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Overview

From one of China's most celebrated contemporary novelists comes this riveting tale of a young woman's emotional and sexual awakening. Set in the turbulent decades of the Cultural Revolution and the Tian'anmen Square incident, A Private Life exposes the complex and fantastical inner life of a young woman growing up during a time of intense social and political upheaval.

At the age of twenty-six, Ni Niuniu has come to accept pain and loss. She has suffered the death of her mother...

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A Private Life

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Overview

From one of China's most celebrated contemporary novelists comes this riveting tale of a young woman's emotional and sexual awakening. Set in the turbulent decades of the Cultural Revolution and the Tian'anmen Square incident, A Private Life exposes the complex and fantastical inner life of a young woman growing up during a time of intense social and political upheaval.

At the age of twenty-six, Ni Niuniu has come to accept pain and loss. She has suffered the death of her mother and a close friend and neighbor, Mrs. Ho. She has long been estranged from her tyrannical father, while her boyfriend -- a brilliant and handsome poet named Yin Nan -- was forced to flee the country. She has survived a disturbing affair with a former teacher, a mental breakdown that left her in a mental institution for two years, and a stray bullet that tore through the flesh of her left leg. Now living in complete seclusion, Niuniu shuns a world that seems incapable of accepting her and instead spends her days wandering in vivid, dreamlike reveries where her fractured recollections and wild fantasies merge with her inescapable feelings of melancholy and loneliness. Yet this eccentric young woman -- caught between the disappearing traditions of the past and a modernizing Beijing, a flood of memories and an unknowable future, her chosen solitude and her irrepressible longing -- discovers strength and independence through writing, which transforms her flight from the hypocrisy of urban life into a journey of self-realization and rebirth.

First published in 1996 to widespread critical acclaim, Ran Chen's controversial debut novel is a lyrical meditation on memory, sexuality, femininity, and the often arbitrary distinctions between madness and sanity, alienation and belonging, nature and society. As Chen leads the reader deep into the psyche of Ni Niuniu -- into her innermost secrets and sexual desires -- the borders separating narrator and protagonist, writer and subject dissolve, exposing the shared aspects of human existence that transcend geographical and cultural differences.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Gold
A Private Life is not an overtly political book; rather, it has the timeless quality of most dreams. Still, Ni Niuniu's refusal to connect with the world outside her door becomes a kind of political statement. As she says, "I am a fragment in a fragmented age."
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
"Sexuality has never been a problem with me. My problem is different. I am a fragment in a fragmented age." Despite this claim, the protagonist of Ran's unusual coming-of-age novel is defined by her precocious beauty and her struggle to define her sexual identity. Ran, one of China's most acclaimed contemporary women writers, tells how lovely Ni Niuniu is seduced before she enters puberty by an older woman, the sly, wise Widow Ho, then falls into an unwanted affair with her male teacher, Ti. In college, she meets the love of her life, a fellow student named Yin Nan, but their brief, passionate affair ends abruptly when Yin Nan becomes involved in the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Traumatized by the loss of Yin Nan and the deaths of her mother and Widow Ho, Niuniu retreats into her own mind, becoming Miss Nothing ("I no longer exist... I have disappeared..."). Niuniu's flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies represent fertile ground for Chen's wide-ranging psychological character study. Even the more conventional scenes are narrated with lyrical intensity, and hallucinatory dream sequences and passages describing Niuniu's alienation range from the revelatory to the overwrought. The result is an uneven but intriguing novel that captures the heightened sensibility of a woman who flees the bustling contemporary world for the sensual pleasures of inner space. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The inner life of a highly passive heroine, as seen against the turbulence of her country's recent past-in a first English translation from an acclaimed Chinese writer. Ni Niuniu first appears as an adult woman who has secluded herself in a carefully groomed garden, eschewing contact with others and pursuing the purity of her musings and making small personal drawings. As if to explain the enigma of herself, Ni tells us that when she was a small girl in a sturdily "dysfunctional" family, her father was emotionally remote and sometimes violent, while her mother lovingly nourished her daughter's heart and soul. In grade school, Ni suffers the torments of Mr. Ti, who will first molest her and then declare his unfettered love during an exotic dinner. But at this stage Ni's primary sensual interests are in women, their breasts and softness, which are offered to her tenderly by, among others, her girlhood friend Yi Qui and neighbor Ho. The erotic encounter with Mr. Ti introduces her not only to the sexuality of men but to lust as well: an experience she rather enjoys. As she reaches college, she befriends Yin Nan, and, during the years up to and preceding Tian'anmen Square, she's suffers through a handful of traumas. Her mother dies of heart disease; beloved Ho dies in an apartment fire; and her first authentic love, with Yin Nan, is quickly concluded with his escape from China to Germany. While Howard-Gibbon's translation is smooth and readable, there remains, perhaps from the original, an allusive poeticism that lends the prose a kind of indistinct, hazy generality-a haziness that, conjoined here with Ni's already poetic spirit, deprives her character of sharp definition. Still, thepersisting reader will find her insights and aphorisms engaging and occasionally provocative. An intriguing exploration of the contemporary consciousness of an alienated, urban Chinese woman for whom current history matters less than the reliable comforts of love, nature, and solitude.
China Daily

Chen Ran's strikingly introspective, subjective, and individualized writing sets her work distinctively apart for the traditional and mainstream realism of the majority of contemporary Chinese writers.... In his translation, Howard-Gibbon adeptly conveys the exquisiteness, richness, and slight eccentricity of Chen's prose.

Booklist

The turbulent decades spanning the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the deadly demonstrations at Tiananmen Square provide the backdrop for this sensuous, coming-of-age tale by Chinese essayist and short-story writer Chen.... Chen's first work to be translated into English provides an eloquent examination of the quest for calm in a chaotic world.

Bust Magazine

In the novel A Private Life, Ran Chen immerses us in the troubled life of Ni Niuniu... Chen weaves together these evaluations with Niuniu's manic writings in order to create an ultra postmodern tale of a young woman's psychosocial evolution.... an important portrait of a young woman trying to survive in a complicated world.

Washington Post
A Private Life is not an overtly political book; rather, it has the timeless quality of most dreams. Still, [narrator] Ni Niuniu's refusal to connect with the world outside her door becomes a kind of political statement.

— Elizabeth Gold

Vancouver Sun

An atmospheric story of sexual awakening and ennui that enlarges our understanding of modern China.

Choice

This polished and readable translation of the inaugural novel of Chen Ran stands as an example of the quasi-autobiographical Sino-Japanese shishosetsu

Translation Review

A riveting tale... a lyrical meditation on memory, sexuality, femininity, and the often arbitrary distinctions between madness and sanity.

Choice

This polished and readable translation of the inaugural novel of Chen Ran stands as an example of the quasi-autobiographical Sino-Japanese shishosetsu

Washington Post - Elizabeth Gold

A Private Life is not an overtly political book; rather, it has the timeless quality of most dreams. Still, [narrator] Ni Niuniu's refusal to connect with the world outside her door becomes a kind of political statement.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231506915
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 1/22/2005
  • Series: Weatherhead Books on Asia
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • File size: 16 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Ran Chen is the author of numerous short stories, which are available in the four-volume Collected Works of Chen Ran, and Bits and Pieces, a collection of essays. A Private Life is the first of her works to appear in English.

John Howard-Gibbon, a copy editor for China Daily in Beijing, has translated many works, notably Lao She's Teahouse.


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Table of Contents

Translator's Note xi
0 All Time Has Passed Away and Left Me Here Alone 1
1 Dancing on Tiptoe in Black Rain 8
2 My One-Eyed Nanny 14
3 I Carry an Infectious Disease 23
4 Scissors and Seduction 29
5 The Widow Ho and Her "Changing Room" 35
6 A Stranger to Myself 47
7 Yi Qiu 56
8 The Inner Room 66
9 A Coffin Looks for an Occupant 74
10 Bed--A Stage for the Drama of the Sexes 81
11 A New Myth of Sisyphus 89
12 A Bed Cries Out 97
13 Yinyang Grotto 107
14 One Person's Death Brings Punishment to Another 117
15 Endless Days 130
16 Apple Bobbing 143
17 A Fiery Dance of Death 155
18 A Stray Bullet 168
19 The Birth of Miss Nothing 182
20 The Years Have Passed Away and Left Me Here Alone 193
21 The Lonely Are A Shameless Lot 203
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