story." "He had a dozen mu 's rice moved to one mu and then announced that their yield had reached 16,000 catties! The whole commune was thrown into a commotion!" But Ru Zhijuan also displays an appealing compassion for her characters, and her later stories--"The Path Through the Grassland," for instance--focus on the benighted party faithful who, like Ding Ling, have been rewarded for their loyalty and zeal with false accusations and imprisonment. "In the past, most of my works looked at life in a rather naive and pure light, eulogizing the beautiful," she writes in a postscript to her short stories. "But as things advance, there are not-so-beautiful elements left over from the old society, bad things, things that must be criticized."

The last title in the series is Pagoda Drive and Other Stories by Gu Hua, the youngest of the writers whose work is presented. His stories are set in the mountain villages of Hunan province, and we are told by his translator, Gladys Yang, that Gu Hua's work is a favorite of Chinese film makers because of its local color. But, once again, Gu Hua is showcased as a writer who has been set free by the regime "to attack social abuses, describe backward superstitious practices and to introduce romance." In "Pagoda Ridge," he writes compassionately of the village people of his native province, and suggests that their folkways are a source of more vitality than the writings of Marx. "Literature is the product of life," he explains. "Life is its soil. And the richness or poverty of the soil determines whether a work of literature is vigorous or feeble."

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