Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61

Update, August 2015: For more details, I highly recommend listening to this Office Hours podcast interview of journalist Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014).

Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

15 thoughts on “Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

  1. There’s only one Taiwanese celebrity I know of who had a kid out of wedlock, and she and her long-time boyfriend basically swore that they would get married eventually. They even had to explain they were going to wait a couple years so that their daughter can fully understand the situation and participate in the wedding. That was a few years ago so I think things may be better, but I haven’t kept up with celebrity news and it’s definitely not the case in my personal life. My parents are still highly critical of my white friends/friends’ parents who are single moms (either out of wedlock or divorcees) unless the relationship was abusive.


    1. Just out of curiosity, is premarital pregnancy okay, so long as the couple make a definite plan to get married soon? In Korea at least, that’s quite normal. I think a year or so ago, I was considering briefly writing about a celebrity proudly showing off his fiance’s baby bump, but I decided it was really no big deal!


      1. I live in a conservative Catholic Asian society that is NOT Korea and premarital pregnancy is still frowned upon. Ironically, though, there are a lot of young couples who end up with babies first, and an uncertain marital status. A glaring gap in what is ideal and what is real, I suppose.


      2. From what I know of it in China, premarital pregnancy is NOT okay. I think a number of things can happen. One is the mother has the child but the child will never be given legal status in society. Another is she may be forced into terminating the pregnancy (though I think this is less common and depends obviously on the place). Unwed mothers — those who have never married and have a child — are definitely treated like pariahs in China. They would probably do whatever they can to hide the reality of their lives from others such as coworkers, etc. It’s not something you would want to advertise here, that’s for sure.


  2. This sounds super fascinating! I would love to read. I am a teenage Korean girl growing up in the States, and what could have been my life had I been born in Korea or other Asian countries always fascinates me. Thank you for all of your posts.


  3. The Grand Narrative is indeed grand, I’m always amazed at your scholarly posts. Indeed what pertains to Korea pertains sometimes to the rest of Asia, often it doesn’t though. Now Marriage, and this way beyond Asia, as always been a tool or an instrument of control by the state and/or religion. Try to be born out of wedlock in England or France only 50 years ago… Only recently do illegetimate kids can inherit from their father, and only in very few countries. The fact that women can divorce today in China is still a big step from the time, not long ago either, they could be sold or simply repudiated. Under cover of protecting the family, the Chinese government is just tying up the knot a bit harder on individual freedoms. Thus it becomes harder for anyone outside of the norm. But that too is true just about anywhere, look at the stigma on single black mothers in the US for example. Yes I’d be interested to read Labyrinth of the past, my wife being from Shanghai. oh, and our daughter’s name is… Alice as well. :-)


  4. Despite the weaknesses you mentioned, this still sounds like a fascinating book to read. The property issue is a huge problem here that makes it difficult for women to divorce — one I was mentioning to a friend the other day when we were discussing a couple that the friend thought should have divorced a long time ago. It’s not so easy for women to divorce around here with the property problem…plus the fact that fathers often get custody of the children too.


  5. As a matter of fact, divorce even when recognized and accepted by our societies, is one of the scariest thing a woman has to face : she’ll fear being homeless, fear loosing her children to an other woman, fear to not be able to work properly and take care of her kids properly. Being an expat spouse… Having lived in several countries, some (like China) very far from your birth country, your host country becomes home ; still you as a divorcing woman will never be able to chose the place that you hold deep in your heart and dream to raise your children in, for several reasons, because the working spouse still keeps the right to refuse the settling country of your choice -although you, yourself could never (and never wanted to) refuse his assignment… Divorce, even when recognized and allowed, still holds lots of stigmas and inequalities…


    1. Hey.
      The publisher did indeed contact me.
      Too bad I cannot be at your conference this Friday.
      Keep up this very interesting blog, I’ll be reading you.
      Take care.


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