Wang Anyi’s novel Fu Ping is a coming-of-age tale set in the midst of the turbulent years of China’s Cultural Revolution. Its narrative arc—that of a young girl who learns to challenge convention and follow her heart—may not be wholly original, but its presentation, full of detours and side stories, makes for a memorable, smart study of the lives of ordinary people in Shanghai in the 1960s, during the second decade of Communist rule in China. Wang’s frequent digressions create an engaging novel overflowing with narrative threads that succeeds both as a character-driven story and as a commentary on the shifting belief systems between generations over the first two decades of the People’s Republic of China. Shanghai appears in the novel as a city filled with people from other places who share folkloric stories of their villages with each other as they toil as maids, handymen, scow captains, and other blue-collar professions.
The daughter of revered writer Ru Zhijuan, Wang Anyi was born in 1954 and grew up in Shanghai. She began her literary career in the late 1970s, and like most of her work, Fu Ping continues Wang’s interest in studying women living and laboring in her home city. The novel can be seen as a companion piece to Wang’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, itself a tale of growing up in Shanghai after World War II. Yet while Sorrow spans decades, shifting from alleyways to aspirations of stardom, Fu Ping is far more compact, focused on the daily lives of those who serve others.
Orphaned as a child, Fu Ping is raised by her aunt and uncle in the country. When she reaches her late teens, in the early 1960s, her family begins the process of marrying her off. Suitors looking for a traditional housewife come calling, but Fu Ping quickly rebuffs them, refusing to meet or engage in conversation. This changes when a matchmaker presents Li Tianhua as a potential mate. Though she never sees his face, stubbornly refusing to make eye contact, Fu Ping can tell by a glimpse of his shoes that he is “not someone who made a living by the sweat of his brow,” so, bowing to family expectations, she accepts his offer of marriage and is shipped off to Shanghai.
Before the wedding, Fu Ping is sent to live with Li Tianhua’s adopted grandmother, a housemaid referred to only as Nainai, the informal term for “grandma” or “paternal grandmother.” The pair share a bed in Nainai’s employer’s home, where Fu Ping helps the older woman with domestic chores, learning the skills she will be expected to master in her new role as a housewife. Before long, however, Fu Ping takes on her own jobs and weaves herself into the lives of neighbors and colleagues. The longer she lives in the city, the more she sees herself as an individual responsible for her own fate, leading her to reconsider her impending nuptials. All the while, Li Tianhua patiently waits for her to be ready for marriage, unaware of Fu Ping’s budding curiosity.
One of Wang Anyi’s greatest feats in the novel is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players surrounding her protagonist to the fore. After the first chapter, for instance, Fu Ping does not make a memorable appearance again until chapter three, nearly thirty pages later. In this space, Wang tells the backstories of Nainai and her employers, which in turn establish the backstory of Shanghai in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Other digressions inform the reader of secret relationships, landscapes, and histories around Fu Ping’s own journey, painting a tangible setting for each character to occupy. This lax sense of direction quietly builds a sympathetic and complex world that pays off once the author again narrows her focus to Fu Ping’s story arc for the novel’s second half. It also allows Wang to detail the everyday actions of blue-collar workers, vignettes that come to life via Howard Goldblatt’s skillful translation. Take the following passage, in which Fu Ping watches the proprietress of a tobacco shop go about her routine:
The proprietress rested against the counter as she ate out of a fine blue-edged porcelain bowl; when a customer entered, she tucked her chopsticks under the bowl, held both in one hand, and handled the purchase with the other. She greeted familiar passersby, who paused to chat.
Or this brief description of a woman whom Fu Ping sees regularly on the street:
[The face] belonged to a slender, reasonably attractive woman with wavy hair whose looks were spoiled by an unhealthy appearance, an unhappy look. Most of the time she wore a white woolen cardigan over a Western-style skirt and carried a handbag, like a schoolteacher or office worker. But she was outside rushing around when most people were at work.
While both characters have no bearing on the novel’s main storyline, such descriptions allow Wang to construct a tangible and arresting fictional portrait of Shanghai. As the city becomes more concrete, the hardships and adventures faced by its residents also seem more palpable. These detours, which rarely employ dialogue, provide the narration with qualities similar to those of a storyteller like Nainai and other characters in the book, who tell tall tales to pass the time and therefore often ramble in their narration before reaching the end of a story. Wang’s narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, as well, adding to this effect. In returning to a shantytown after Fu Ping’s initial visit, the narrator comments, “We have seen how night fell earlier here…” Likewise, when shifting focus to a previously mentioned location, the narrator says, “We have already seen that this was a theater with rudimentary facilities.” By including these small nods, Wang makes the reader part of her story, if only in spirit, but does so enough to intertwine her audience with the copious names and faces that pass through the novel.
Fu Ping is a story of breaking with tradition, of facing consequences for such a rebellion, yet ultimately of finding contentment in life. Near the novel’s end, a great rainstorm floods part of Shanghai, and Fu Ping, settled and happy, is forced to leave her home and take shelter at a watertight sanctuary. As Wang writes in her foreword, to her the storm shows that “in the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged, and in normalcy lies a simple harmony.” This reflection on the status quo beautifully encapsulates Fu Ping’s journey, for despite China’s Cultural Revolution and budding Communist regime, the everyday existence of Wang’s characters depends upon their own wits and desires. Fu Ping’s fragmented structure may not be for every reader, but it nevertheless is a fruitful, clever ode to China’s blue-collar population.