MEI NIANG, PEN NAME FOR SUN JIARUI (1920— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

MEI NIANG, PEN NAME FOR SUN JIARUI (1920— ). Fiction and prose writer. In the 1940s, Mei Niang was as famous as Zhang Ailing, one based in the north (Changchun and Beijing) and the other the south (Shanghai) and both living in the Japanese-occupied territories during the Sino-Japanese War. Mei Niang was born in Vladivostok, where her father, a successful businessman fluent in three foreign languages—Russian, Japanese and English—was working for a railway company. Her parents had met in Vladivostok and after Mei Niang was born they moved to Changchun, where his father’s first wife lived. Though Mei Niang’s parents doted on her, they soon passed away, leaving her in the care of the unkind first wife. Growing up as a daughter of a concubine, Mei Niang understood the nature of traditional society, particularly the position of young women within a large extended family. Her pen name “Mei Niang” (literally, Plum Blossom Girl) is a homophone for “having no mother,” bearing testimony to the pain she suffered in her childhood. Later, she would repeatedly revisit this theme in her stories. While Mei Niang was an elementary school student, the Japanese army occupied northeastern China, making the young Mei Niang vaguely aware of a national tragedy. Most of the characters she created in her writings are women caught in the chaos of war, victims of misfortunes at both the personal and national levels. Mei Niang achieved her literary success at a very young age. Her first collection of short stories, Xiajie ji (Young Ladies), was published when she was merely 16 years old. At 24, she won the Japanese-sponsored Greater Asian Literature Prize for “Xie” (Crab), a semiautobiographical novella about the disintegration of a traditional family, a common theme in the May Fourth literature written by Ba Jin, Lao She, Lu Ling, and others. Mei Niang’s writings reflect the realities of China in the 1930s and 1940s, often seen through the eyes of a sensitive, educated young woman. Her stories on the fate of women such as “Yu” (Fish), “Bang” (Clam), and “Chun dao renjian” (Spring Has Arrived) render vivid portrayals of the changing world in which “the consciousness of women” was beginning to emerge as a social and cultural phenomenon, despite the oppressive restraints imposed on them by society. By the time “Zhuru” (The Midget) appeared, Mei Niang was a well-known writer who had perfected the art of short story writing in the realist mode and whose vision had gone well beyond the confines of marriage and romance. In addition to short stories and novellas, Mei Niang also attempted full-length novels, Ye hehua kai (Night Lily) and Xiao furen (Little Women), both unfinished, deal with women’s search for security and love in their relationships with men.

In many ways, Mei Niang’s life was emblematic of the upheavals of 20th-century China. As a new woman growing up in the aftermath of the May Fourth Movement, she received a good education in Changchun and later in Japan, opportunities unavailable to her mother’s generation. She became a young widow in 1948 when her husband’s ship capsized on the way to Taiwan, leaving behind Mei Niang and their three young children. Instead of staying in Taiwan or going to Japan, Mei Niang took her children back to Beijing, which was now under the control of the Communists. She was assigned to work for the Agricultural Film Studio as a scriptwriter and editor. In the 1950s, she produced some children’s picture books. During the subsequent political campaigns, Mei Niang managed to survive all kinds of appalling treatment, but two of her children died. Even as she was warmly welcomed into the circle of writers in the early 1950s, Mei Niang had already come under suspicion as “a traitor writer,” an unsubstantiated allegation thrown at those who kept working in the Japanese-occupied territories during the war. Mei Niang’s writings, like those of the other authors accused of collaborating with the Japanese, were largely ignored, for they did not fit in the national narrative of patriotism and resistance. For decades, the name Mei Niang was erased from the history of modern Chinese literature. When she resurfaced in the early 1980s, most readers had never heard of her. Since then, not only have her old works been reissued, but her new writings, mostly essays, reminiscing about the past and sharing her travels and knowledge about the world, have also been published.