Preface to Fu Ping by Wang Anyi
Edited by Howard Goldblatt
Shanghai, June 9, 2003
In the summer of 1998, a few of us went on a trip to Yangzhou.
We took the train to Zhenjiang, where a friend picked us up by car and we crossed the river to reach Yangzhou. It was the rainy season, the air was filled with moisture. Weeping willows and a stretch of rice fields formed a lush landscape, along with some unusual redbrick houses. That shade wasn’t the common rusty brick red, but a fiery red with washes of yellow. I later realized that it was a crudely fired redbrick used by ordinary families. This scenery invoked a sense of enchantment and romance that reminded me of Li Bai’s elegant verse: “Leaving for Yangzhou in the misty spring month of flowers,” but in the style of a folk tune, like the Ming “hanging branch” lyric or “mountain songs.” At that moment, a face appeared before my eyes – she later became the title character in my novel Fu Ping.
I grew up with a nanny from Yangzhou. I first learned to speak neither Shanghainese nor Mandarin, but the Yangzhou dialect. Her voice had a gentle, charming drawl that appealed to little girls’ affectations. She once bought me a handkerchief in apple green and fuchsia pink, the vibrant shades evoking the cheerfulness of magpies chirping at trees. My mother said it was tacky, but I loved it to death.
Most of my nanny’s fellow villagers had delicate facial features. Their slim eyebrows curved upward when they smiled, as did the corners of their mouths. Their skin tone wasn’t dark and swarthy, like farmers who worked outdoors the year-round, but rather a pale yellow, which could be considered fair among farmers at the time. So, my nanny’s relatives from Yangzhou all looked quite lovely and urbane.
My nanny had an intriguing attitude toward relationships between men and women. When we became teenagers, she took on a personal sense of duty to keep a close watch on our behavior. She always felt the need to comment on schoolmates of the opposite sex I knew well and reported them to our mother. But at the same time, she conspired with us to cover our backs. Once, I was “on a date” with this boy at home when my best girlfriend stopped by. My old nanny put on a show of talking to her in a loud voice, holding her off, which bought time for the boy to escape through the back door.
There was another time when she pulled me behind the door and told me conspiratorily that she’d dreamed that so-and-so became my boyfriend; from then on I ran off any time I saw him. In any case, she was interested in these sorts of things, somewhat innocent and yet, to a certain degree, betraying human natural desires.
Now that I was in misty Yangzhou, the past regained its color and emotional ties. I even thought that Shanghai’s concrete jungle was made softer, graced with flair by the customs of these people from Yangzhou. This was precisely why I wrote Fu Ping.
Midway through the novel, Fu Ping is going to see her uncle, and she is about to enter the Yangzhou community in which he lives – but where should I have her go? An experience from ten years earlier leapt out of my memories. It was during the early 1990s, when some friends from Beijing came to Shanghai for a full-length television documentary on the Chinese population problem. It was mid-summer, and I was taking a break from writing, so I went with them to visit different spots.
For one of them we followed the sanitation workers on a motorized garbage scow on the Suzhou River. It was a picturesque day. Life on a trash-filled boat wasn’t as filthy and harsh as we had imagined. The deck was painted red, and was so clean it sparkled. Everything was scrubbed spotless; you could even see the wood grain in the legs of the small stools.
After the garbage was loaded onto the boat, it was covered by a sheet of canvas, white from repeated washings, and then tied down at all four corners. As the boat sailed along the Suzhou River, we passed through the narrow riverways squeezed between high-rise buildings, then the river opened up as we moved on. The concrete riverbanks were replaced by soft muddy slopes, and above those slopes were lush green crops and dense groves of trees; even the water gradually became clearer.
Some of the boats coming our way were also garbage scows; they all shouted out greetings as they passed. Women were sitting barefoot on the deck and sewing on that beautiful day. The laboring life does, in fact, have real charm.
Those sanitation workers, all from Subei, regardless of gender, had muscular bodies that could move nimbly on a cramped, rocking boat. They paused when they saw me because they hadn’t expected to see a woman onboard. After a quick discussion among themselves, one of them ran off and brought back another woman from the team who was to look after my safety. She threw a life jacket over me, grabbed my hand, and never released it, not even for a second. Her solid palm and artless smile contained a simple, direct tenderness. Afterward, I had lunch in their dining hall. The food had strong flavors: the stewed meat melted in my mouth, the fish was fried to a golden yellow, and the soup had the consistency of condensed milk, which suited the villagers’ sense of abundance.
So I let Fu Ping go there.
I wanted a downpour at the end of the novel. Let this city soak in water, become crystal clear, and have the lotus flowers bloom. In the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged and in normalcy lies a simple harmony, which is arranged based on the reasonable needs of human nature, producing strength for generations to carry on.