CHEN RUOXI, A.K.A. CH’EN JO-HSI (1938— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

CHEN RUOXI, A.K.A. CH’EN JO-HSI (1938— ). Born and raised in rural Taiwan, Chen Ruoxi spent her childhood years under the influence of a patriotic father who refused to learn Japanese when the island was under Japanese occupation and who instilled in his young daughter a strong sense of pride in the Chinese culture. At the National Taiwan University where she was a student in the Foreign Languages Department, Chen began to write fiction and was a cofounder of the journal Xiandai wenxue (Modern Literature). Her exposure to Western modernism led her to adopt some of its artistic visions and narrative techniques in her own writing. In general, however, her works are much more indebted to realism, grounded in true-to-life characters, a simple language, and indigenous cultural traits. Her literary style can be traced to her rural upbringing. She has a deep feeling for the countryside and for the traditions that sustain its continued survival. One of the stories she wrote in her college days, “Zuihou yexi” (The Last Evening Show), laments the decline of the local culture through the accounts of the fall of a Taiwanese opera star’s popularity.

In 1961, Chen went to study in the United States, where the views of the People’s Republic of China were not nearly as negative as in her native Taiwan. Echoing the dissident sentiments felt by Taiwanese intellectuals against the high-handed policies of the Nationalist government, Chen became an ardent supporter of Maoist China. At Johns Hopkins University, she met her future husband, Duan Shiyao, a Ph.D. student in fluid mechanics. The young idealistic couple decided to expatriate to China. They arrived in Beijing in October 1966, at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. Instead of being welcomed by the Communists, they were suspected of being imperialist spies sent by America to sabotage socialist China. While Duan was sent to a farm to be reeducated, Chen remained in their home at the Hydraulic Engineering College in Nanjing, taking care of children whose parents, like Duan, were undergoing labor reform in the countryside. Disillusioned with communism, the couple left China in 1973 with their children and subsequently settled in Hong Kong. Chen’s first story, “Yin Xianzhang” (The Execution of Mayor Yin), was published in 1974 and was followed by more “Cultural Revolution stories.” These stories were enthusiastically received in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where they were taken as anti-Communist, a message the author insisted was unintended.

After moving to the United States in 1979, Chen published several books about Chinese immigrants trying to survive and succeed in their new country. Notable among them are Zhi hun (Marriage on Paper), which relates how a phony marriage between a woman from Shanghai and an American man turns into a true and caring partnership, Tuwei (Breakout) about the problems faced by well-eduated Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, Yuanjian (Foresight), which describes the pursuit of the American dream and its heavy toll on the individuals and their families, and Er Hu (Two Men Named Hu), which portrays two Chinese American couples. In 1995, Chen returned to her native Taiwan. Inspired by the charitable work done by Buddhist women there, Chen wrote Hui xin lian (The Lotus of Kindness), depicting the journey of three nuns from one family.