Sex and Sensibility

September 5, 2003

Hong Ying, K: The Art of Love, London: Marion Boyars, 2002.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

kUnder the sensually embossed K of this book’s front cover – with the gently raised letter printed like ritual scarification on the lower back of a naked young woman – lies the novel’s suggestive subtitle.  The Art of Love just touches the upper curves of the woman’s bare buttocks.  Immediately below the subtitle trouble begins, for Hong Ying and her publishers boldly advertise an unequivocal claim across both cheeks: Based on a True Story.

K is an historical novel set in 1930s China.  It purports to tell “the true story of the passionate and illicit affair” between the minor Bloomsbury poet Julian Bell and a beautiful Chinese writer known as Lin.  Cultured and sensitive, Lin lives in the city of Wuhan, where her husband is a senior professor of English, and Julian Bell a visiting scholar in the same department.  As a short story writer Lin belongs to a literary circle of Chinese liberal romantics known as the Crescent Moon Society, and her writing style attracts comparison with the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

Unfortunately for Hong Ying and for the prospects of official sales of her novel in the People’s Republic of China (the country of Hong Ying’s birth), K’s specific claim to historical verisimilitude came back to bite her.  After excerpts of K were published in a Chinese magazine, the daughter of a prominent writer from the 1930s took Hong Ying to court for defaming the dead.  Ling Shuhua was a writer who lived in Wuhan with her husband, Chen Yuan, a professor of English at Wuhan University.  Ling Shuhua wrote for Crescent Moon periodicals in a literary style consciously modelled on Katherine Mansfield.  She also knew Julian Bell and is reported to have had a brief affair with him.  Chen Xiaoying, the daughter of Ling Shuhua and Professor Chen Yuan, found Hong Ying’s book pornographic and false, and she won damages through a Chinese court in December 2002. K was, as a result, banned in China – which of course guarantees the novel underground success.  K had earlier been published in Taiwan, and is now widely available in foreign translations, including this English translation by Nicky Harman and Henry Zhao, Hong Ying’s husband.

shanghai-babyThe banning of K provides yet another example of heavy-handed censorship in China, which can be arbitrary and is often self-defeating. Recent banning of other so-called pornographic works, such as Wei Hui’s narcissistic Shanghai Baby, has only assured the author international notoriety, broad exposure on the internet, wide distribution through underground networks in China, and massively increased publicity and foreign sales.  Wei Hui was even interviewed by the iconic Kerry O’Brien on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s national 7:30 Report, a level of exposure for a young woman’s sexually explicit novel that is difficult to imagine for an Australian young writer of fiction, and impossible even to contemplate if the Chinese government had not tried to suppress Shanghai Baby. In terms of more conventional political censorship it is well-known that political writers banned by Chinese Communist authorities often garner increased public respect or sympathy, as was the case with the dissident Fang Lizhi, whose works were distributed by the Party for the express purposes of criticism and denunciation in the mid 1980s.  Instead his thoughts spread among a receptive and disgruntled community as the Chinese democracy movement gained momentum in the late 1980s.

In the specific censorship case of K: The Art of Love it is worth noting that the London-based Chen Xiaoying could not take court action in Taiwan, where the novel was first published in 2001, or her home country of England, because of different defamation laws and official attitudes toward sexually explicit material.  Like the woman who sued her in the Chinese court, Hong Ying is now a resident of London, having left China in the wake of the military suppression of political dissent in 1989.  After unsuccessfully defending her novel in China she has been required to pay damages reported to be in excess of 124,000 yuan.  Publication of the novel has been prohibited, and she has been ordered to make a public apology.  But Hong Ying and K have gained notoriety – and in some minds political or artistic prestige – as the latest well-known victims of Chinese censorship.  Interestingly enough K includes brief reference to Communist censorship of what they deemed “feudalistic pornography” in the 1920s, a case resulting in capital punishment. And it may be that in trying to publish her novel on the mainland Hong Ying sought to test the Communist’s current level of tolerance.  Whatever her intentions, Hong Ying’s decision to criticise the Communists and to write a novel supposedly based on a true story has left her open to attack, and the attack has come from the daughter of Ling Shuhua.  As a lightning rod of freedom, Hong Ying and her rather insipid legal defence to Chen Xiaoying’s charges lack inspiration.  The central defence of creating composite characters for the novel does not tally with K’s claim to being based on the true story of a passionate and illicit affair between Julian Bell and the boldest woman writer of the Crescent Moon Society.  But the logic of advertising a product to make money is perhaps different from the logic of defending a legal case where you stand to lose money.  Not all censored books are of great literary quality or historic importance but – to rephrase George Orwell – if liberty means anything at all it means the right to publish what people do not want to read.

The action of K: The Art of Love takes place in China in the 1930s.  As the Japanese Army makes bloody incursions into a post-imperial China weakened by civil war and colonialism, K focuses on the adultery and Daoist-inspired lovemaking of two young writers.  Lin and Julian are made to represent binary opposites of East and West in a pseudo-philosophical attempt to present the novel as more than romantic cliché or sexual titillation.  Hong Ying writes passionately about sex and desire, but seems to believe that her novel is more profound than prurient.  Her novel’s foreword warns against stereotypes, but K succeeds only in perpetuating many as Hong Ying strains to deal with the big issues of Men and Women, War and Revolution, Sex and Death.

When the novel’s central protagonists first meet in China, Julian Bell is brash, arrogant and confident.   The devotedly Oedipal son of Bloomsbury bohemian Vanessa Bell (and nephew of novelist Virginia Woolf), Julian swaggers through Wuhan in the knowledge of his intellectual and cultural pedigree, although he knows little of China and is not properly trained for his new job as a university lecturer.  Lin by contrast is publicly quiet and polite, but stunningly beautiful, emotionally intense, and intellectually free despite the traditional constraints of Chinese society.  She is a writer of well-crafted stories that are admired by China’s urban progressive intellectuals, but she is in great need of a man who can truly share her depth of feeling.  Their relationship forms the heart of this novel, and Lin instructs the young Bell in The Art of Love: sexual skills and self-cultivation from a Daoist classic text, secretly taught Lin by her mother, concubine to a former Qing dynasty official.

With such a cast of literary and historical characters in a time of sweeping social and political change, Hong Ying has the raw material for a fascinating novel of ideas and engagement.  But her preoccupation with the sex life of Lin and Bell becomes laughable over time, and her treatment of character perfunctory.  Famous names are dragged in at will, and dropped and discarded with little or no character development, including Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Julian’s “spiritual father” Roger Fry and the painter Qi Baishi.  We get instead long descriptions of Lin and Bell’s sexual encounters – with “bodies bathed in sweat, glued together” – or melodramatic expressions of rapture, as when the two lovers re-unite on the dance floor of the British Consulate after a brief period of separation: “Thank you, music!”  The seriousness of the novel’s tone is not helped when Hong Ying unwittingly treats the female lead as a cross between a woman and a garage:  “Julian embraced her tightly and entered her.”

Hong Ying claims to have received permission from Julian Bell’s surviving family to use his real name in the novel.  Bell’s relatives did not, and would not sue the author for her depiction of Julian Bell as a naïve radical and adulterer, but one can imagine their displeasure at Hong Ying’s characterisation of the poet, and dissatisfaction with the literary quality of her novel.  Indeed Bell’s nephew was scathing of the novel.   Apparently Hong Ying had no intention of providing balance with Chinese names.  She did not ask Chen Xiaoying for permission to use the real names of Ling Shuhua and Chen Yuan, instead using the ploy of diaphanous pseudonyms and changing a few biographical details.  Hong Ying claims that her character Lin is not Ling, but is instead an amalgam of writers and women from Bell’s letters and other writings.  Apart from the obvious biographical and literary similarities between Lin and Ling as Crescent Moon writers married to academics in the city of Wuhan, the simple “g” transfer from Ling to Lin and from Professor Chen to Professor Cheng makes the references to real historical personalities easy to spot.  In addition, Hong Ying’s fictional Lin gives her lover an embroidered handkerchief, and this embroidery becomes a central motif in K.  To readers familiar with Chinese literature of the period, one of Ling Shuhua’s best-known short stories is Xiuzhen (Embroidered Pillow).

K is superficial in regard to the historical and political context of warfare that tore apart communities in the 1930s, including civil war between Chinese Communists and the Guomindang, Fascist Japan’s invasion of China, and General Franco’s coup against the Republican Government in the Spanish Civil War.  Hong Ying depicts Julian Bell as a naïve revolutionary romantic who travelled through outback Sichuan in search of Mao Zedong’s forces on the legendary Long March.  But when Bell came close to the brutal realities of class warfare he vomited, collapsed, turned tail and ran, wailing about brutality and personifying Hong Ying’s simplistic view of the essential differences between East and West:  “Oh…Why?  Why do they need to be so cruel?  Revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries…Why so cruel?…This kind of revolution is not for me.”  As he rode away from the front Bell consoled himself with the thought that he was not a deserter: “What they were fighting for was not European-style socialism or liberalism.  Atrocities were normal in revolutions in this part of the world, but he was not Asian and he did not have to be dragged into it.  Even when the cause was just there was still a difference between East and West.  The gap between them was too wide for him to bridge.”  This profound recognition of Oriental savagery compared to European-style liberalism did not stop the young English poet from having a death wish, in Hong Ying’s mind, and Bell fled directly from China to the presumably more civilised massacres of the Spanish Civil War, where he was soon killed while serving as a medical orderly on the battlefield.

In other books Hong Ying has also used dramatic and violent moments in Chinese history as backdrops for her fiction.  But her focus tends to be on individual emotion and the torments of love, as with the doomed affair of Lin and Bell in K.  Hong Ying studied at the Lu Xun Writers’ Academy in Beijing in 1989, and she participated in the popular democracy protests on Tiananmen Square of that year.  Her novel Summer of Betrayal (also banned in China) presents a self-indulgent and uninspiring story of romantic rejection and emotional torment that seemingly parallels the violent suppression of the democracy movement in the Beijing Massacre of 1989.  Unfortunately even when describing the popular protests around the killings on June 4, Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal fails to express the political depths of the protagonist’s actions.  Here she may in part have been let down by her translator, the normally reliable Martha Avery, or by the decision to not encumber a novel with footnotes or explanatory passages.  The young people who smash soda bottles on the ground in Summer of Betrayal are not mindless hooligans or litter bugs.  They are, instead, making a bitter, angry, and dangerous political stand in the face of armed attack by the Communist Party and its military establishment.  The little bottles (xiaoping) that democracy activists smashed to pieces or hung from strings and paraded through the streets were in fact homophones for Deng Xiaoping, the aged Communist tyrant who ordered troops to kill the people.

10390834Hong Ying has been better served by Howard Goldblatt, the noted American translator who worked on Daughter of the River, Hong Ying’s best and most directly autobiographical book.  While Goldblatt’s literal translation of guotie as “pot-stickers” may not help the English or Australian reader to know that guotie are actually a type of fried dumpling (Americans do call them pot-stickers), his fluid translation of this evocative memoir cannot be blamed for the extraordinary coincidences that enliven Hong Ying’s account of life as a poor girl in the slums of Chongqing who grew up to be a writer and sexual adventurer.  One gains from Daughter of the River a sense of Hong Ying’s emotional and physical deprivations as a child, and the book reveals her literary interests and great desire to be daring and liberal – she tells us provocatively, if not defiantly, how she went to dances and carried condoms in her pocket in her early years as an aspiring writer drifting through China in the 1980s.  And it is difficult not to follow threads of the emotional and literary embroidery connecting Hong Ying’s biography, her semi-autobiographical novel Summer of Betrayal, and her sense of connectedness to the philosophy, sexual freedom, and romantic sensibility of Lin, the heroine of K who seems to embody Hong Ying’s physical and intellectual aspirations.  Hong Ying certainly writes with the melodramatic style of many Chinese writers of the 1930s, and in one of the most self referential (or self-indulgent) passages in the novel she proclaims that if the two great lovers, Lin and Bell, had a child, they would call her Hong (Rainbow), Hong Ying’s own name.  A rainbow is the result of “intercourse between the sun and the rain.  As it is improper yin-yang intercourse, it embodies the pure carnality of Heaven and Earth.”

There is a lot of nonsense about Chinese eroticism in K: The Art of Love, a philosophical pretext for unusual positions, techniques, and multiple orgasms.  On their honeymoon Lin’s poor husband, Professor Cheng, is so taken aback by Lin’s Daoist-inspired movements that he is physically ill for two weeks and does not want ever to be so exercised again.  Fortunately for Lin Julian Bell arrives in Wuhan and he is more teachable and willing, although even virile Julian needs to “Rein Back the White Ox” to avoid premature ejaculation and to synchronize his orgasm with Lin’s.  Julian, with all his English experience as a dashing bachelor, is a novice compared to the self-cultivated Lin.  She is more daring and experienced than Julian, and far more in control.  She is a generous adept, willing to encourage, stimulate and extend.  She even prepares special treats for her lover.  In the opium den (her idea) Lin and Julian use a naked maid as a pillow for their lovemaking, but whether through unclear prose or the poverty of this reader’s imagination I could not quite follow Hong Ying’s description to work out which bits of who went where.  At other times her writing about sex is breathless, obvious, or unintentionally hilarious: lovers swoon, or suddenly realise that they love someone – and had always loved them. (Hong Ying adores the device of sudden recognition).  Flickering sparks shoot out from the glans of erect penises; and orgasms judder bodies into pieces.  In one particularly unfortunate juxtaposition of action in the upstairs bedroom and down at the front door of the lovers’ house, Hong Ying interrupts the reunited lovers with the arrival of the cuckolded professor:  “For the first time [Julian] had the astonishing sensation of enjoying repeated orgasms…It required genuine love…A series of tremendous bangs shook the door downstairs.”  Professor Cheng had discovered the affair and caught Lin and Bell still in bed, in the Chinese equivalent of in flagrante delicto.  Hong Ying tries to squeeze tension and potential violence out of this awkward and uncomfortable scene, but, like many things with this novel, it simply does not work:  “Cheng stood there, pale with anger.  He was an imposing figure in his gown, and not as gaunt as Julian remembered him.”  (Beefy Julian’s memory of the pale and be-gowned Cheng needed to stretch back less than twelve hours, when he’d last seen the not-so-gaunt professor in his living room.)

When it is not risible Hong Ying’s sexual cataloguing can also be clinical and detailed.  Perhaps Ling and Chen’s daughter Chen Xiaoying, already displeased with the character assassination of a timid, insipid professor and his adulterous, libertine wife, simply lost her tolerance with K and read as insultingly pornographic the repeated word pictures of her mother’s vulva, clitoris, pudenda, and hairless armpits (these anatomical examples come from just four lines of the novel).  In Hong Ying’s defence, Lin is always depicted as beautiful, fragrant, highly cultured, and exciting.  The physical descriptions of Lin’s body are meant to be positive, and the sex scenes erotic and ultimately expressive of romantic love.  Lin is a stunning Chinese woman, and Hong Ying clearly identifies with her.  By contrast Western women who read K might contemplate suing Hong Ying for collective defamation, since in comparison to the elegant Lin Western women are hairy, sweaty, and coarse.  Julian Bell has met the ultimate in Lin, and all European women fail to rate: “[Western women] were a little better when young, but past thirty their charm was gone for ever.”

The real historical figure of Ling Shuhua, like the fictionalised Lin, was the daughter of a concubine who resided in a compound with many concubines.  Ling Shuhua also wrote about the tensions within a family comprising numerous wives (see, for example, the ironic You fuqi de ren, A Fortunate Woman).  In K: The Art of Love Hong Ying by contrast at times seems to take the difficult-to-justify position that the feudal system of concubinage was actually centred round a woman’s pleasure.  By choosing Julian Bell as her sexual partner Lin may express her freedom and pursue her own physical and emotional pleasure (like Hong Ying in her 1980s dance parties, or the narrator in Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby), but this does not reflect the networks of necessity, obligation, compulsion, or purchase that characterise the feudal system of concubinage: “To buy a good book is the same as to buy a pretty concubine, but its beauty is greater and lasts longer.”

In Hong Ying’s mind Lin and Julian Bell are life forces, inevitably attracted to one another despite their differences of race, culture, and marital status.  They are destined to ignite together and burn out.  But in a conscious bow to Chinese literary precedents of lovers reunited after death – and to religious notions of burnt offerings to the spirit world – Lin and Julian’s love endures through sacrifice.

Hong Ying is interested in Julian Bell and Lin (or Ling Shuhua) because they provide her with the opportunity to explore obvious differences while emphasising similarities and shared experiences.  Literature, sex and love are K’s worthy concerns, coloured by romantic myths of suicide or sacrifice familiar to readers of melancholic Chinese fiction from the 1930s.  All this Hong Ying packages with war and revolution.  But despite her attempts to pass this story off as a philosophical exploration of profound feelings and ideas based on the true story of writers engaged in the major historical developments of their times, we don’t really get to know much about Lin and Julian as committed people. What, apart from sexual attraction and intercourse, brings them together and binds them for eternity after death?  Why, apart from his availability and the fact that he was tall, had a full head of hair and a large penis (all features upon which Hong Ying dwells), would Lin be attracted to Julian Bell?  Surely not for his execrable poetry or his attachment to his mother?  According to Hong Ying Lin was a better writer than Bell.  She was a more skilled, refined, imaginative and constant lover than Bell.  She was more courageous, decisive, and clear thinking.  And, despite Bell’s Bloomsbury heritage and English sensibilities, Lin was clearly more liberal.  Bell, for his part, finally realised that he truly loved Lin (according to Hong Ying), but he walked out on her without another word when he felt that she had orchestrated exposure of their affair to force his hand.  He left Lin and China without hesitation, as Hong Ying said, and his abandoned lover knew immediately that he was as “racist” as any of the Westerners in China who were attracted to the “exotic” but contemptuous of Chinese people and their culture.  He went off to Spain and got himself killed, fulfilling the death wish that Lin had identified in his character.  She, meanwhile, had the “courage” to commit suicide, and he came to her in death.  Why does he return, even in Lin’s imagination?  Is it not for more exotic sex?  Isn’t K and its preoccupation with the esoteric Art of Love simply pandering to notions of the exotic that Hong Ying seems to consider racist?

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