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  • The Female Spirit
  • Diane Goodman (bio)
Red Peonies: Two Novellas of China
Frank Stewart, Series Editor; Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, Guest Editors
University of Hawaii Press
200Pages; Print, $20.00

Red Peonies: Two Novellas of China is the first English translation of The Woman Liu and The Woman Yang by Chinese writer Zhang Yihe. Translated by Guest Editors Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, the novellas in this issue of Manoa (28:2, 2016) also features the artwork of Xing Danwen from her series Sleep Walking (2001), disCONNECTION (2002–2003), Duplication Series (2003) and Urban Fiction (2004–2008).

As Gernant and Zeping explain in the Editor’s Notes, Zhang Yihe was 28 years old when she was convicted in 1970 as a counterrevolutionary and sentenced to 20 years in a labor prison. Her conviction was partly motivated by her father’s rightist political activities that angered Mao Zedong, and an entry in her own diary that offended Mao’s very powerful wife. Prior to her incarceration, Zhang was a student in the Literature Department at the Chinese Opera Academy; released 10 years into her sentence at the age of 38, she returned to academics, where she eventually became a professor in the graduate school of the Opera Academy in Beijing. Over the course of her scholarly career, Zhang published several histories (two of which are banned in China), and taught and advised graduate students. She retired in 2001 and began to write fiction.

The novellas, The Woman Liu and The Woman Yang, are, respectively, the stories of Liu Yueying and Yang Fenfang, two women whom Zhang met while she was in prison. Although certainly each story contains fictionalized versions of real life events, in addition to incidents and perhaps even characters possibly entirely invented, both novellas clearly contain actual people and true circumstances so that the general impression of Red Peonies is more fact than fiction. Gernant and Zeping excerpt a comment from an interview where Zhang was asked about possible contradictions between writing history and writing literature:

I simply tell stories. I never consider whether they’re literature or history. Because I don’t even think about this issue, I don’t see any ‘contradiction between literary expression and historical reality.’ [End Page 27]

Both novellas no doubt move in and out of both genres. The Woman Liu, possibly because it takes place almost entirely in M Prison where Zhang Yuhe (a thinly disguised version of Zhang Yihe), tells other prisoners’s stories does seem more like historical reporting. The Woman Yang, on the other hand, with its third person omniscient narrator and opening pre-prison chapters, does seem to pay more attention to the craft and devices of fiction and, thus, seems more like “literary expression.” Still, both novellas powerfully and tenderly tell the stories of Chinese women, both in and out of prison, struggling during the Cultural Revolution.

Nearly all of The Woman Liu takes place in M prison where Zhang is known as an “expert writer” and as such is charged with helping fellow prisoners write their summaries, the mandatory end-of-the-year report of their efforts to reform. It is through this charge that Zhang learns the story of Liu’s crime and the heartbreak of its aftermath. Although Liu, Yang, Zhang and other characters appear in both novellas, The Woman Yang begins in the civilian world and chronicles a great deal of the young Yang’s life before she arrives at M prison where, ultimately, Zhang offers to write her summary.

Prominent in both prisoners’s stories is the cultural and personal, literal and figurative, significance of food and of hunger—physical and emotional. Right at the start of The Woman Liu, narrator/fellow prisoner Zhang Yuhe explains,

If you asked what made the biggest impact on me here, I would answer with one word: hunger…As time passed, people grew so confused that they felt they would soon stop breathing, and they wished someone would come over and strangle them. Simply to end the hunger.

Of course the hunger is actual and real, the portions rarely large enough to...