A Fresh Start
When I was in Xia Village, by Ding Ling, is a story of reincarnation of sorts. It examines one girl's struggle to break away from her past because she can be seen or see herself only as the girl she once was while in the village or as the impure person she became among the Japanese. It is an account of fate, rumor, shame and rebirth during a period of hatred for the Japanese.
ZhenZhen was captured by Japanese soldiers and became a spy during the Sino-Japanese war. Upon her return to the village, shame and curiosity tinted rumors abounded among the villagers. She had been raped and had been married to a foreign devil. In an era where emphasis was still placed on the traditional female virtues and chastity, sleeping with the Japanese soldiers, regardless of her position as a spy for the Chinese, was horribly frowned upon. The women of the village were especially contemptuous and tried to represent themselves as models of purity to contrast with her.
Her past lover, Xia Dabao, was very much different than these women. ZhenZhen had been in love with him, and had been running away to become a nun so as to avoid the arranged marriage her father had set up for herself when she was captured by the Japanese. Xia therefore felt as if he had been the reason she had been captured and suffered such a fate. ZhenZhen's family approved of him marrying her after she had returned because he would probably be the only marriage offer she would receive. No man would willingly marry a woman made impure by the enemy; only Xia would marry her because they had been in love.
Yet ZhenZhen could neither marry her past love, nor remain in the village of her past. The narrator told her that "when the end of a road is reached, one must turn," however, the turn she decided to take is quite different than what everyone expected from her. She recognized that she needed to part ways because she had become an outsider in her village and wanted to start over.
The narrator noticed in ZhenZhen's eyes when she first met her, that there was a spark of life and enthusiasm for it. She had hardened herself during her suffering, forced herself on without much thought, and in the village she was still caught in this numbed state of mind. Only by leaving the village, whose people would from then on always look at her and see only her sufferings, could she release herself completely from those experiences. She needed to be among strangers, and be healed of the disease she had contracted if she wanted to start her new life as a new person.
She had told the author that among the enemy she "somehow had to find a way to survive, and if at all possible, to live a life that was meaningful." By moving to Yan'an, the cradle of Chinese communist revolution, she hoped to find new meaning in life and reinvent herself. That spark the narrator had seen in her eyes, as well as her constant curiosity and intense observation of all that surrounded her, was also part of her desire to go off and experience life elsewhere with a clean slate.
Using the character ZhenZhen, Ding Ling depicted Japanese resentment, the importance of tradition and a sense of hope. ZhenZhen was done with what she had to do among the Japanese; she had shamed her parents by refusing an arranged marriage and by refusing Xia, her last chance of being accepted by her village. Yet she still felt that if she could break away from all of her past, she could start living again.
Strength Because of Suffering
Ding Ling's "When I Was in Xia Village" was written in during the World War II, a period in which China, as well as the United States, was at war with Japan. It is centered around the stay of an official of the Political Department of the Chinese communist party in the newly liberated Xia Village, who is there to mobilize the villagers for war against Japan, and it is also about the return of a young woman named Zhenzhen to Xia Village. When I Was in Xia Village was written during a time in which China felt it was "diseased" and primarily deals with the theme of judgment. It is a provocative story that challenges the concepts of the manner in which a young girl should act, what patriotism is, and what the definition of a nice villager encompasses.
The main event is the return of Zhenzhen, the niece of the woman with whom the narrator is staying. Although Zhenzhen had been working in the Japanese area for over a year, away from her family and friends in Xia Village, her return is not met with joy from all of the villagers. It is revealed that Zhenzhen, who is fluent in Japanese, a shocking and unacceptable thing in many of the villager's eyes, was raped by the Japanese and as a result, contracted a disease. Because she is not a pure virgin or submissive towards men as Chinese tradition claims young women should be, many of the villagers regard her as a deviant. One villager claims, "It's said that she has slept with at least a hundred men. Humph! I've heard that she even became the wife of a Japanese officer. Such a shameful woman should not be allowed to return." When speaking of Zhenzhen and her possibility of ever marrying, Zhenzhen's aunt states, "Who would want a woman who was abused by the Jap devils? … When she talks about those devils, she shows no more emotion than if she were talking about an ordinary meal at home. She's only eighteen, but she has no sense of embarrassment at all."
Although none of the characters in the story seem to be able to quite understand Zhenzhen or her worth and look down upon her, she remains strong. She is a stoic who is indifferent and nonchalant, yet at the same time somewhat hopeful. The narrator describes her as "new and fresh" and says that "she gave the impression that she had never had any complaints or sad thoughts." In addition, although women such as Agui may claim, "Ahh . . . How miserable it is to be a woman," Zhenzhen sees her hardships as a rite of passage. When Agui asks her, "It's a real tragedy to be a woman, isn't it Zhenzhen?" Zhenzhen responds by saying, "Right now I can't say for certain. Some things were hard to endure at the time, but when I recall them now they don't seem like much… If I have changed, maybe it's that my heart has become somewhat harder." Zhenzhen represents the modern Chinese woman that Ding Ling seeks to portray with this character, one who is courageous enough to pull through during hardships and remain strong. Instead of succumbing to her parent's wishes and what Chinese society deems as correct by marrying Xia Dabao, a respected man in Xia Village, Zhenzhen decides to go away to Yan'an to get her disease treated. She claims, "I'm doing this for myself, but I'm doing it for the others… I'll be in a new situation. I'll be able to start life fresh. A person's life is not just for one's father and mother, or even for oneself…" The narrator closes the story by saying, "I wasn't sad as I went away. I seemed to see the bright future that Zhenzhen had before her…" This statement leaves the reader with a feeling of contentment; by looking past Zhenzhen's mistakes just like she is able to, the reader is able to believe that Zhenzhen really can find a better life in which she will be happy.
When writing When I Was in Xia Village, Ding Ling courageously refuses
to cater her writing to political propaganda. She creates a complex character
who wants a life of her own, not one that is controlled by other people's
opinions or wishes for her. Ding Ling uses this complex story to challenge
ancient Chinese traditions and to show that even through extreme hardship
and trials, females can remain strong and seek a better life for themselves
on their own.