TIE NING The Bathing Women

ISBN 13: 9780007489886

The Bathing Women

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9780007489886: The Bathing Women

An important chronicle of modern China. A testimony to the power of female friendship. A beautiful novel of love and redemption.

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About the Author:

Tie Ning won a national short story award at the age of twenty-five and is the recipient of numerous other literary prizes. She has published ten books—collections of short fiction, essays, and novels—three of which were made into movies and television series, including The Bathing Women. In 2006, at the age of forty-nine, she was elected president of the Chinese Writers Association, becoming the youngest writer and first woman to be honored in this way. Her works have been translated into Russian, German, French, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, and Vietnamese. The Bathing Women is her first work to be translated into English.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Premarital Examination

1

The provincial sunshine was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital. In the early spring the sunshine in both the province and the capital was precious. At this point in the season, the heating in the office buildings, apartments, and private homes was already off. During the day, the temperature inside was much colder than the temperature outside. Tiao’s bones and muscles often felt sore at this time of year. When she walked on the street, her thigh muscle would suddenly ache. The little toe on her left foot (or her right foot), inside those delicate little knuckles, delivered zigzagging pinpricks of pain. The pain was uncomfortable, but it was the kind of discomfort that makes you feel good, a kind of minor pain, coy, a half-drunk moan bathed in sunlight. Overhead, the roadside poplars had turned green. Still new, the green coiled around the waists of the light-colored buildings like mist. The city revealed its softness then, and also its unease.

Sitting in the provincial taxi, Tiao rolled down the window and stuck out her head, as if to test the temperature outside, or to invite all the sun in the sky to shine on that short-cropped head of hers. The way she stuck out her head looked a bit wild, or would even seem crude if she overdid it. But Tiao never overdid it; from a young age she was naturally good at striking poses. So the way she stuck out her head then combined a little wildness with a little elegance. The lowered window pressed at her chin, like a gleaming blade just about to slice her neck, giving her a feeling of having her head under the ax. The bloody yet satisfying scene, a bit stirring and a bit masochistic, was an indelible memory of the story of Liu Hulan, which she heard as a child. Whenever she thought about how the Nationalist bandits decapitated the fifteen-year-old Liu Hulan with an ax, she couldn’t stop gulping—with an indescribable fear and an unnameable pleasure. At that moment she would always ask herself: Why is the most frightening thing also the most alluring? She couldn’t tell whether it was the desire to become a hero that made her imagine lying under an ax, or was it that the more she feared lying under the ax, the more she wanted to lie under the ax?

She couldn’t decide.

The taxi sped along the sun-drenched avenue. The sunshine in the provinces was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital, Tiao thought.

Yet at this moment, in the midst of the provincial capital, Fuan, a city just two hundred kilometers from Beijing, the dust and fiber in the sunshine, people’s expressions and the shape of things as the sun struck them, all of it seemed a bit different from the capital for some reason. When the taxi came to a red light, Tiao started to look at the people stopped by the light. A girl wearing black platform shoes and tight-fitting black clothes had a shapely figure and pretty face, with the ends of her hair dyed blond. This reminded her of girls she’d seen in Tel Aviv, New York, and Seoul who liked to wear black. Whatever was trendy around the world was trendy here, too. Sitting splayed over her white mountain bike, the provincial girl in black anxiously raised her wrist to look at her watch as she spat. She looked at the watch and spat; she spat and then looked at her watch. Tiao supposed she must have something urgent to do and that time was important to her. But why did she spit, since she had a watch? Because she had a watch, there was no need for her to spit. Because she spat, there was no need for her to wear a watch. Because she learned the art of managing her time, she should have learned the art of controlling her spit. Because she had a watch, she shouldn’t have spit. Because she spat, she shouldn’t have a watch. Because she had a watch, she really shouldn’t have spit. Because she had spit, she really shouldn’t have a watch. Because watch . . . because spit . . . because spit . . . because watch . . . because . . . because . . . The red light had long since turned green and the girl in black had shot herself forward like an arrow, and Tiao was still going around and around with watch and spit. This obsession of hers with “if not this, it must be that” made people feel that she was going to run screaming through the street, but this sort of obsession didn’t appear to be true indignation. If she’d forced herself to quietly recite the sentence “Because there is a watch there shouldn’t be spit” fifteen more times, she definitely would have gotten confused and lost track of what it meant. Then her obsession was indeed not real indignation; it was sarcastic babble she hadn’t much stake in. The era was one during which watches and spit coexisted, particularly in the provinces.

Tiao brought her head in from the car window. The radio was playing an old song: “Atop the golden mountain in Beijing, / rays of light shine in all directions. Chairman Mao is exactly like that golden sun, / so warm, so kind, he lights up the hearts of us serfs, / as we march on the socialist path to happiness— / Hey, ba zha hei!” It was a game show from the local music station. The host asked the audience to guess the song title and the original singer. The winner would get a case of Jiabao SOD skin-care products. Audience members phoned in constantly, guessing titles and singers over and over again in Fuan-accented Mandarin, but none of them guessed right. After all, the song and the old singer who sang the song were unfamiliar to the audience of the day, so unfamiliar that even the host felt embarrassed. Tiao knew the title of the old song and the singer who sang it, which drew her into the game show, even though she had no plans to call the hotline. She just sang the song over and over in her head—only the refrain, “Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! . . . ” Twenty years ago, when she and her classmates sang that song together, they loved to sing the last line, “Ba zha hei!” It was a Tibetan folk song, sung by the liberated serfs in gratitude to Chairman Mao. “ Ba zha hei!” obviously isn’t Chinese. It must be because it was not Chinese that Tiao used to repeat it with such enthusiasm, with some of that feeling of liberation, like chanting, like clever wordplay. The thought of clever wordplay made her force herself to stop repeating “Ba zha hei.” She returned to the present, to the taxi in the provincial capital of Fuan. The game show on the music station was over; the seat in the quiet taxi was covered by a patterned cotton cushion, not too clean, which resembled those shoe inserts handmade and embroidered by country girls from the north. Tiao always felt as if she were sitting on the padding over a Kang bed-stove whenever she sat in a taxi like this. Even though she had been living here for twenty years, she still compared everything to the capital. Whether psychologically or geographically, Beijing was always close to her. This would seem to have a lot to do with the fact that she was born in Beijing, and was a Beijinger. But most of the time she didn’t feel she was a Beijinger, nor did she feel she was a provincial person, a Fuaner. She felt she didn’t belong anywhere, and she often thought this with some spite, some perverse pleasure. It was almost as if she made herself rootless on purpose, as if only in rootlessness could she be free and remain apart from the city around her, allowing her to face all cities and life itself with detachment and calm. And when she thought of the word “calm,” it finally occurred to her that the person sitting in the taxi shouldn’t be so calm; she was probably going to get married.

She had never been married before—the sentence sounded a little odd, as if others who were preparing to get married had all been married many times. But she had never been married before—she still preferred to think this way. She thought about herself this way without any commendatory or derogatory connotations, though sometimes with a touch of pride, and sometimes a touch of sadness. She knew she didn’t look like someone who was approaching forty. Often her eyes would moisten suddenly and a hazy look would float over them; her body had the kind of vigor, agility, and alertness that only an unmarried, childless mature woman would have. The drawers in her office were always stuffed with snacks: preserved plums, eel jerky, fruit chocolate, etc. She was the vice president of a children’s publishing house, but none of her colleagues addressed her as President Yin. Instead, they called her by her name: Yin Xiaotiao. She looked smug a lot of the time, and she knew the person most annoyed by her smugness was her younger sister Fan. Particularly after Fan left for America, things became much clearer. For a long time, she was afraid to tell Fan about her love affairs, but the more she was afraid, the more she felt driven to tell Fan about every one of them. It was almost as though she could prove she wasn’t afraid of Fan by putting up with Fan’s criticism of what she did in her affairs. Even right now she was thinking this, with a somewhat sneaky bravado. It was as if she’d already picked up the phone, and could already imagine the troubled, inquiring expression that Fan had on the other end of the overseas line at getting the news, along with the string of her words, delivered with a nasal tinge. They, Tiao and Fan, had suffered together; they’d felt together as one. What made Fan so contemptuous of Tiao’s life? It was surely contempt—for her clothes, her hairstyle, and the men in her life. Nothing escaped Fan’s ridicule and condemnation—even the showerhead in Tiao’s bathroom. The first year Fan came back to visit, she stayed with Tiao. She complained that the water pressure in the showerhead was too weak to get her hair clean—that precious hair of hers. She complained with a straight face, showing no sign of joking at all. Tiao managed to conceal her unhappiness behind a phony smile, but she would always remember that phony smile.

Maybe she shouldn’t tell her.

The taxi brought Tiao to the Happy Millions Supermarket. She bought food enough for a week and then took the taxi home.

The heat in her apartment wasn’t on, so the rooms felt shadowy and cold. It was different from a winter chill, none of that dense stiffness filling the space; it was uncertain, bearing faint traces of loneliness. On such an evening of such a season, Tiao liked to turn on all the lights, first the hallway, then the kitchen, the study, the living room, the bedroom, and the bathroom, all the lights, ceiling light, wall light, desk light, floor light, mirror light, and bedside light . . . her hands took turns clicking the switches; only the owner of the place could be so practiced and precise. Tiao was the master of the house, and she greeted her apartment by turning the lights on. She lit her home with all these lights, but it seemed as if the lights lit themselves to welcome Tiao back. So lights illuminated every piece of furniture, and every bit of dim haziness in the shadows contributed to her sense of security and substance. She walked through every room this way until she finally came to a small corner: to that blue-gray satin brocade armchair, which seemed to be her favorite corner when she was not sleeping. Every time she came home, returning from work or a business trip, she would sit in this small armchair, staring blankly for a while, drinking a cup of hot water, and refreshing herself until both her body and mind felt rested and relaxed. She never sat on the sofa. Even when Chen Zai held her in his arms and asked to move onto the more comfortable sofa, she remained uncooperative. Then, in a desperate moment, finally feeling she couldn’t refuse anymore, she simply said, “Let’s go to bed.”

For Chen Zai, that was an unforgettable sentence because they had never gone to bed before, even though they had known each other for decades. Later, when they sometimes teased back and forth about who seduced whom first, Chen Zai would quote this sentence of Tiao’s, “Let’s go to bed.” It was so straightforward and innocent and it caught him so off guard that he almost missed the erotic implications. It made Chen Zai think again and again that this lithe woman he held in his arms was his true love, and always had been. It was also because of this sentence that they didn’t do anything that first night.

Chen Zai was not home tonight. He had gone to the south on a business trip. Tiao ate dinner, sat back in the armchair, and read a manuscript for a while. Then she took a shower and got into bed. She preferred to slip into her quilt nest early; she preferred to wait for Chen Zai’s phone call in there. She especially liked the words “slip into her quilt nest,” a little unsophisticated—poor and unworldly-sounding. She just liked the words “slip,” “quilt,” “nest.” She never got used to hotels and the way foreigners slept—the blanket tucked in at the foot of the bed, stretched tight over the mattress. Once you stuck your legs and feet into the blanket, you felt disconnected, with nothing to touch. She also didn’t like quilts made of down, or artificial cotton. The way they floated lightly over your body made you more restless. She always used quilts made of real cotton; she liked everything about a quilt nest folded with a cotton quilt, the tender, swaddled feeling of the light weight distributed over her whole body, the different temperatures that hid in the little creases of the quilt nest. When she couldn’t sleep because of the heat, she would use her feet to look for the cool spots in the soft creases under the quilt. When she needed to curl up, the quilt nest would come along with her, clinging to her body. So unlike those bedclothes pinned down by the mattress, where you wouldn’t dream of moving, but would have to yield to the tyranny, forced into an approved sleeping posture—by what right? Tiao thought. Every time she went on a business trip or traveled abroad, she would intentionally mess up those blankets. Cotton quilts always made Tiao sleep well. But unpleasant thoughts pressed in on her after she woke up in the middle of the night. When she turned on the table lamp, tottered to the bathroom to pee, and returned, when she lay back in her bed and turned off the light, at that moment she would feel the intense loneliness and boredom. She began to think about things in a confused way, and the things that people tend to think, awakening after midnight, are often unpleasant. How she hated waking up in the middle of the night! Only after she truly had Chen Zai did she lose the fear. Then she was no longer by herself.

She curled up in her quilt nest and waited for Chen Zai’s phone call. He kissed her through the phone and they talked for a long time. When Tiao hung up, she found herself still not wanting to sleep. This evening, a night when Chen Zai was far away from Fuan, she had an overwhelming desire to read the love letters locked in her bookcase. They were not from Chen Zai, and she no longer loved the man who had written her the love letters. Her desire now was not to reminisce, or to take stock. Maybe she just cherished the handwriting on the paper. Nowadays, few people would put pen to paper, especially not to write love letters.

2

There were sixty-eight letters altogether, and Tiao numbered every one of them in chronological order. She opened number one, a white paper whose edges had yellowed: “Comrade Yin Xiaotiao, the unexpected meeting with you in Beijing left a deep impression on me. I have a feeling that we will definitely see each other again. I’m writing to you on an airplane. I will arrive in Shanghai today and will le...

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