Novelist Shen Rong and the art of literary survival in China
''At middle age'' is an apt description for China's contradictory literary scene at this historical moment. China is both a sophisticated and a developing nation. On one hand Chinese writing has broad appeal and ancient traditions. Today a population of 1 billion is hungry for books which must serve a vast range of literacy. On the other hand, as an economically developing country, China is burdened by a continual suspicion of the worth of art compared with subsistence necessities.Skip to next paragraph
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Writing has been suppressed at various stages since the Long March of 1934. For instance, during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), The Chinese Writers Association suspended activity. In 1978, the association, which functions as a cross between a literary guild and a government cultural agency, resumed work and now has 29 branches across the country. Writers are enjoying this renaissance with a healthy degree of circumspection.
''At Middle Age,'' the controversial novella by Shen Rong, is catching China's imagination. The book has sold over 3 million copies there and is available to Americans in the collection, ''Seven Contemporary Chinese Women Writers.'' (Panda Books, distributed by China Publications Center, P.O. Box 399, Beijing (Peking), P.R. China. 280 pp. $4.95.) A movie based on the story is being shown in packed theaters as well as on television in China. Shen Rong's book hits tender nerves about the exploitation of middle-aged workers and, as an indictment of the Cultural Revolution, contributes to a growing ''literature of the wounded.''
The 85-page novella describes the exhausting life of Dr. Lu Wenting, a 42 -year-old oculist, overwhelmed by obligations to her patients and her family. Despite two decades in medicine, she is still scratching to make a living. The story begins as Lu cracks under the strain and suffers a severe heart attack.
Shen's writing moves with a swift, spare intensity. From her hospital bed, Lu reflects on her life - the early dedication to healing, idealistic hopes for marriage, a long friendship with her colleague Jiang. Her most dramatic recollections concern bitter experiences during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76 ). Once, the Red Guard burst into the room where she was performing a delicate eye operation to halt surgery on a ''bourgeois'' official. ''All that could be seen of her were her eyes and her bare arms above the rubber gloves. . . . Lu said tersely from behind her mask, 'Get out, please!' The rebels looked at each other and left.''
Such steely resolve is Lu's strength as well as her ultimate defeat because she refuses to acknowledge mounting physical and emotional pressures. The hospital gives her more responsibility; family demands increase; her friend Jiang is ''deserting'' her for a new life in Canada. Middle age becomes unbearable.
The carefully compassionate novella leaves readers with a provocative, open end. ''It had rained for a couple of days. A gust of wind sighed through the bare branches of the trees. The sunshine, extraordinarily bright after the rain, slanted in through the windows of the corridor. The cold wind blew in too. Slowly Fu, supporting his wife, headed for the sunlight and the wind.'' Lu recovers, but will her job improve? Will the family tension subside? The inconclusive conclusion, a popular technique in China, effectively focuses the audience on such questions in their own lives.
Lu's tale is emblematic of the experience of many middle-aged professionals in China - people who have endured the political and economic vicissitudes of the Long March, World War II, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. As a generation, they have survived ideological assaults on the value of professional work and considerable personal setbacks in their careers. Despite years of labor, they still face shortages of housing and food. While maintaining a faith in China, their generation is often overlooked, situated as they are between their more visible elders who control the country and their noisier young compatriots who clamor about high unemployment among youth.