Turning Loss into Beauty: The Tragedies of Geling Yan

The Asian Wall Street Journal
June 25 1999
Geling Yan writes about loss. Like so many others from her generation, the Chinese novelist and screenwriter lost her innocence and much of her childhood to Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. At the age of 12, Ms. Yan — along with millions of other young Chinese — was forced to abandon her studies and join the People’s Liberation Army.

“With books or film I want to commemorate our youth and the sacrifices they made,” says Ms. Yan. “No matter how bitter the time was, there is always something beautiful. I want to satisfy my nostalgia and hope {my work} is touching enough to move audiences who may not have the same experiences.”

With her latest screenplay, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” Ms. Yan has done just that. At a recent screening in New York, the audience, many of them in tears, gave the film a standing ovation. Released in Taiwan last year to a slew of awards, “Xiu Xiu” has just opened in the U.S. and is slated to hit theaters in Asia and Australia this summer.

The film is the first collaboration between Ms. Yan and actress-turned-director, Joan Chen. The two first met in Shanghai as teenagers, but Ms. Yan pursued her writing career in China while Ms. Chen’s acting career took her overseas. Their paths crossed again when they found they were neighbors in the San Francisco Bay area.

The screenplay is adapted from Ms. Yan’s short story “Celestial Bath,” from her collection entitled “White Snake and Other Stories,” recently released in English by Aunt Lute Books. It is a haunting story of hope, betrayal and the loss of innocence. And with Ms. Chen’s impressive directoral debut, it achieves a rare — if often aching — cinematic beauty.

The film tells the story of Xiu Xiu, a girl who, like Ms. Yan herself, is forced to join the PLA during the Cultural Revolution. Xiu Xiu, a teenager from Chengdu, is chosen for a post in the remote steppes of Tibet to learn about horsemanship and lead a girls’ cavalry upon return to base camp. On the vast Tibetan plain her only companion is her teacher, Lao Jin, a seasoned Tibetan horseman.

Xiu Xiu is at first tragically optimistic about her mission in Tibet and her chances of returning home to Chengdu. Yet despite her warm relationship with Lao Jin, her hopes of returning home to her family are dashed and she is forced to trade sexual favors for empty promises of salvation.

While there are obvious parallels between Xiu Xiu’s story and her own, Ms. Yan says the plot is based on a real ordeal suffered by a friend of the family. Ms. Yan’s own story is not nearly as tragic. After joining the PLA at the age of 12, she became a member of a dance and ballet troupe that toured the country. Though she was stationed in Chengdu, she spent much of her time traveling throughout China and Tibet.

Mr. Yan’s writing career began in 1979 at the age of 19 when she became a war correspondent covering the Sino-Vietnamese border war. But instead of writing about the glories of war, she wrote poetry colored by anti-war sentiments. In 1986, she published her first novel, “Green Blood,” based on her experiences as a girl soldier. The book won the National Military Award and her 1987 novel, “Whispers of a Woman Soldier,” subsequently won the Army Publishing House Award, two of China’s top literary honors. A prolific writer, Ms. Yan has gone on to publish a total of six novels, a collection of essays, a biography and numerous short stories and screenplays.

Born in Shanghai to a novelist father and an actress mother, Ms. Yan, now 39, says her evolution as a writer was a natural one. She recalls her father’s well-stocked library from the days of her youth and was well versed in Tolstoy and other Russian authors before being sent off to the PLA. “From early on, I was nourished in a literary way,” she explains. “I didn’t realize that there was a writer already living in me.

Ms. Yan’s home-grown success has taken her abroad and introduced her to some of the best writers in the world. In 1987 she visited various American writing programs as part of the U.S. Information Agency’s International Visitor’s Program. During her stay at the likes of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ms. Yan “got the idea that writers could be totally free in mind. That one’s freedom could be infinite.”

After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Ms. Yan decided that she would move to the U.S. to study full-time. When the student democracy movement was crushed, Ms. Yan cried for days. “In my mind there was no hope,” she says.

Ms. Yan arrived in America in October of that same year to study English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She then enrolled in Columbia College Chicago where she earned a master’s degree in writing. While fluent in English, she says she still writes in Chinese. “I like to play with words,” she explains. “In English, there’s only one or two ways to say something; in Chinese there are 30 ways.”

Ms. Yan is currently at work adapting her 1995 novel “Fu Sang” for the screen. In another collaboration with Ms. Chen, the film is about a Chinese woman sold to prostitution in San Francisco during the 1870s — yet another tragedy. Asked why her characters suffer so, she responds, “Any suffering registered in your mind makes the emotion deeper. Maybe as a writer, I am constantly looking for tragedy.”

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