BY WANG PING
MINNEAPOLIS: COFFEE HOUSE PRESS, 1996
Reviewed by THOMAS HAMEL
What to do if you are an intelligent woman motivated to escape your insular upbringing, your adulterous mother, your violent father? What to do if you score well on your exams but find the male hierarchy threatened by your performance? What to do if a series of men view and use you for sexual satisfaction or in order to satisfy their need to possess you, never mind your other talents and potential? What to do, too, if women regard you as a means to further their own interests?
Such is the world of one Ni Bing, heroine of the novel Foreign Devil, by Wang Ping. This accessible novel is appropriate for all undergraduates since it addresses concerns experienced by all young men and women. Western readers can identify with Ni Bing, even as the novel is set in China, since she confronts authorities and hierarchies and adult duplicities that youths in any culture have encountered. It is a painful process for a youth to encounter and understand gradually the power and chicanery of the adult world, especially when the adults exploit youths for their youth. Yet the transition from innocence to experience obliges youths to recognize adults for who they are, and youths—most youths—learn how to articulate and defend and further their own best interests.
Ni Bing, however, is a tentative learner, and her case is special since these youthful experiences are complicated by the traditional forms of authority in Chinese society (the novel’s men are physical and lustful), by the multicultural attractions and revelations of the twentieth century (Ni Bing is well read), by commerce (through an odd but self–serving set of circumstances, she succumbs to the advances of Bruno, an Italian capitalist), and by politics (Chinese men and women are as ready as ever to suppress each other for personal gain). She finds herself the object of the attentions of a variety of men, all of whom are reaching beyond the confines culture places on them. She is raped, strung along, she is set aside and praised, only to be dragged down and mounted. Were this suffering not enough, it occurs against the backdrop of ancient and modern tensions in conflict. Ni Bing is thus expected to be filial, but she is also wise enough to see that education is her escape. But students and educational authorities have their agendas, too, which makes us wonder whether anyone has genuine, sincere motives in a China whose ancient values are rapidly confronting the modern and Westernized world.
If it sounds as though this novel has an agenda, perhaps it does, but its originality helps counter its own motives, and the beauty of Ni Bing’s aspirations likewise augurs well for a generation exploited by an adult, authoritative world. Wang Ping can write well. She has learned how to write about sex, contemporary Chinese sex at that, which is undergoing transformations and experiencing confusions similar to those in the culture itself. Ni Bing finds herself satisfying men, sometimes by accident, sometimes by the ways of a world she is only beginning to understand, but she also works hard to satisfy herself. The two have trouble mixing.
This trouble may be traced to the voice of the novel itself, which has one foot in the Eastern world, one in the West. Thus, the novel freely pauses to explain various details of the East to the Western reader— the identity of a gulao (someone who has no descendants), a definition of a kang (a bed made of mud and bricks), etc. Yet the novelist is also appealing to the Asian audience that knows what Ni Bing is confronting, but has gotten beyond her conflicts, possibly by emigrating. Still further, to the contemporary Chinese reader of English, the novel makes an appeal to recognize what contemporary China is and has become, certainly in its treatment of a promising young woman. If awkwardness and implausibility are part of Wang Ping’s overtures to these various audiences, we can attribute them to the newness of such a dialogue. Given the intensifying multicultural pressures on China and Asia, not to mention America, we can expect many works of literature not only will, but must, address the redefinition of gender and self in both hemispheres. Foreign Devil helps initiate the dialogue on these issues.