The seeming contradiction in the title of Mei Yubing’s compilation of biographies, A Fragrant Path of Thorns, is in fact a fitting description of the lives of its heroines.
This book combines short biographies of six Chinese women in the 20th century from the late Qing Dynasty to modern times. At the century’s commencement, China had already entered a time of turbulent social change, and a new world was emerging amid domestic chaos and foreign invasions. The subsequent transformation of the country brought with it a transformation of gender structure, which allowed the women of A Fragrant Path of Thorns to find and redefine themselves.
The book begins with a scene from the remarkable cross-dressing revolutionary Qiu Jin, who found the social conventions of the time oppressive and defied the traditional notions of a decent, submissive woman. It goes on to whirl through the lives of 1930s literary icon Xiao Hong, pioneer of modern obstetrics and gynecology in China Lin Qiaozhi, the country’s first female film director Wang Ping, and military expert Hu Xutong, before finally introducing the readers to conservationist Liao Xiaoyi.
As it progresses, the book reveals both their incredible achievements and the hardships they faced in life. Reading some of these stories, it is astonishing to think that anyone could survive such challenges, let alone rise above them and make a name for themselves.
Xiao Hong, for example, found herself trapped in dysfunctional relationships with her cold and unloving father, her husband in an arranged marriage who abandoned her when she was pregnant, and her often violent lover. Her short life, during which she produced a canon that is still read and studied, was tumultuous and roving. She ran away from her parent’s home twice, was driven from another during a flood. She fled to Qingdao after antagonizing Japanese authorities in her hometown with her writing, before moving on to Shanghai. She left Shanghai to seek treatment in Japan and extricate herself from her passionate but ultimately damaging relationship with fellow writer Xiao Ju. She died in Hong Kong at the age of just 31.
Xiao Hong’s three eventful decades in this world covered a time of much change in China. But this was just part of a century-long revolution that had already been underway. By Xiao Hong’s birth, attitudes had already begun to shift in her favor, as is evident from a quote from a 1903 edition of progressive newspaper Ta Kung Po: “To strengthen our nation, we shall first promote gender equality; to have gender equality, we shall first give our fellow countrywomen equal rights as men.”
Through each individual biography, the reader traces the journey that women of China made during the 20th century, leaving a world of arranged marriages and foot binding behind them. It shows us how rights taken for granted today were fought for over several generations of women. Foot binding, for example, though already losing popularity for several decades, was not completely abolished until 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The book’s huge scope gives us an impressionistic view of the dramatic changes in the status and lives of women in China. With six extraordinary existences to relate, however, one book is too limited a space to delve meaningfully into the influence they had on their own and subsequent generations of women. There is only enough space to outline their lives with a few detailed scenes to add color to these narratives. The reader is left with many questions unanswered.
This book neverthless illustrates the strength of will Chinese women generated throughout this period of time, and the sacrifices they were willing to make to change their circumstances. It also raises many questions about the past and present, about nature verses nurture in determining gender roles, for example, and about what kind of real progress in gender equality and social justice we have actually achieved.
The portraits offered to us in these pages are ones of six very different women from very different backgrounds, but apart from their persistence and dedication a common theme among them is that, like Xiao Hong, they ran away and left comparative safety for the unknown. They also gave up or rejected the traditional role of women in the family: four of them broke off relations with their families, one remained unmarried until her death, and the last character we meet chose to leave her family to focus on her career. This begs the question, is this just a coincidence, or has some common factor, whether internal or external, driven these women to make these choices?
Source: China Today