As a rebellious young woman in the oppressive China of the 1920s and ’30s, Chinese feminist author Xie Bingying unbound her feet, escaped an arranged marriage, served as a soldier in two wars, lived as an impoverished bohemian single mother in Shanghai, was jailed as a Communist and became a renowned activist and author. And then she proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 93.
Bingying’s autobiography, “A Woman Soldier’s Own Story,” was originally written in two parts, in 1936 and 1946, and helped launch her career as a preeminent Chinese feminist author. Only now, 55 years later and almost two years after her death, has her autobiography been translated into English. Translators Lily Chia and Barry Brissman — her daughter and son-in-law — have faithfully preserved the original work, and it’s a very strange document that they have embalmed. “A Woman’s Soldier’s Own Story” is not only an intoxicating tale of a fierce young woman who kicks off the traces of feudal conventions, but also a quirky piece of populist pro-war propaganda straight out of revolutionary China.
Bingying’s prose is an odd study in these contrasts, capturing the tensions between tradition and revolution, sentimentality and pragmatism, at a critical juncture in that country’s history. At moments — particularly when she is describing a landscape — her words sing out with lyricism, the same kind of sentimentalized metaphorical poetics often found in traditional Chinese writing (“The clear breeze blew a fragrance of flowers across our faces, and the fragrance penetrated our hearts with the sweetness of ice cream”; “The sun climbed out of her deep blue eastern clouds like a young girl coming out of her bath, shy and smiling, moving slowly”). Turn the page, and she’s coldly explaining that “I don’t love anyone but myself” and that “revolutionaries do not shed tears, only blood.”
Judging by her own words, Bingying must have been a strong-willed young woman. Born the daughter of a village scholar in Hunan China in 1906, she went on a hunger strike at the age of 10 until her parents allowed her to enroll in the nearby girls’ school. She removed her own foot-bindings; was ejected from one school for arranging a protest parade on the national day of mourning; and published her first article at age 15. By the time she turned 20, Bingying had enrolled in the military as a female cadet in charge of propaganda and was marching north with Chiang Kai-shek to fight warlords.
After returning from the front line, Bingying was held prisoner by her parents, who forced her to comply with an arranged marriage. After three escape attempts, Bingying finally made it to Shanghai, where she enrolled in college and embarked on a life of writing and political activism, moving in with her lover. She gave birth to a daughter, only to hand her over to her mother-in-law; and when Japan invaded China in the 1930s, she promptly joined up with the military and marched off into the horizon again.
Bingying’s book is at its most engaging when it is a kind of feminist history, documenting the rising tide of change in a feudal society where women are second-class citizens, as Bingying sheds her bindings and marches forth on her own, for example. It is, in terms of writing style and subject matter, an obvious predecessor to the modern tales of Amy Tan. But “A Woman Soldier’s Own Story” is, as the title suggests, primarily interested in how much Bingying loved the military: Though she only spends a year or two in the military during the period documented in this book, the fierce nationalism and self-sacrifice she learns there suffuses all her adult actions — from giving away her child to enduring near-starvation without complaint. In fact, she seems to relish her vicissitudes, as if surmounting challenges with a hardened heart makes her a better person; or, more to the point, a better soldier. As she writes toward the end of the book, before she rejoins the army, “Not a day had passed that I did not remember the meaningful and satisfying life I had lived in those army days, and not a day had passed that I did not long for that life, so full of hardship and tragedy, yet so very pleasant and amusing as one marched with the troops.”
The book, written in the days before the Communist revolution, often reads like a call to arms to China’s youth, extolling the comradely joy of sacrificing your life for your country. It is strange to read about this kind of nationalism with the retrospection that comes from history: Little did Bingying know that the revolution that she praised as she overthrew her nation’s traditions would end up wiping much of China’s priceless culture from the face of the planet. (In fact, during the violent rise of Mao in the late 1940s — a few years after the original publication of her autobiography — Bingying would eventually flee for Taiwan). Living in the modern United States, we are far from a society where men and women actually looked forward to dying in defense of their homeland, although this book might give us small insights into the rabid loyalty of the Islamic jihad warriors currently fighting in Afghanistan.
For its new American audience, however, “A Woman Soldier’s Own Story” should probably be packaged with a Chinese history primer. The book is sometimes almost incomprehensible to those who lack a background in the complicated politics of pre-revolutionary China, especially since Bingying rarely, if ever, offers political or historical context. People and places are mentioned without any explanation of their significance; battles are fought and it’s never revealed who is fighting, and why; and friends and lovers materialize from thin air and disappear again on the next page. In other words, it reads like a badly edited, though stunning, diary; which, in fact, it is.
Yet it speaks to the drama of Bingying’s life that her stories are engaging even without context. Her prose may veer from florid to breathtaking to propagandistic to incomprehensible and back again, but her life itself was a part of the changing society she so lovingly documented. “A Woman Soldier’s Own Story” takes a snapshot of a period in time through one woman’s eyes, and its flaws are where the story is ultimately told.