Geling Yan

GELING YAN. In all stories there are many perspectives, beginning with the official version, the one that might be reported in history books. Then there is public gossip, and somewhere in the mix, there is the truth. Nothing is what it seems in “White Snake,” a novella by Geling Yan, included in her work, “White Snake and Other Stories.” Readers may already be familiar with one of Yan’s works. One of the short stories included in “White Snake” is “Celestial Bath,” which was the basis for Joan Chen’s film “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl,” which screened here in June.

Like Xiu Xiu, the innocent, idealistic young girl sent to the Tibetan border during China’s Cultural Revolution, only to be defiled and abandoned, Yan’s other characters are unforgettable. They lurch toward their fates with resignation, made all the more poignant by their strength of character.

The story of “White Snake” is the most sensuous and spellbinding of the stories, told from many perspectives, each offering a glimpse of the full picture.

In it, we find the 34-year-old dancer Sun Likun — once universally admired for her writhing, fluid snake steps, executed so that it seemed as if she had no bones at all — imprisoned. Her crime was to fall in love with a Soviet dancer in the days before hostilities began on the Sino-Soviet border. To the Chinese government, she is a spy who has committed treason.

Yan writes: “Less than six months of being locked up in the Performing Arts Troupe’s scenery warehouse and she looked exactly like any middle-aged woman you’d see on the street: a keg-shaped waist, gourdlike breasts, and big squarish buttocks that spread out so wide you could lay out a whole meal on them. Her face was still pretty, only broader, and her eyelashes would still sweep back and forth until you felt your heart tickle, but the black and white of her eyes were starting to lose their clarity.”

After putting up with indignities inflicted by teen-age guards — girls who once admired her who now saw her as something less than human — and construction workers outside her window, Sun receives a visitor from the Central Propaganda Ministry.

The young man spends several weeks interrogating her. She becomes accustomed to his visits and begins to shed her disheveled skin to reveal her once svelte, athletic frame.

But the young man is not what he seems, and by the time he disappears, Sun is reduced to hysterics and is eventually taken to a mental asylum, though the story does not end there.

Woven through the piece is the mythology of the strange love story involving immortal serpents, one white and one blue, and a mortal man. It is a legend Sun adapts for stage long before she grasps its meaning.

Because the book starts on this tantalizing note, subsequent stories pale by comparison, but in going back to them, one finds a gentle, bittersweet resonance, particularly in “Siao Yu,” about a kind-hearted young woman who marries an Australian for cash and citizenship at her fiance’s urging, and “Nothing More Than Male and Female,” about a terminally ill young man and the effect he has on his family and brother’s fiance.

The former story attracted the attention of Taiwan director Ang Lee, maker of “The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Ice Storm.” With his help, the story was made into a film by Sylvia Chang, released in Asia and Australia and named Best Picture at the Asia Pacific Film Festival.

“Nothing More Than Male and Female” was also made into a film in 1995 and released in Asia.

Born in Shanghai, Yan attended school until the Cultural Revolution closed the schools. She entered the People’s Liberation Army at age 12 and was stationed in Chengdu, where she served in ballet and folk dance troupes that provided entertainment at various military installations.

In the late 1970s, she was a war correspondent covering the Sino-Vietnamese border war. Her first novel, “Green Blood,” detailed her experiences as an adolescent girl soldier.

Yan now resides in San Francisco with her husband Lawrence Walker, who served for more than a decade as a Foreign Service Officer in China, Germany and Mexico, and is fluent in six languages. He provided the translation from Chinese for “White Snake and Other Stories.” He says in his note that it is common for works in Chinese to leave details to a reader’s imagination. Given the poetic quality of Chinese literature, we can only imagine the impressions that Yan’s own words might have evoked.

Yan was born in Shanghai and began writing in the late 1970s as a journalist covering the Sino-Vietnamese border war. Her first novel was published in China in 1985. After the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square she left China to live in the United States. One of her short stories was made into an awarding winning film. Banquet Bug is her first novel to be written in English and is set in Beijing. Journalists who attend banquets to promote a cause or a product are also given “a little something for their trouble.” Dan Dong, an unemployed factory worker, is one of these journalists, but he has no credentials: he is a banquet bug. Through this new career he meets a variety of people, several of whom are impressed by his prevaricating. They beg him to listen to their tales of woe and to write about them, in hopes of addressing the wrongs done to them or to their families. Dan becomes deeply concerned for them and when his reportage leads him into a dangerous, far-reaching scandal and he is arrested during a crackdown on ‘banquet bugs’. A witty fable depicting a high level of corruption and totalitarianism in the China the author once knew.

The Banquet Bug by Geling Yan

What’s less welcome than ants at a picnic? Bugs at a banquet? No, but in Geling Yan’s new novel The Banquet Bug, a picaresque main character by the name of Dan Dong falters between lay-offs and decrepit living conditions to find his next meal. Ironically, his meal ticket is to come in the guise of being mistaken for a journalist at a public relations banquet where he is feasted and feted, all for the sake of pitching the truth.

Dan continues with the charade as each press release lines both his pockets and his stomach. But something begins to trouble him about the false promises of pharmaceutical companies and real estate developers. Through the bitter cynicism of hard-edged reporter-cum-mentor Happy Gao, Dan begins to print more conscientiously as he considers the pressing issues revealed to him between each course.

Ms. Yan’s writing is rich in the food imagery that Dan regales to his wife, Little Plum. These passages heighten not only the splendour of the “only art that is true to our ancestors,” but also the harsh depravity of the modern material world. Is life merely a banquet for the few, while the masses struggle to feed themselves? The author provides fascinating insights into the nature of a rapidly changing China, as well as its manipulation of, and by, the press. Can art be appreciated in a world that only values it as an inch-by-inch commodity? And if so, what of the artist, and the individual? A poignant and piquant book.

Reviewed by Tony Peneff


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