Obituary. On January 21st in New York, Zhang Jie passed away. She was one of the greatest Chinese writers of the last half a century and a true voice of the deep sentiments of Chinese.
As China emerged from the years of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, 1990s, and early aughts, many voices emerged in the national and international arena.
They were all sounds of the edges of society, the new margins of the swamps, the new Brigands as if from the classical novel The Water Margins 水浒传, far from the politics and fact-less ideologies in Beijing.
Mo Yan wrote of the peasants turned bandits turned revolutionaries, with different spirits all in one body and souls full of savagery, naivete, and stupid cleverness.
There was Yu Hua, who told about those striving to get rich, to change themselves from orphans and farmers into upstanding high society people who accumulated money but didn’t transform their habits, and found themselves soulless in their wealth.
There were the sounds from the borders of the empire in Liang Yanke, where young people used all their wiles to climb the ladder of survival and social success, only to find themselves mired in the same old rut.
There was the crystal air, the distant accent of Wang Shuo who spoke of the inner psyche of the self-appointed privileged in Beijing. They wandered from being cold as ice and as hot as fire, without a balance, and always outsiders.
Yet none of them was about true sentiments, none went down the rabbit hole of love. None of them delved in the inner feelings, the psyche of men and women torn by the betrayal of love and history, all interconnected in a fabric that was frayed and then patched up time and time again.
This was the unique voice of Zhang Jie. She gave a sense, a body, and an emotion to the millions of women, and men, dragged into the revolution, not for love of ideology, but for survival and love of someone. Their lives were shattered time and time again. The ladies, strong and frail at the same time, were subject to both the torments of political ups and downs of China and the constant but inconsistent love of their men.
This was in fact the destiny traditionally given to women who had to accept their fate because being a woman was already being a lesser human being.
Zhang Jie was born into this life as well but was not happy with it. She took it but cried about it, denounced it, gave a sound to those who didn’t have a voice in China.
The souls of these women and girls touched and molded not only other women and girls but also their men, their lovers, their sons, and their male friends.
Her masterpiece, 无字 Wordless (unfortunately not translated into English but available in Italian, Spanish, and Romanian), is about three generations of women, all crushed and shuffled by their love and their history. The men who decided they wanted them, ripped them away from their lives just to shred them apart and forsake them when they saw fit.
What was then at the end of their lives?
Zhang Jie is understanding of these men, understanding of the fate of these women, and understanding of her own fate.
Yet she cannot be silent about it, she has to speak, and by speaking we see for the first time the depth, the colors, the complications of the souls of these women. They were dragged through the muck of one hundred years of history, which they really didn’t care so much about, which they never chose, but where they endured like a cold winter in a little house without a fireplace.
Zhang Jie speaks of love that must not be forgotten, that is like wings too heavy to fly, love that no words can explain and describe.
It is the love that she always sought in a man that she got and lost, time and time again. She wanted it all: love and the ability to be an independent woman who could write for herself. She got the writing but not the love.
But in this she wrote for the first time of the history of the deepest sentiment for Chinese women.
She passed away in January, on the tail of a bitter winter, out of China, In New York, abroad, speechless, where she could not be heard. For years she chose not to write anymore. She rather painted the signs of her souls, the pictures of her mind.
She didn’t want eulogies after her death, as if she didn’t want to be talked about after she was gone. But her words are too big to never be spoken about again.
Good bye, fierce and brittle Zhang Jie.