Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)

A Tale about Women and Survival in Manchuria: Geling Yan's Little Aunt Crane

by Karen Ma


Geling Yan (author), Esther Tyldesley (translator), Little Aunt Crane, Harvill Secker, 2015. 400 pgs.


Two young women on opposite sides of history—one Japanese, the other Chinese—find their lives hopelessly entangled in an unlikely love-triangle during the horrific aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War. But can they find enough courage and strength to move beyond their animosity and jealousy to defy fate and survive together as fellow human beings? These are the themes that Geling Yan, a renowned Chinese-American author, explores in her bestselling novel, Little Aunt Crane, and latest to be translated into English.

From Eileen Chang's Love, Caution to Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, many novelists have written about the Sino-Japanese War. Yet few have ventured to ask the question: what did the war mean for those on the other side? With Little Aunt Crane, Yan draws our attention not only to Japan's invasion and occupation of Manchuria, but also to the war's devastating impact on Chinese and Japanese civilians alike. In the process, she burnishes her credentials as a master writer who effortlessly brings to life the complexity of war and the worst and best it can trigger in all of us.

The novel opens with a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl Duohe (Tatsuru in Japanese), or Crane, escaping a mass honour suicide ordered by the Japanese elders in a Manchurian village. In the ensuing days, she discovers her mother and siblings have perished in the chaos. She's soon sold by human traffickers to a Chinese family as a second wife and later becomes a secret child-bearer for their son. Against all odds, Crane bonds with the barren first wife. Thus begins her ambiguous existence as neither wife nor mother during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent Chinese history.

Yan is a prolific writer of over twenty novels and short story collections, many adapted for film or TV, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (directed by Joan Chen). She's also written scripts for projects by such renowned directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige based on her own work and that of others.

From the age of twelve, Yan worked in a People's Liberation Army's song and dance troupe, allowing her to travel extensively throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. She started writing when she was nineteen as an army reporter during the Sino-Vietnamese border war. Her unique experience provided her with abundant material for works, including The Ninth Widow, Coming Home, White Snake and Celestial Bath, all of which were based on real-life stories.

Little Aunt Crane is likewise based on true events. In an email interview, Yan said a childhood friend told her about twin brothers in Manchuria who lived in a house with their mother and another woman with an important but ill-defined status in the family. "This woman would kneel down to tie the boys' father's shoelaces and make everybody take off their shoes before entering the house, " she said. Yan, now based in Berlin, went on to explain that her friend later discovered that this mysterious woman was not Chinese but Japanese, had been "sold to this family in a sack during the Japanese retreat from China" and was "the twins' natural mother."

Yan said she tried to imagine how this family lived under one roof, harbouring its secret. However, she found turning the story into fiction initially difficult because the heroine was from Japan—a country she was unfamiliar with. While researching the project in 2007, Yan travelled twice to a small village in northern Nagano prefecture to talk with war-displaced Japanese women repatriated from Manchuria. According to a 2006 Asia-Pacific Journal article written by Mariko Asano Tamanoi, an anthropology professor at the University of California, the region was home to 1.5 million Japanese settlers in the early 1940s. Later, the men were drafted into battle, leaving women and children behind. When the Soviets invaded Manchuria in late 1945, these left-behind civilians became easy targets. Many died from hunger, disease or "compulsory group suicides."

Like many of her other protagonists, the two female lead characters in Little Aunt Crane— originally published in 2008 in Chinese—are strong and memorable. Crane is a steely survivor on the wrong side of the war who quietly accepts her lot, working tirelessly around the house. She later gives birth to three children, including twin boys, telling herself that her body is her only way to create blood relatives and end her alienation in this strange and hostile world. Although she leads a practically mute existence because of language difficulties, she has a powerful, enigmatic nature that her family can't ignore.

In contrast, the barren Chinese wife Xiao Huan is feisty and quarrelsome and frequently cracks jokes, even as she remains fiercely protective of her family. She starts as Crane's rival and ends up her confidant, even protecting the younger woman from their shared husband, Zhang Jian, as he battles through his own conflicted emotions toward Crane.

How do two women with such different personalities and backgrounds manage to form such a strong bond? The turning point takes place during a conversation between the two of them after Crane has a miscarriage. At the hospital, Crane tells Xiao Huan about a long-buried secret—that she'd saved a little Japanese girl from being strangled by her own mother. Why would this mother do such a thing? Because killing your own child "was at least better than having someone else kill them. These were people from a country defeated in war, anyone would kill them."

"Xiao Huan didn't move," Yan writes. "She listened as Duohe [Crane] described with difficulty how she had watched the suicides of the people of Sakito village, and how the people of Shironami and the other Japanese villages had set off on the road of no return."

Yan distinguishes herself from her contemporaries with her writing style and choice of subject matter. As one of the few writers of her generation to leave China early and armed with a creative writing degree from Columbia College Chicago, Yan is able to reflect on Chinese history with a more objective and thoughtful perspective. A gifted storyteller who tackles issues of our common humanity, she is able to portray the profound stirrings of the human heart found in everyday activities. Her fast-moving narrative is fuelled by light strokes, deft language, wit and humour.

Some critics have likened her writing to that of Eileen Chang. Like Chang, who died in 1995, Yan has lived extensively overseas and written almost exclusively about women. While Chang's female characters are mostly disgruntled rich urban wives or spoilt mistresses who loathe their existences, Yan's women are imperfect wayward people who are slightly off or otherwise disadvantaged. They are society's underdogs, marginalised and exploited by politics, history and centuries of patriarchal rule. Yet they are also strong, independent thinkers who refuse to bend to their impossible circumstances, including Crane.

And while Chang's writing can be biting, aloof and sometimes judgmental, Yan's prose exudes warmth and empathy. Through the survival tales of her heroines, we catch a glimpse of how our humanity can triumph even when pushed to the very edge.

The translator, Esther Tyldesley, also deserves kudos for a job well done. Her English translation flows naturally while remaining faithful to the original, allowing the flavour of Yan's language to shine through.

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