Writer sheds light on lives of urban women

Updated: Jul 23, 2021 China Daily Print
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Writer Ji Xiaoyi, whose pen name is Liao Jing, has just published a new novel that delves into the feelings of young city dwellers. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Whenever a young, female author releases a modern metropolitan fiction, it is often categorized as a work of "feminine literature" and readers will nearly always speculate on whether or not the plot is derived from the writer's own experiences.

It's a puzzle for women of words as to why people describe them as "female writers" while, without thinking, simply refer to their male counterparts as just "writers".

And reacting to the rise of female consciousness and autonomy, the media is often keen to paint young female writers as some sort of faddish social phenomenon.

However, Ji Xiaoyi, who operates under the pen name of Liao Jing, stands for the uniqueness and independence of individual female writers and calls for a wider vision and more subtle observation toward young city dwellers from various social backgrounds.

Her latest novel, Wan Hun (A Late Marriage), is the story of a woman, Huang Wansi, in her early 30s, who has achieved nothing major working as a midlevel human resource worker in Beijing and has just tied the knot with a man that's suitable in every aspect, so that society perceives it as a "good marriage".

Huang, coming from a rural family that relies on her for financial support, but is as emotionally distant as it is physically, struggles to achieve a consistent sense of security in both work and intimacy.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

The lack of self-confidence and paranoia drive her to secretly check Yang's phone, fearing that he's having an affair despite his unwavering support over the years, such as helping her to tackle her teenage sister's accidental pregnancy, supporting her when she is abruptly laid off and letting her move in with him after she is evicted by her landlord.

Still, she questions his motives, even asking whether he married her just because his mother is severely ill.

An interesting thing about the novel is all of the readers' knowledge about Yang comes from Huang's perspective and her speculation, which reflect the real differentiation in the way people of different genders think. It has become a frequent topic on social media, especially at a time when young people are finding it harder to build relationships.

The author didn't want to present a main female character that would be widely beloved by readers, but an adult whose cowardice and irresolution in work and life may be found in any one of us.

Huang's controlling nature toward her younger sister has its roots in her lack of unconditional love during childhood, and she just wants her sister to get a proper education, find a good job and leave their parents behind just as she did.

On the contrary, her best friend Ling Qing is easygoing and unrestrained, navigating a promising career and enjoying herself in a relationship, but not bound to get married. She comes from a loving home, in which her parents have kept many memories and favorite items from her childhood in their basement.

It doesn't take long for one to realize that the pair-best friends since their college days-have reached a fork in the road. While Ling pursues more freedom, Huang tries her best to preserve what she has accumulated through her hard work and effort, already feeling too exhausted to achieve more.

Despite some questionable working practices, Ling leads a life many modern city women wish they could have but don't have access to, whereas many readers might find it difficult to understand Huang's personality and sensitivity at all.

The comparison also exists in reality, Ji says, adding that the final question the novel poses is whether it is wiser to keep trying to shine a light into people's darker side and uncover truths that one might not want to face, or to just turn a blind eye to maintain a peaceful life.

Or, rather, it's about whether to persist in trying to find a solution to a problem that can't be fixed immediately, or working around it and letting it be.

One reader comments on Chinese review site Douban: "The author depicts the tiny life details and ordinary, but shady, thoughts so vividly. Still, I was constantly moved by the not-bright-enough real life."

Ji, a former journalist, chose to raise her son full time not long after he was born. For around seven years, she spent her fragmented time between housework, reading and writing, first online and then as a published author.

It's the first time she has tried a full-length novel. The challenge comes from creating realistic characters, which later actually becomes a highlight, as the author accurately zooms in on something that readers vaguely feel, but cannot clearly define.

"The power of words lies in things unspoken," the author says. "The way Huang deals with her desire to communicate and understand is like a fishbone stuck in the throat."

She says of the appealing time before the desk: "I wrote about the character because there was something I couldn't figure out about her, and it was through writing that I gradually got to know her."

Huang's story is not dramatically beyond a normal life. As the novel progresses, readers get to know Huang's background and personality to the extent that they are able to predict her reaction to any possible major event that might crop up later in her life.

Xi Shan, editor of the book, says the author has been "gently and sincerely" observing and feeling the lives of people in the city where she was born and still resides, sharing her thoughts in her work in order to create a dialogue with contemporary readers.

Xi Shan has noticed that many recent books centering around metropolitan, or urban, themes have delved more deeply into issues such as women's lives, an anxiety toward children's education and the growing generation gap.

The stories in these books are set in different cities, but show similarities in their meticulous description of their characters' inner thoughts. They offer profound insights into intimacy and acutely capture the moral ambiguity of real life, she says.

In Ji's novel, with no obvious shortcomings that Huang can identify in her new husband, Yang Hao, she begins to doubt why a socially well-adjusted man with a considerable income, a good education and an affluent family would fall in love with, and marry, a woman like her-a rural migrant who is embarrassed about her family and origins.

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