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Reel Life: waking up to the real China

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Before her first trip to America 11 years ago, Chinese writer Geling Yan had to do some paperwork for her sponsor, the U.S. Information Agency. "They had me fill out a form of who I wanted to see," says Yan. "I put all these big shots' names. I didn't know that it was not possible to arrange that kind of meeting, so I didn't see any of them. I was a big fan of Faulkner and Salinger and Fitzgerald, and I was very fond of Catch-22 because I was from the Chinese army, [where] there was a certain amount of absurdity."

Yan had joined the People's Liberation Army as a dancer in 1971, when she was 12. She toured along the Tibetan frontier in the Szechuan province performing numbers like "The Red Detachment" where "all the girls are holding rifles and kicking legs....Part of our purpose was to brainwash the Tibetans and to comfort the Chinese troops," who she says teased her troupe of artists as "sissy soldiers."

She later served as an army war correspondent on the Vietnamese border. After a 12-year career, she was discharged and moved to Beijing to begin writing, a profession that ran in her family. Yan's paternal grandfather had a PhD from Georgetown and had translated English novels. Her father is a well-known novelist in China. Yan followed in his footsteps, incorporating her years as a soldier into her first novel, Green Blood, which won a national prize sponsored by five newspapers in 1987.

Despite her rising literary prospects, Yan lost her ideological bearings in the predawn bloodshed of June 4, 1989. "I went to Tiananmen Square at four o'clock when I heard gunshots," she says. "I didn't believe it at all. I was in my nightgown and slippers. I saw many people carried by stretchers and tricycles [pedicabs], bleeding. I realized that my last shred of ideal of this country and this party was totally destroyed, so I applied to attend school in this country."

Armed with a scholarship, Yan came to Columbia College and earned a master's in fiction writing in 1990. Her American classmates were quite different from her colleagues in China. "They don't have that sense of mission that we had," she says. But what Americans lack in collective idealism they make up for in creative independence. "Individualism can break all the borders of different ideologies and different cultures. So with the individualism I learned in this country, I put more focus on examining human nature and the human condition rather than society."

Her story "Celestial Bath," published in Columbia's fiction anthology Hair Trigger 19, revisits the cruel bureaucracy of the Cultural Revolution as experienced by a young intellectual sent to the Tibetan border to learn horse herding from a castrated old man. When her attempt to get back to the city by granting sexual favors to minor party officials fails, the girl and her grizzled mentor forge a bond that ends in dignified death. Last year the story, which is included in her collection White Snake and Other Stories, was made into a film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, directed and cowritten by Joan Chen and shot illegally in China. Chinese censors banned the film as too pessimistic, fined Chen, and barred her from the country.

But Yan argues that she and the director honored traditional Chinese themes. "To us the most important thing is always aesthetics," she says. "To us it's not that tragic of an ending. We think the story is a 'love-butterfly' story. By killing themselves they become butterflies. It is a Chinese genre, like Romeo and Juliet. If a couple cannot be living together, at least they're dying together. Their spirits will become free."

Yan, who now lives in the Bay Area, says her work is popular in China and Taiwan. Seven volumes of her collected writings were published in China last October, and last year Taiwan's China Times gave her an award for the novel Inner Space, which is set in Chicago. An English translation will be published this fall by Hyperion.

But Yan wonders how well her ideas about ideals translate here. A New York Times film critic faulted Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl for "an almost operatic fatefulness." "I think American audiences have trouble understanding it," says Yan. "They think survival is everything, that it's humane to have people survive, but I don't think so. To Chinese, dignity and shame and spirituality sometimes are more important than survival itself."

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl opens Friday at the Village Theatre, 1548 N. Clark (312-642-2403). --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sonia Lovewell.

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