Star-Bulletin Features


Friday, September 10, 1999


art

Lure of the White Snake

Geling Yan, who once served in the
People's Liberation Army of China,
weaves an intoxicating tale of love,
hostility and treason set during
the cultural revolution

By Nadine Kam
Features editor
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

Review

Bullet White Snake and Other Stories:
By Geling Yan (Aunt Lute Books), $10.95


IN all stories there are many perspectives, beginning with the official version, the one that might be reported in history books. Then there is public gossip, and somewhere in the mix, there is the truth.

Nothing is what it seems in "White Snake," a novella by Geling Yan, included in her work, "White Snake and Other Stories."

Readers may already be familiar with one of Yan's works. One of the short stories included in "White Snake" is "Celestial Bath," which was the basis for Joan Chen's film "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl," which screened here in June.

Like Xiu Xiu, the innocent, idealistic young girl sent to the Tibetan border during China's Cultural Revolution, only to be defiled and abandoned, Yan's other characters are unforgettable. They lurch toward their fates with resignation, made all the more poignant by their strength of character.

The story of "White Snake" is the most sensuous and spellbinding of the stories, told from many perspectives, each offering a glimpse of the full picture.


Courtesy of Geling Yan
Geling Yan was a war correspondent in the late 1970s.



In it, we find the 34-year-old dancer Sun Likun -- once universally admired for her writhing, fluid snake steps, executed so that it seemed as if she had no bones at all -- imprisoned. Her crime was to fall in love with a Soviet dancer in the days before hostilities began on the Sino-Soviet border. To the Chinese government, she is a spy who has committed treason.

Yan writes: "Less than six months of being locked up in the Performing Arts Troupe's scenery warehouse and she looked exactly like any middle-aged woman you'd see on the street: a keg-shaped waist, gourdlike breasts, and big squarish buttocks that spread out so wide you could lay out a whole meal on them. Her face was still pretty, only broader, and her eyelashes would still sweep back and forth until you felt your heart tickle, but the black and white of her eyes were starting to lose their clarity."

After putting up with indignities inflicted by teen-age guards -- girls who once admired her who now saw her as something less than human -- and construction workers outside her window, Sun receives a visitor from the Central Propaganda Ministry.

The young man spends several weeks interrogating her. She becomes accustomed to his visits and begins to shed her disheveled skin to reveal her once svelte, athletic frame.

But the young man is not what he seems, and by the time he disappears, Sun is reduced to hysterics and is eventually taken to a mental asylum, though the story does not end there.

Woven through the piece is the mythology of the strange love story involving immortal serpents, one white and one blue, and a mortal man. It is a legend Sun adapts for stage long before she grasps its meaning.

Because the book starts on this tantalizing note, subsequent stories pale by comparison, but in going back to them, one finds a gentle, bittersweet resonance, particularly in "Siao Yu," about a kind-hearted young woman who marries an Australian for cash and citizenship at her fiance's urging, and "Nothing More Than Male and Female," about a terminally ill young man and the effect he has on his family and brother's fiance.

The former story attracted the attention of Taiwan director Ang Lee, maker of "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm." With his help, the story was made into a film by Sylvia Chang, released in Asia and Australia and named Best Picture at the Asia Pacific Film Festival.

"Nothing More Than Male and Female" was also made into a film in 1995 and released in Asia.

Born in Shanghai, Yan attended school until the Cultural Revolution closed the schools. She entered the People's Liberation Army at age 12 and was stationed in Chengdu, where she served in ballet and folk dance troupes that provided entertainment at various military installations.

In the late 1970s, she was a war correspondent covering the Sino-Vietnamese border war. Her first novel, "Green Blood," detailed her experiences as an adolescent girl soldier.

Yan now resides in San Francisco with her husband Lawrence Walker, who served for more than a decade as a Foreign Service Officer in China, Germany and Mexico, and is fluent in six languages. He provided the translation from Chinese for "White Snake and Other Stories."

He says in his note that it is common for works in Chinese to leave details to a reader's imagination. Given the poetic quality of Chinese literature, we can only imagine the impressions that Yan's own words might have evoked.



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