ZHANG XIANLIANG (1936— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

ZHANG XIANLIANG (1936— ). Novelist. Born in Nanjing, Zhang Xianliang moved with his parents to Chongqing, the war capital, when he was a primary school student. After the Japanese surrendered, the family moved back to Nanjing, where Zhang attended middle school. In 1951, the family moved again, this time to Beijing. Having failed the college entrance exam, Zhang volunteered to go to the northwest. He worked as a secretary in a village in Gansu Province before being transferred in 1956 to the Gansu Cadres Cultural School to teach literature. Soon afterward, Zhang’s life took a sudden turn for the worse. He was labeled a rightist because of a poem he published in 1957. For the next 22 years, he lived under a great shadow of distrust and was imprisoned for several years. After years of physical hardship and mental anguish, Zhang was finally rehabilitated in the late 1970s and he wrote several stories based on his experience at the labor camps. A powerful voice in the beginning years of the post-Mao era, Zhang’s work is considered part of the scar literature. While other scar writers focused their attention on denouncing the dehumanizing effects of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang emphasizes the individual’s moral triumph achieved by surviving hardships, which in many ways reflects his own life.

“Ling yu rou” (Body and Soul) portrays a young intellectual, Xu Linjun, who is a victim of the ultraleftist policies under Mao Zedong. Because of his wealthy family background, he is labeled a rightist just to meet a quota. Exiled to a remote farm, he survives the harsh conditions with the help of the peasants and the love of a woman. Years later, when his long-lost father returns to take him abroad, Xu decides to stay. This act of patriotism is seen as an affirmation of the true value of life and the strong sense of mission important for a Chinese intellectual. Lühuashu (Mimosa) and Nanren de yiban shi nüren (Half of Man Is Woman) are about the life of a political prisoner. Lühuashu details the events in the early 1960s, when Mao’s economic policies of the Great Leap Forward produced disastrous results and nationwide famines and threatened the well-being of the country. Against this background, Zhang Yonglin, a rightist, is released from a labor reform camp and assigned to a remote and backward northwestern farm to work as a self-supporting laborer. He experiences all kinds of hardship but receives care and help from the villagers. Through physical labor and diligent study of Marxist works, Zhang Yonglin becomes a true believer in Marxism. The author infuses the severe realities the protagonist encounters with a degree of romanticism, finding beauty and lyricism in the bitter and crude life of the countryside and showing that a damaged heart can heal so long as there is beauty and love in life. The story shows the capacity and strength of the individual to transform himself and arrive at an introspective realization under adverse circumstances.

Nanren de yiban shi nüren continues to explore the experience of alienation and restoration of humanity. In this novel, the protagonist, Zhang Yonglin, has once again lost his freedom and the people around him are mere carcasses without the slightest sign of spirituality. Despondent, he is eventually saved by Huang Xianju, a woman with charm and passion, who awakens his desire for life. While enjoying his sexual recovery, he is tormented by a deep sense of shame. He questions the motive of his relationship with Huang, concluding that what they have between them is not love but lust. A divorce ensues and Zhang Yonglin embarks on a lonely journey in search of the true meaning of life, which, he believes, has to be completed alone. Nanren de yiban shi nüren highlights the need for spiritual as well as physical fulfillment in human life.

Xiguan siwang (Getting Used to Dying) further explores the themes of patriotism and the separation of body and soul. It is also a close examination of the consequences of trauma. A near-death experience in the past has permanently damaged the hero’s psychological wellbeing. The shadow of death always hangs over his head, even when he is making love. Through a brilliant narrative device that switches between “you,” “I,” and “he” to represent the same individual, the author highlights his alienation and psychological and emotional wounds. Unlike Zhang’s previous novels, which assert that life damaged can be made whole again, the tragic story of Xiguan siwang shows that not all broken pieces can be put together. Currently, Zhang Xianliang is the head of a film production company and chairman of the Ningxia Writers’ Association. See also CULTURAL REVOLUTION.