Fu Ping

By Wang Anyi
Translated by Howard Goldblatt

Reviewed by Elena Martín Enebral
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2019)

Wang Anyi, Fu Ping Tr. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 296 pp. ISBN: 9780231193221 (Hardcover); ISBN: 9780231550208 (E-book)

The novel Fu Ping (富萍) was first published in the literary magazine Harvest (收获) in 2000. Wang Anyi (王安忆, 1954-) described it as reflecting almost a decade of inquiry, the result of which satisfied her as much as her acclaimed novel Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌, 1995), for which she obtained the supreme Chinese writing award, the Mao Dun Prize, that same year.[1] With good reason, therefore, we can welcome the recent publication in English of this novel, essential as it is to understanding the creative evolution of one of the most emblematic figures of contemporary Chinese literature, and most especially when translated by the renowned Howard Goldblatt.

The English edition opens with a note from the author that reveals some of the sources of inspiration for the novel. A trip to Yangzhou (扬州) reminds Wang Anyi of a beautiful poem by Li Bai (李白) that takes her back in time to her childhood and her nanny, who was originally from that town. Poetry and memory fuse to evoke, before her eyes, the image of a face belonging to the heroine of her novel: Fu Ping, a young woman from a village near Yangzhou. Fu Ping moves to Shanghai in the mid-1960s to meet Nainai (奶奶), the adoptive grandmother of her future husband whom she has only seen on a handful of occasions. Wang Anyi links the fate of her heroine with another personal memory: a tranquil journey along the Suzhou River (苏州河) in one of the motorized scows that workers from Subei (苏北) use to transport waste daily outside the city of Shanghai.

This way of revealing the origins of the novel links up with an approach evident in previous works by Wang Anyi, such as Sadness for the Pacific (伤心太平洋, 1992) and especially Reality and Fiction (纪实与虚构, 1994), in which she elaborates a family genealogy and establishes a dialectical relationship between memory and history, subjectivity and representation.[2] In those two novels, the search for her roots runs parallel to the construction of a cultural identity in a migratory context. Wang Anyi herself was born in Nanjing, but grew up in Shanghai, a city that is the focus of much of her literary production. Fu Ping is one of her works that best reflects individual preoccupations and social tensions arising from the encounter between tradition and an urban environment.

In the 1990s, Wang Anyi projected her particular vision of Shanghai through delightful writing that meticulously describes environments and customs. The city was both the stage and the protagonist of stories in which the main axis was daily routines and associated developments. With Fu Ping she elevates this style to its maximum expression, with apparent simplicity but in fact in great depth. The novel is structured into twenty chapters, whose concise titles refer mostly to the characters that Fu Ping meets along her way or to the events that overtake them. The concatenation of scenes and narrated experiences depicts a rich mosaic of characters on which the city leaves an indelible mark.

With this novel, Wang Anyi adopts a new perspective: in the broadest physical and psychological sense, she recreates life in the metropolis from the periphery. The characters, emigrants from the countryside, adapt to urban life in a constant process of negotiation that inevitably places them at an intermediate point, as if on a frontier (边缘). Some live in the heart of the city and others in the suburbs, but they are all united as being 外来户 (foreign families), a condition which Wang Anyi herself shares and, to some extent, manages to demystify. Already in the opening note to the English edition she reflects that: “Shanghai’s concrete jungle was made softer, graced with flair by the customs of these people” (vii). Her intention seems to be to dignify the role played by these humble families in configuring the city, but more especially, to explore how they contribute to its complex idiosyncrasies.

One stratagem of the writer is to deploy a wide array of characters that escape definition, that defy the fuzzy, reductionist image of Subei migrants.[3] In general, these are circumscribed to two settings in the novel, identified by the places where their lives unfold: Huaihai Road (淮海路) in the center and Zhabei District (闸北区) on the periphery. The area around Huaihai Road, in the Western District, with its elegant residences and busy commercial streets, is frequented by Nainai and other nannies and maids, including Lü Fengxian (吕凤仙) and Auntie A-ju (阿菊阿姨), and a neighbor A-Niang (阿娘) along with her mother-in-law Taitai (太太). Their lives unfold in homes shared by different families, within the communal framework created by the dense network of streets and alleys of the longtang (弄堂)—to which Wang Anyi has paid homage in much of her writing—where news and rumors continuously circulate.[4]

Nainai is also a native of Yangzhou, but after thirty years residing in Shanghai, her appearance and accent have become hybrid. Like her friend Lü Fengxian, in her perfectionism in performing all kinds of housework, Nainai demonstrates a mastery of her profession. In describing Nainai’s multiple tasks, such as the curious passage that explains the meticulous elaboration of delicious zongzi (粽子), Wang Anyi’s prose shines like a beacon, thanks to the mastery of Howard Goldblatt, who adeptly conveys the subtlety and elegance of the original language. The depiction of Nainai is rounded out with accounts of key events that have marked her life: the early widowhood that leads her to self-reliance, the bitter love affair with the carpenter Qi Shifu (戚师傅) and, most especially, the frustration of not having a son. This lack of a male child is what motivates her to financially support her adopted grandson Li Tianhua (李天华), a young farmer from Yangzhou who she expects to take care of her when she retires.

The second area, with its own characters and settings, is introduced with the arrival of Fu Ping, future wife of Li Tianhua. The family of Sun Daliang (孙达亮), maternal uncle of Fu Ping, lives in a neighborhood of Zhabei District and earns a living by transporting waste by boat on the Suzhou River, along with other waste collecting neighbors, also natives of Jiangsu. Some of these waste collectors live aboard their boats, while others, including Sun Daliang, have managed, after long years of sacrifice, to build a home on the banks of the river. Because of the work they do and their humble station, the migrants populating this area of Shanghai are often viewed with a certain disdain by the inhabitants of the center. They, in turn, are somewhat prejudiced against their migrant neighbors—barbers, knife sharpeners, street vendors, etc. of diverse origins—who reside in Mei Clan Bridge (梅家桥), the adjacent neighborhood that can be reached by a viaduct. This is the setting where Wang Anyi eventually situates her heroine.

The transition from the heart of Shanghai to its periphery, from the houses on Huaihai Road with their patina of past splendor to the makeshift shanties of Mei Clan Bridge, reflects a main thread in the novel—namely, the unshakeable spirit of Shanghai’s inhabitants, irrespective of their origins and social status. In particular, the existential struggles and simplicity of customs of the people of Zhabei are described with immediacy and even admiration. In leaving Huaihai Road for Zhabei District, Fu Ping quickly adapts to life in her maternal uncle’s home, where, despite hardships, basic necessities such as food and clothing are not lacking. Even leisure is more authentic; while evenings in the old Yangzhou opera house do not have the magic or variety of the famous Great World (大世界) entertainment complex in the center, they are much more vivid and immediate. Two significant episodes reflect that contrast. At the opera one evening in Zhabei, when Fu Ping is unable to get a seat, a Mei Clan Bridge family generously offers her a seat with them, whereas during a visit with Nainai and her friends to the imposing Great World, Fu Ping becomes completely disoriented and returns home feeling bewildered and distressed.

Critics have often linked this novel with Song of Everlasting Sorrow, viewing them as complementing each other in their depiction of Shanghai.[5] However, while Song depicts the glamorous side of Shanghai through a nostalgic discourse that questions its legendary image, Fu Ping is a traditional portrayal of rural migrants that depicts their toughness and vitality. Undoubtedly, there are many common threads in both novels—for instance, the detailed recreations of immutable and eternal domestic scenes or femininity as an allegorical representation of the city—that indeed mark a certain affinity of Wang Anyi with the Shanghai School (海派) and Zhang Ailing (张爱玲). The heroines of the novels, even though they each face destiny in their own way, both embody resilience and determination. In a chronicle that covers almost half a century, Wang Qiyao (王琦瑶), protagonist of Song, transcends time in her adaptations to periods of great turbulence. In contrast, the narrative of a year in the life of Fu Ping reflects her initial inflexibility and incomprehension.

One of the most suggestive aspects of the novel is the characterization of Fu Ping. In broad strokes, she is depicted as being rather dull and reticent, although with a sparkle in her eyes that suggests a certain astuteness. Orphaned in infancy, she is raised by her paternal uncle’s family until she reaches the marriageable age of eighteen. The psychological portrait of Fu Ping is painted in delicate brushstrokes that transmit ambiguity: we barely hear her voice or perceive her intentions, although we do intuit her doubts and fears. As her life in Shanghai unfolds, many of the nuances of her personality are revealed. One beautiful passage in the novel describes a walk with her uncle Sun Daliang that is marked by the beginnings of a relationship of complicity. When they arrive at an overgrown pond, he stops and, tracing her name on the ground, explains that its sound, 富萍, evokes that of a near-homophone, 浮萍, meaning “duckweed.” However, since Fu Ping was never schooled, this explanation is beyond her comprehension. Nonetheless, the image of rootless drifting duckweed becomes a symbolic subtext in the novel.

Fu Ping’s life trajectory reflects duckweed: as an orphan, she has not established strong family ties and, when she arrives in Shanghai, she seems passive and sometimes even indifferent to events and developments. The motif of being orphaned and the adaptation to an unfamiliar environment, not to mention the parallelism with the ebbs and flows of existence, are reminiscent of Wang Anyi’s Sadness for the Pacific and Reality and Fiction. Fu Ping’s nature is gradually revealed to us and acquires definition in the Shanghai setting. Almost instinctively, she looks for support and emotional ties around her: she observes with fascination the daily routine of the fabric shop, listens with curiosity to the conversations of the girls attending the school across the street and, one day, in search of her uncle Sun Daliang, even ventures to enter another neighborhood. Freedom and definition are the impulses that drive her and that give her a unique appeal. Fu Ping rebels against an imposed future: she flees the burdens of a marriage with the docile Li Tianhua, and destiny, but also willpower, lead her to create a humble home in a new community, where, without ties, she finds the serenity and autonomy she craves.

The fact that the identity of Fu Ping is constructed in parallel to that of the city unfolding before her requires a consonant tone in the narrative. Wang Anyi thus leaves behind the tragic and elegiac tone of previous works, including Song of Everlasting Sorrow, in which the melancholic existence of its protagonist, Wang Qiyao, unfolds in a mythical dreamlike terrain and ends in a scene evocative of previous timeless splendor. In contrast, the narrative flow in Fu Ping is temperate, sober, and realistic in tone and, despite the harshness, invites calm—rather reminiscent, in fact, of writers of the Beijing School (京派).[6] The universe that Wang Anyi builds with her prose is so exuberant that poetry also finds a place here, emanating as it does from the snippets of life as lived by that tapestry of characters who recount their collective story from the margins. In fact, the expressive capacity of Wang Anyi is such that, at times, the poetry becomes painting in her forging of literary Shanghai. Song begins with the tracing of a beautiful pattern of dots and lines depicting the mesh of the longtang as viewed by pigeons swooping in on the city. Fu Ping concludes like the traditional Along the River during the Qingming Festival (清明上河图) scroll painting, depicting a city washed by the crystalline waters of a river and a boat smoothly gliding toward a horizon of hope.

Elena Martín Enebral
Pompeu Fabra University


[1] Wang Anyi offers some clues about the novel in an interview on publishing in literary journals: Wang Anyi 王安忆, Cai Xingshui 蔡兴水. 2003. “Wo yu Shouhuo ji qita kanwu de guanxi—Wang Anyi fangtan lu” 我与<收获>及其它刊物的关系—王安忆访谈录 (My relationship to Harvest and other journals: record of interviews with Wang Anyi). In Wang Anyi shuo 王安忆说 (Wang Anyi talks). Hunan: Hunan wenyi, vol. 9: 227.

[2] Reality and Fiction: One Method of Creating the World (纪实和虚构 — 创造世界方法之一种), as an epitome of her career, is the novel for which Wang Anyi was awarded the 2017 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. In the nomination statement, professor Dai Jinhua (戴锦华) states: “It is not only literary writing, but also a mega-writing of literature. It is a majestic experiment of literature and genre, and a demonstration and substantiation of theory: from the family to the nation-state, and from literary imagination to the history of the imagined community.” See Dai Jinhua, “Writing as a Way of Life. Nomination of Wang Anyi for the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.” Chinese Literature Today 6, no. 2 (2017): 9.

[3] Emily Honig (1992) analyses the complex identity of Subei migrants in “Migrant Culture in Shanghai. In Search of a Subei Identity,” in Frederic Wakeman, Jr. and Wen-hsin Yeh, eds., Shanghai Sojourners (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California), 239-265. As stated by Honig, this term has been traditionally used to refer broadly to migrants from the northern area of Jiangsu, but Subei actually does not correspond to a specific geographical area and connotes notions of class and social status.

[4] Wang Anyi’s non-fiction works devoted to Shanghai include a very representative collection of essays called In Search of Shanghai (寻找上海)(Shanghai: Xuelin, 2001). Using photographs of Shanghai and its inhabitants as a source of inspiration, the author recreates daily scenes of the longtang, linking them to her own thoughts and experiences.

[5] As a good example for the comparative study of both novels, see Tian Guangwen 田广文, “Shi xi Wang Anyi de shuangzi xingzuo xiaoshuo—dui changpian xiaoshuo Fu Ping yu Chang hen ge de duizhao pingxi” 试析王安忆的“双子星座”小说 — 对长篇小说《富萍》与《长恨歌》的对照评析 (Trying to analyse Wang Anyi’s ‘twin’ novels:a contrastive critical analysis of Fu Ping and Song of Everlasting Sorrow). Suihua xueyuan xuebao 25 (2005), no. 1: 85-88.

[6] Bai Hao (白浩) associates Wang Anyi’s narrative style in this novel to some Zhou Zuoren (周作人) essays, such as Black-awning boat (Wu peng chuan 乌蓬船, 1926), in terms of its smooth pace, quiet atmosphere and deep concern for human issues. This parallelism should be seen from a rather aesthetic point of view, as Wang Anyi’s world certainly does not fit in any literary trend or tradition. Bai Hao et al. 2001. “Wenben hua de Shanghai — xin changpian taolun hui zhi er: Wang Anyi de Fu Ping” 文本化的上海 — 新长篇讨论会之二:王安忆的《富萍》 (Shanghai textualized – Discussion about a new novel (II): Fu Ping, by Wang Anyi). Xiaoshuo pinglun 2: 24-33.