K – The art of love, by Hong Ying
K is the story of a strange encounter between two cultures. At the surface, it’s about Chinese and English culture, and also about the very Martian culture of a man and the Venusian one of a woman. But it soon becomes clear that the protagonists aren’t representing these cultures. If anything, they struggle to define an identity within small subcultures at the margins of their respective societies.
The Englishman, Julian Bell, is like his eponymous real-life model a product of the Bloomsbury Group which had a set of values quite radically different from what was considered normal at the time. Son of the painter Vanessa Bell (who had an open marriage with a bisexual man) and nephew of Virginia Woolf, he tends to judge everything with the measure of the intellectual cult he grew up in, and initially sneers at the idea that Chinese poets may be producing anything comparable.
The Chinese woman, called Lin Cheng in the novel, but based on the biography of the writer Ling Shuhua, is also associated with an intellectual circle, the New Moon Society. Her contradiction is that she believes in the Daoist “Art of Love”, which to her intellectual peers is just a feudal old nonsense. The arrival of the Englishman gives her the opportunity to put this theory into practice.
And practice they do, quite a bit, and it’s sensitively and sensuously described in the novel, even in the English translation I read, which is by Nicky Harman and the author’s husband Henry Zhao. The eroticism is, of course, a problem for some people in China and in the UK, and so it came to pass that Ling Shuhua’s daughter sued the author for libel in Chinese courts for defamation of the dead, and eventually succeeded in having the book banned in mainland China.
It hasn’t quite been banned in the UK, but I’m getting the impression that it has been ignored on purpose. I find it quite shocking that I couldn’t find a single review of the book. The English edition was published in 2002, so if it has been reviewed, the reviews should be on the web. Probably people perceived it like the subject’s nephew, whose name is also Julian Bell, who didn’t object to its publication but compared it to “black lace” type genre fiction.
Maybe it takes readers with intercultural sensitivity to appreciate this, but this is definitely not black lace material (and unlike Julian Bell, I have read black lace novels, I even know somebody who writes them). K really has something to tell us about what happens when cultures collide. The culture clash proves a bit too much for the English protagonist, who concludes towards the end of the book:
“The fanatical love of this Chinese woman, like the violence of the Revolution, and everything else Chinese, was simply too alien for him to comprehend or accept.”
I’m worried that this may be true for the British readers as well. I discovered the book in a charity shop, clearly unread. Somebody missed out on an amazing intercultural experience.
Publishers website re. the libel case
PS: A new paperback edition has appeared on Jan 27th, 2011: