‘Fu Ping’ by Wang Anyi (Review)

The last couple of weeks of Women in Translation Month posts have seen me attempting to group reviews together under spurious themes, but apart from the obvious tie of ‘books in translation by female authors’, there isn’t a lot connecting this week’s selections.  However, that doesn’t mean that the books I’ve chosen are any less interesting, so let’s continue on our global #WITMonth journey, with today’s stop taking us to Shanghai – on family business 🙂

Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping (translated by Howard Goldblatt, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is set in and around Shanghai during the first decades of the People’s Republic of China (post-1949).  At the heart of the story is Fu Ping, a young woman sent from the countryside to stay with Nainai, the (adopted) grandmother of the man she is to marry, until the wedding takes place.  Nainai adopted the young man as an insurance policy for her old age, hoping to make another haven for herself in case other relatives prove unable (or unwilling) to take her in, and this is her opportunity to get to know her future granddaughter.

Initially, the quiet country girl seems out of her depth in the big city, but the shrewd judges of character in the neighbourhood sense that there’s more to Fu Ping than meets the eye:

It would be wrong to characterize Fu Ping as wooden at that moment, for she had been all eyes and ears; though she did not grasp the significance of everything that was going on, she caught the gist.  Each day brought something new or led to a new appreciation of something old, and she fell into a deep sleep each night with newly gained impressions.
p.33 (Columbia University Press, 2019)

Nainai quickly comes to grow fond of her charge, but despite their close relationship, she also begins to harbour doubts about the girl’s intentions – with good reason.  You see, having enjoyed the fun and bustle of city life, Fu Ping isn’t really prepared to settle down back in the country, and even a visit from her fiancé might not be enough to change her mind.

With the book bearing Fu Ping’s name, you’d expect her to be centre-stage throughout, but that’s certainly not the case.  Wang’s novel is a very different creation to what you might expect, and while the thread holding the book together is the dilemma of the young woman’s impending marriage and her increasing doubts, that’s really only half the story, perhaps even less.  In truth, the writer merely uses her stubborn, taciturn protagonist as an entry-point into a world she wishes to describe in more detail, and the more we read, the more we feel that it’s Shanghai itself that is the real star here.

The novel spans twenty chapters, often introducing characters or places, and this lends the book an episodic feel.  A familiar pattern builds up, with the start of the chapter introducing one of the characters, often delving back into their personal history, before we return to the main story towards the end of the chapter to see how all this fits into Fu Ping’s story.  These diversions can often be longer than the part devoted to the main strand, and they gradually come together to form a full-colour picture of life in the poorer areas of Shanghai, with all the noise, smells and trials of daily existence.  Some of these episodes also focus on less common events, such as New Year’s celebrations, floods, elaborate funerals and a visit to the Great World Arcade, a sort of amusement park with plays, shows and all kinds of entertainment for the Shanghainese.

After each new story, Wang gently nudges her tale back in the direction of her heroine and her marriage dilemmas.  The doubts are evident from near the start of the novel when Fu Ping avoids any discussion of her fiancé or marriage, and Nainai’s fears only grow as the young woman becomes more accustomed to her city life.  A further complication comes when she reconnects with an aunt living elsewhere in the city, who soon has another potential marriage candidate in mind for her niece.

However, Fu Ping’s reticence isn’t purely down to a desire to remain in the city.  She listens to Nainai’s anecdotes about her grandson more carefully than the old woman suspects, but instead of becoming more familiar with his character in order to grow to love him, she instead reads between the lines to see what the future has in store:

Now, as Nainai spoke of him, the picture became clearer.  He stood in front of Fu Ping, replete with parents, siblings, many relatives, and plenty of gossip.  She knew all she needed to know about family.  Family meant trouble, lots of it.  And she saw a future filled with trouble.  Being well-behaved became a flaw.  He was ensnared in trouble from which he could not extricate himself.  His docility could turn into a defect, an inability to make decisions.  Fu Ping resented him for that. (p.102/3)

Later, this Li Tianhua will make his appearance in Shanghai, hoping to bring his fiancée back to his home town, but even this personal intervention might not be enough to change her mind.

Breaking the match off won’t be quite that easy, though, given the importance in Chinese culture of family and obeying older relatives.  Nainai has put in a lot of hard work to help Fu Ping, and the young woman knows full well that rejecting Li Tianhua will be a poor return for this care and attention.  There are also the expectations of the families back in the countryside, both hers and his, to consider.  She will even have to contend with the attitudes of the people around her, mostly people from her home region who still hold tightly to their country beliefs, considering a marriage once agreed upon to be unavoidable.  In the face of all this opposition, does our quiet country girl really have it in her to go her own way?

There’s a lovely storytelling air to the novel, one Goldblatt catches nicely, with the writer confident enough to show she’s telling the story through frequent intrusions and interjections (“But who could say?”, “Oh yes, we haven’t mentioned…”), but perhaps its most notable feature is its leisurely pace.  At the start of the book, we have two chapters introducing Nainai between Fu Ping’s arrival and her entry into the house, and this is typical of Wang’s determination not to be in too much of a hurry with her tangents before continuing the main story.  Without them, the main strand would actually be a little thin, but of course, the point is that these interludes aren’t tangents, but integral parts of the story.  The writer is gradually spinning the web that has Fu Ping entangled in its midst, made up of the social ties that she must sever if she is to have her own way.

Overall, Fu Ping is an enjoyable story, a novel using one young woman’s fate to evoke life in the Shanghai of long ago.  Cleverly, despite her main character not having much of a voice, Wang builds our sympathy for the young woman, and the people around her, and we hope for a happy ending – but what exactly would that entail?  Would it be what she wants, or what others think is best for her?  That’s something our heroine will have to decide for herself, but rest assured that there’ll be plenty of people ready to help her along the way.

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