Review of Beijing Women: Stories
By Andrew Rankin
Four stories, "Lipstick," "Deception," "A Slice of Ginger," and "Beijing Women," combine in this volume to form a short, yet realistic work. The novel's characters, almost all female with professions ranging from student to PR employee (the latter a common euphemism for an escort in contemporary Chinese literature), invoke scenes not too detached from today's China. They are, however, a major contrast to lifestyles and professions of the Maoist Era. These women face daily struggles to first cope with, then attempt to solve, and eventually simply move closer to understanding their lifestyle and its associated challenges.
Each character study centers on individuals' relationships with others, and depicts characters facing struggles that echo the author 's own experiences, such as owning a restaurant and moving to Hainan. Moral ambiguity looms large throughout the book, as relationships are redefined during political, social, and-most importantly-economic change. In the story "Deception," the character Duoduo, who is an ace student with a bright future, is likened to an eraser constantly and capriciously running around, losing more and more of herself as she takes shortcuts to what seemed like wealth by sitting for exams, helping classmates change grades, and using a fake identity to shack up with a foreigner she met on the Internet.
Wang Yuan's work disabuses feminine writing through her portrayal of both men's and women's misunderstandings.…
(This review was published on Chinese Literature Today (Volume: 4. Issue: 2. Publication date: July 1, 2014. )
Written by Wang Yuan
Translated by Colin S. Hawes and Shuyu Kong
(Beijing Women: Stories collects four stories, "Lipstick," "Deception," "A Slice of Ginger," and "Beijing Women." Below is the beginning of the title story "Beijing Women.")
Xu Xingli, one of the waitresses in the fast food diner, said to her boss, Lin Baihui: “My sister’s come down.”
For a moment, Lin Baihui didn’t get what she was on about: “Come down? Where from?”
Xu Xingli replied: “From our village, of course.”
Lin Baihui then realized: Xu Xingli’s village was up around Zhangjiakou, so when people from there talked about Beijing they visualized a map with Beijing to the lower right. That’s why she said “come down.” Lin Baihui did recall Xu Xingli prattling on about her younger sister “planning to come down,” but with so many other things to worry about she had put it out of her mind.
The staff in the diner came from all over the place. Every dialect you can imagine was represented there. One waitress from the North East had just started her first day working in the diner when a customer asked her for some vinegar. She replied: “Weet a mawment sir, I’ll seek some foor ya.”
Running a diner involved lots of little frustrations, which often put Lin Baihui in a bad mood. She knew it was wrong to lose her temper with the staff for no reason. So her criticism of their non-standard regional dialects acted as the main outlet for her suppressed irritation. When she felt she would lose control, she would frown at them and tell them sternly they couldn’t say this and couldn’t say that, just like a bitter old spinster picking on everyone else for her own troubles. Lin Baihui was only in her early thirties, but she had been a teacher before, and this was surely the legitimate reason of her ingrained tendency to promote standard Chinese over regionalisms.
Of course, the staff saw right through her veil of hypocrisy. They knew she was just lashing out at them because of her own emotional hang-ups, and they knew she couldn’t fire them just for speaking a different dialect. They not only failed to correct their speaking habits, but sometimes even forcefully challenged her logic. For instance, Lin Baihui felt annoyed when they used phrases like “totally cool!” and “O.M.G.!” but they argued with some force that these were not dialect words: they had never heard anyone in their home villages talk like that: “We learned them after we came to Beijing, so they must be Beijing Chinese!” they would declare, giving her an impudent look that implied: you call yourself a Beijing woman? You don’t even understand your own language!
Lin Baihui would simply denounce these assertions. She was born in Beijing, but she never heard anyone talk like that in her childhood. These were simply imported from a strange land that she didn't know. So she declared: “So what if it’s Beijing Chinese? Even Beijing Chinese is a kind of dialect. You should speak Standard Chinese!” Her staff would then think she was completely off her rocker, full of self-contradictions, trying to make them believe that Beijing Chinese and Standard Chinese were different. Didn't the people in Beijing, the capital city of China, invent the standard?
“So who are we s’posed to learn Standard Chinese from? If we can’t learn from Beijing people, where are we s’posed to find this phantom ‘Standard Chinese’ speaker?” In this way, Lin Baihui lost her authority, at least in matters of linguistics.