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A Private Life (Weatherhead Books on Asia)

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Home » Books » Fiction & Literature » Literary Criticsm » Asian » General

A Private Life

Weatherhead Books on Asia

By Ran Chen, John Howard-Gibbon (Translated by)

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Format: Hardcover, 214 pages
Other Information: 2 line drawings
Published In: United States, 21 April 2004

From one of China's most celebrated contemporary novelists comes this riveting tale of a young woman's emotional and sexual awakening. Set in the turbulent decades of the Cultural Revolution and the Tian'anmen Square incident, A Private Life exposes the complex and fantastical inner life of a young woman growing up during a time of intense social and political upheaval.

At the age of twenty-six, Ni Niuniu has come to accept pain and loss. She has suffered the death of her mother and a close friend and neighbor, Mrs. Ho. She has long been estranged from her tyrannical father, while her boyfriend -- a brilliant and handsome poet named Yin Nan -- was forced to flee the country. She has survived a disturbing affair with a former teacher, a mental breakdown that left her in a mental institution for two years, and a stray bullet that tore through the flesh of her left leg. Now living in complete seclusion, Niuniu shuns a world that seems incapable of accepting her and instead spends her days wandering in vivid, dreamlike reveries where her fractured recollections and wild fantasies merge with her inescapable feelings of melancholy and loneliness. Yet this eccentric young woman -- caught between the disappearing traditions of the past and a modernizing Beijing, a flood of memories and an unknowable future, her chosen solitude and her irrepressible longing -- discovers strength and independence through writing, which transforms her flight from the hypocrisy of urban life into a journey of self-realization and rebirth.

First published in 1996 to widespread critical acclaim, Ran Chen's controversial debut novel is a lyricalmeditation on memory, sexuality, femininity, and the often arbitrary distinctions between madness and sanity, alienation and belonging, nature and society. As Chen leads the reader deep into the psyche of Ni Niuniu -- into her innermost secrets and sexual desires -- the borders separating narrator and protagonist, writer and subject dissolve, exposing the shared aspects of human existence that transcend geographical and cultural differences.

Table of Contents

All time has passed away and left me here alone... Dancing on tiptoe in black rain... My one-eyed nanny... I carry an infectious disease... Scissors and seduction... The Widow Ho and her "changing room"... A stranger to myself... Yi Qiu... The inner room... A coffin looks for an occupant... Bed-a stage for the drama of the sexes... A new myth of Sisyphus... A bed cries out... Yinyang Grotto... One person's death brings punishment to another... Endless days... Apple bobbing... A fiery dance of death... A stray bullet... The birth of Miss Nothing... The years have passed away and left me here alone... The lonely are a shameless lot...

Promotional Information

One of the most acclaimed women writers in contemporary China, Chen Ran in this novel explores the complex emotional territory of the female body, sexuality, homoeroticism, and fantasy. The author's personal voice triumphs in the novel as a most conscious presence, dissolving the public and collective model of socialist literature. Daringly written and excellently translated, A Private Life not only entertains, but also leaves the reader pondering Chen's disturbing and deeply personal message. -- Lingzhen Wang, Brown University A Private Life shows Chen Ran at her best: weaving together the female bildungsroman and social and political satire, she effortlessly flits from outbursts of rage to ecstasy to rarefied emotions. Her philosophical musings on the difficulty of achieving individual freedom are as critical of the collective pursuit of wealth and sensorial pleasures in China after socialism as of the authoritarianism and ideological conformity during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. The poignant, tragic-comic tale is ultimately about bondage and transcendence. -- Tze-Lan D. Sang, author of The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China The novel daringly depicts a woman's emotional journey towards the maturation of her sexuality. It is a provocative reflection of the new sensibility of a young generation of Chinese women in the post-Deng era. Chen Ran's sensuous style easily breathes through the translator's English rendition of her language. -- Lingchei Letty Chen, Washington University, St. Louis

About the Author

Chen Ran is the author of numerous short stories, which are available in the four-volume Collected Works of Chen Ran, and Bits and Pieces, a collection of essays. A Private Life is the first of her works to appear in English. John Howard-Gibbon, a copy editor for China Daily in Beijing, has translated many works, notably Lao She's Teahouse.


Chen Ran's strikingly introspective, subjective, and individualized writing sets her work distinctively apart for the traditional and mainstream realism of the majority of contemporary Chinese writers... In his translation, Howard-Gibbon adeptly conveys the exquisiteness, richness, and slight eccentricity of Chen's prose. China Daily The turbulent decades spanning the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the deadly demonstrations at Tiananmen Square provide the backdrop for this sensuous, coming-of-age tale by Chinese essayist and short-story writer Chen... Chen's first work to be translated into English provides an eloquent examination of the quest for calm in a chaotic world. Booklist An intriguing exploration of the contemporary consciousness of an alienated, urban Chinese woman for whom current history matters less than the reliable comforts of love, nature, and solitude. Kirkus Reviews Niuniu's flaws, foibles, and idiosyncrasies represent fertile ground for Chen's wide-ranging psychological character study... [an] intriguing novel that captures the heightened sensibility of a woman who flees the bustling contemporary world for the sensual pleasures of inner space. Publishers Weekly In the novelA Private Life, Ran Chen immerses us in the troubled life of Ni Niuniu... Chen weaves together these evaluations with Niuniu's manic writings in order to create an ultra postmodern tale of a young woman's psychosocial evolution... an important portrait of a young woman trying to survive in a complicated world. Bust Magazine A Private Life is not an overtly political book; rather, it has the timeless quality of most dreams. Still, [narrator] Ni Niuniu's refusal to connect with the world outside her door becomes a kind of political statement. -- Elizabeth Gold Washington Post An atmospheric story of sexual awakening and ennui that enlarges our understanding of modern China. Vancouver Sun Niuniu's hatred of the few powerful males in her life and her sexual confusion and manipulations are clearly depicted. -- Sofia A. Tangalos Library Journal This polished and readable translation of the inaugural novel of Chen Ran stands as an example of the quasi-autobiographical Sino-Japanese shishosetsu Choice A riveting tale... a lyrical meditation on memory, sexuality, femininity, and the often arbitrary distinctions between madness and sanity. Translation Review

EAN: 9780231131964
ISBN: 0231131968
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Dimensions: 21.13 x 14.73 x 1.98 centimetres (0.50 kg)
Age Range: 15+ years
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