WANG ANYI (1954— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

WANG ANYI (1954— )
The Dictionary

WANG ANYI (1954— ). Novelist. Daughter of Ru Zhijuan, also a writer, Wang Anyi grew up in Shanghai. In 1970, after graduating from middle school, she went to the countryside of Jiangsu to be reeducated by the peasants. Two years later, she joined a performance troupe in the industrial city of Xuzhou. By the time she returned to Shanghai to work as an editor of a children’s magazine, she already had several stories to her name. One of the most diverse and influential writers in contemporary China, Wang has continued to reinvent herself, evolving from a sentimental storyteller to an experimental writer and astute commentator on social mores. It is hard to categorize her work in one or another representational mode. Her love stories, best represented by Xiaocheng zhi lian (Love in a Small Town), subscribe to the realist mode. Xiao baozhuan (Baotown), on the other hand, mixes legends with reality to create a sense of permanence that transcends time and space, giving the story an allegorical dimension. Likewise, Fuxi yu muxi de shenhua (Patrilinial and Matrilineal Myths) is told with a similar ironic detachment, despite its professed autobiographical content. The most imaginative of Wang’s writings is Jishi yu xugou (The Real and the Fictitious), in which the author traces her family history by mixing historical record with her own imagination. In the process of locating her maternal ancestry, Wang examines her own sense of place in the metropolis of Shanghai. As metafiction, the work is not only a highly fictionalized account of clan history but also a self-conscious commentary on the act of writing, which is equated to mythmaking.

In between the popular and the experimental narrative modes lies Wang’s most ambitious project: reinventing Shanghai, where she grew up and still resides. In Changheng ge (The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai), Meitou (Meitou), Fuping (Fuping), Tao zhi yaoyao (The Dazzling Peach Blossoms), and other works, Shanghai becomes a character with a soul of its own, both shaping and shaped by the lives its residents lead. Despite its size, the Shanghai in Wang’s works is surprisingly intimate, approachable, a city characterized by its bourgeois taste and material culture as seen in its architecture, mannerisms, and etiquettes. Her mundane Shanghai is comforting and alluring despite the social and political changes to its appearance, like the protagonist of Changhen ge, whose downward spiraling life spans several decades of modern Chinese history, from when she was a glamorous winner of a beauty pageant in the 1940s to her ordinary life in the 1980s. Critics see some similarities between Wang and Zhang Ailing, who wrote about Shanghai in the 1940s. Both are captivated by the city and its social manners. They represent the so-called Shanghai school of writing, whose characteristics include detailed descriptions of daily life, a focus on the middle class, a fascination with urban existence, and an obsession with the pragmatic side of living.

With her most recent novel, Qimeng shidai (The Era of Enlightenment), Wang revisits her early days as an educated youth in the countryside by re-creating the experience of several urban youths in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. Hailed as a record of a “spiritual odyssey” of a generation of Chinese, the novel captures the idealism and the confusion associated with the 1960s. Laden with discursive commentaries and observations, it highlights the author’s perspective on history and the individuals trapped in it. See also ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE; WOMEN.