Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
In the evenings Fiona sits in her studio . . . photographs of his wife Helen was at her husband's side. . . Fiona tears open packages of cream-filled cookies, conveying the contents almost robotically to her mouth; she studies the photos until her neck tightens and a throbbing starts in her temples. She thinks she knows what it is like to lie inside Helen's body. -- Evelyn Lau, other Women, 71-72
Wang Anyi, a leading Chinese fiction writer, focuses singly on the love affair between a cellist and his mistress. The narrator is portrayed as a devoted son protective of his "extremely wise" mother, who is constantly abused by her spouse and father-in-law. She is strong, however, and does not allow herself to be victimized. Although his grandfather frequently beats her in front of her own children, she never loses her dignity. "She tried her best to put her children on the right path, but if they did wrong she never blamed them . . . ," says the narrator. "Everyone in the family depended on her" (Wang, 31). The cellist's mother demonstrates how women are treated in various parts of China and how some of them succeed in eliciting respect despite hardships. Her son looks up to her and is aware of her importance in the family: "His mother's power was above everything else, and his love for his mother was above everything else" (Wang, 58).
The protagonist's mother also plays an important role in other Women, by Canadian writer Evelyn Lau. The departure of Fiona's lover, Raymond, brings back the memory of her as an eight-year-old reading her mother's diaries, which have documented her affairs with a married man. The flashbacks allow Fiona to share her mother's feeling of loss when she cut the diaries with a pair of scissors in front of a fireplace. "I did understand that my mother had now lost something she could never get back, and that life could not be the same again for her," Fiona says. At an early age, she is exposed to the pain of being jilted, which returns in greater intensity when Raymond leaves her.
Maternal influence, however, has not deterred the cellist or Fiona from taking a self-destructive course. Although he has married a woman who shares his love for music and provides him the same sense of security as his mother did, he falls for a coquette. An educated singer, his wife is a colleague in the Anhui performing arts troupe. She is attracted to him because "his almost feminine frailty aroused her maternal feelings" while he finds refuge in her "inner strength and a capacity for love which were the perfect shelter for all weak souls" (Wang, 47).
Yet their marital bliss soon ends with the entrance of the narrator's mistress -- a member of the Mao Tsetung Thought Propaganda Team. This flirtatious young woman from Golden Corn Lane is both innocent and improper. "The game that was the most fun for her was flirting," Wang writes. "She is not at all a bad girl; in fact at heart she was kind. She just loved playing around . . . she did not intend to hurt the boys, she just wanted some fun. When they were hurt, she did not feel happy either, she would even cry" (Wang, 55-56). Her impropriety leads to a tragic end, making her both a victim of herself and a tormentor of others.
As for Fiona, she makes the same mistakes as her mother did, inflicting pain on herself. Neither does her friend Sharon's miserable experience with a married man prevent Fiona from entering an affair of her own. During a trip to California, Fiona discovers that another married friend of hers, Teresa, has also felt the same sadness. Teresa is a successful television host who, like Sharon, has stopped being a victim-tormentor to emerge from their depression. They become role models for Fiona.
The narrator's mistress in Love on a Barren Mountain, which is based on a true story, does not seem to have anyone to emulate. Her goal in life is to entice men. Her husband played many games with her before she finally decided to marry him. Even after their marriage, she is free to have as many boyfriends as she wishes as long as she does not sleep with them. She has accepted this condition until she meets the cellist. Enslaved by love, the girl from Golden Corn Lane plays victimizer to her own husband and the narrator's wife. Although the singer is aware of her husband's unfaithfulness, she remains composed and does not make a scene. After her husband's confession, she is willing to forgive him.
The narrator and his mistress, however, are portrayed as weak individuals who decide to commit suicide. Perhaps it is a desperate attempt to unite themselves in death or free their families from victimhood. Obviously, the cellist cannot live with himself for being a victimizer as his father and grandfather were. As for Fiona, she goes through a long period of suffering to finally rid herself of her obsession: "I look in my mirror I see only my own face . . ." (Lau, 192), not Raymond's. After that moment, Fiona stops being a victim.
Despite the sad endings, Fiona and the cellist's wife have managed to live each day stronger. Under differing circumstances and social environments, they have learned to emerge from victimhood to be self-reliant individuals as the cellist's mother always is.
Lau, Evelyn. other Women. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1995.
Wang, Anyi. Love on a Barren Mountain. Trans. Eva Hung. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1991.
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.