Half Dream

March 6, 2006

Jin Xing (with Catherine Texier), Shanghai Tango: A Memoir, London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

jinxing_header

It cannot be easy being a transsexual in China, especially when you are the only son in an extended family with expectations that you will carry on the ancestral name.  Being a famous dancer who moves from male lead roles to female lead roles after pioneering gender reassignment surgery in Beijing ensures that the spotlight of notoriety falls on you, even without the added pressure of a China Youth Daily journalist questioning your right to perform on stage.  So it is just as well that Jin Xing is an emotionally tough character with an extraordinary sense of self-importance.

Jin Xing considers herself China’s greatest modern dancer.  And she believes she is China’s greatest choreographer.  Fortunately, Jin Xing makes no claim to being China’s greatest writer.Shanghai Tango presents powerful feelings of a boy in the grimy industrial city of Shenyang who senses from a young age that he is really female.  Jin Xing’s father is a military officer who works in another city during the final years of the Cultural Revolution, and he is both physically and emotionally distant from his only son.  Jin Xing develops exclusively in a female world, bathing in the female washroom, enjoying his sister’s clothes and developing an obvious attachment to long hair.  Jin Xing’s mother is stubborn and determined – like her self-willed son who goes on hunger strike until he is allowed to enrol in the army’s dance school at the age of nine – but she is hurt in a loveless and unsupportive marriage, eventually divorcing Jin Xing’s taciturn father.

In the military dance academy Jin Xing is trained beyond the point of physical cruelty (pulleys are used to stretch the muscles of the young students) and he becomes a prize-winning dancer.  But Jin Xing always feels imprisoned inside a male body. He enjoys dancing female roles, grows his hair long to accentuate an androgynous look, and feels sexual attraction for heterosexual men.

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By Gayle Allan

Ovid

Ovid

Classical literature is not usually the first place a feminist like myself would look for inspiration, however Ovid’s Heroides has always been one of my favourite books. In it, Ovid provides a uniquely female perspective of the predominantly male-centric tales of ancient mythology. Although many people are familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his Heroides is not as well known. This is unfortunate as Heroides is a an extraordinary text that gives a voice to many of the women featured in classical myths and legend. These women are otherwise largely silent in the myths, or their story is mentioned incidentally to the heroes’ deeds. All the women featured in Heroides have been abandoned by, or separated from, their “heroic” husbands or lovers, and in Ovid’s text, they get to say what they think about that. The first edition of Heroides consists of fifteen letters written by these women to the men who have abandoned them. Ovid’s choice of the letter form, and therefore a first person “complaint”, puts the text inescapably in the private domain where potent heroes can be shown to be deficient and dishonourable lovers, dismantling the underpinning of the epic and the heroic. This provision of the women’s subjective experience provides a female interiority that we don’t normally get from the myths themselves, and they provide fascinating reading.

The second edition of Heroides, sometimes referred to as Double Heroides, includes a further six letters which consist of three paired exchanges between some of the men and women before their affairs have begun.  It is interesting to note that although the males are given a voice in these letters (not that they have lacked one in previous sources and versions of stories), Ovid could not resist the temptation to alter their voice from the traditional stories, and to a certain extent this undermines their integrity even further than their wives’ and lovers’ letters already do.

437264Penelope’s letter to Ulysses is a highlight of the text and opens proceedings with a bang! In Heroides Penelope, the long suffering wife of the epic wanderer and adventurer Ulysses, finally gets to vent her spleen. Penelope’s letter to her long absent husband, scolding him over his delay in coming home, encapsulates a trope that has been long popular in literature – that of the scolding, nagging wife. The opening line of her letter, “Penelope to the tardy Ulysses” (p.5), sets up the sarcastic tone that this formidable lady takes with her heroic husband.

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Dehumanising Experiences

March 6, 2006

Ma Jian, (Flora Drew trans.), Stick Out Your Tongue, Chatto & Windus: London, 2006.

Ma Jian, (Flora Drew trans.), The Noodle Maker, Chatto & Windus: London, 2004.

Ma Jian, (Flora Dew trans.), Red Dust: A Path Through China, Pantheon Books: New York, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Ma Jian

Ma Jian is a Chinese writer living in exile who is sympathetic to Tibet and Tibetan culture. Without expecting fundamental change any day soon, Ma Jian personally hopes for a peaceful end to China’s destructive rule in Tibet before it is too late for the local language, religion and culture. But Ma Jian’s writing about Tibet is totally free of the romantic notions and utopian visions characteristic of many outsiders – often Western converts to Buddhism – who idealise Tibet and Tibetans. Indeed, Ma Jian writes about Tibet with a profound anger and disgust, passions familiar to readers of Ma Jian’s The Noodle Maker, a sardonic novel about life under Communist rule in China during the “Open Door policy” associated with Deng Xiaoping. Ma Jian’s novel, although bleakly comical, is filled with violence, crushed illusions and emptiness. The Noodle Maker is set in eastern China, home to the Han Chinese majority. Now, in this newly translated collection of his short stories, Stick Out Your Tongue, Ma Jian writes specifically about Tibet: a land in which he spent many troubled months as described in his stunning and confessional travel book, Red Dust.

StickInstead of ethereal, numinous, and spiritual Tibet, life in Stick Out Your Tongue is nasty, brutish and short. Ma Jian’s Tibetans are not bloodless spirits, or smiling simpletons whose indomitable faith shines forth beneath dark clouds of Chinese contempt and oppression. His Tibetans are anguished or defeated, tormented by their own desires and limitations.

A poor girl is effectively sold to another family to become the polyandrous wife of two brothers more than twice her age. She dies in childbirth, and her husbands cut up her body for the vultures and crows. A student returning from a two-year stint in the town searches in vain for his nomadic family. His simple gifts for his aged parents and younger sisters are lost with his bolting black horse, his uncertain life lost on a barren mountainside. An old man seeks redemption from his incestuous past, circling a sacred mountain in an attempt to escape this life of guilt and the memory of his abused daughter. A Chinese traveller seeks meaning in a world where he cannot distinguish myth from reality. His camera, like Ma Jian’s prose, always searching out darker and darker images.

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