The Manchester Review

Wang Anyi, reviewed by Daisy Owens

Saturday, 20th October 2012, Wang Anyi, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Prior to the event, little information was released about the exact nature of today’s discussion with Wang Anyi, organised in conjunction with the Confucius Institute for the Manchester Literature Festival. It’s a pleasure to discover that Anyi will be talking about both her own work and, more broadly, the nature of the Maoist regime which resonates within it. You might think Anyi’s opening reading in Mandarin might be somewhat alienating to some members of the audience, which is clearly made up of a variety of different ethnicities. On the contrary, Anyi’s reading perfectly conjures an authentic backdrop for the discussion of Chinese history and culture which will follow. Non-Mandarin speakers are given an English-language version of the passage she reads, which, even for those least familiar with her work, gives a flavour of Anyi’s rich, sensory descriptions as it details the longtang of Shanghai through a consideration of the role of gossip within them.

This extract, from her novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, also reflects Anyi’s fascination with the details of normal life, which she goes on to discuss. She explains how she believes the role of the novelist is different from that of an historian, and how as a novelist she strives to explore life at a micro-level and subtly reflect historical change through this inspection of everyday life. To illustrate her point, she mentions her own youth in 1960s and 1970s Shanghai and the changes that could be seen happening during this period. The chairwoman of the event seizes the opportunity to question Anyi further about her personal experiences as a young writer in China, which prompts the most fascinating part of the discussion. Anyi describes her experiences seeking a career as a novelist as the daughter of two esteemed writers, and considers the differences between writing in her parents’ generation and in her own, both in terms of opportunities and subject matter. This opens up into a wider analysis of the Cultural Revolution and its consequences for young people.

This exploration of cultural change in China clearly intrigues the audience, as Anyi is further questioned by the audience on topics including progression in Chinese fashion in a brief Q and A session. There is the sense that perhaps something may be lost in translation as her responses are relayed in English by a translator – a fact which also sadly but inevitably limits the depth of the discussion today due to further time constraints. However, she answers all questions conscientiously and at times humorously, which makes her answers engaging as she offers up examples of how young women tried to flout the conventional dress code during her youth. The audience leaves the Anthony Burgess Foundation with a greater understanding not only of Anyi’s own views and life story but also of the effects of the Maoist regime on writers and young people in general, which as such will allow fans both old and new to more fully appreciate her work.

Daisy Owens is a student at The University of Manchester.

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