Book review: Madame Yang by Zhang Yihe

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Book review: novel Madame Yang, by Zhang Yihe

Zhang Yihe is a Chinese writer and historian. During the cultural revolution, her father was seen by the Chinese authorities as a rightist. As a young woman, she was sentenced to 20 years for criticizing the wife of Mao Zedong in her diary. She spent 10 years in a re-education camp before she could be rehabilitated. 

I wanted to insert a link to the English version of the book but then I saw that it was only translated from Chinese to French. So I will have to wait for the book to be translated in English…

As Zhao Yonghai, vice secretary for the popular commune of Shibi, asks Yang Wanfang, the president of the women’s association for the same commune, to marry him, she accepts but gives one condition. She wants her younger sister to able to leave her poor village to come with them to the commune. He accepts but warns her it could take some time.

First Part: a tragical love story

Yang Wanfang’s sister, Yang Fenfang is very beautiful, even prettier than her sister. She lives alone in her small house in her little village. She has a very close friendship to He Wuji, her young and handsome neighbor. He Wuji comes from a family that used to have money and therefore is now seen as a class enemy by the Chinese authorities.

As Zhao Yonghai meets Liu Qinsheng, an army captain looking for a wife, he thinks this is the perfect way to keep his promise to his wife. Zhao Yonghai and Yang Wanfang organize a first encounter between Yang Fenfang and Liu Qinsheng. But in the meantime, Yang Fenfang tells He Wuji of the possible marriage. He Wuji becomes jealous and realizes that he loves the young woman. He tells her that he loves her. Yang Fenfang is troubled and realizes that He Wuji is the only man she loves.

The encounter between Yang Fenfang and Liu Qinsheng is a disaster. The young woman behaves coldly and hardly speaks to the young man. However, Liu Qinsheng is fascinated by Yang Fenfang’s beauty and proposes to take her and her relatives to Shangai for a visit. 

Yang Fenfang is torn between her passionate love for He Wuji and her desire to see Shangai and live an adventurous life. She finally accepts to go to Shangai with Liu Qinsheng, thinking that her sister and brother-in-law are coming too. However, she soon discovers that the young man and her family had been plotting against her and that they arrange her marriage without her consent. 

As she comes back home, she is a married woman. At first, she does not have to live with her new husband. He is aways working for the army. She is working as a childcare worker in the commune during the week and comes back to her village and to He Wuji on the week-ends. The relationship is always stronger.

The day when Yang Fenfang hears that Liu Qinsheng is coming a few days to visit her, she is everything but happy.
The visit of Liu Qinsheng ends tragically. Both spouses can’t get along with each other and Yang Fenfang is particularly cold to her disappointed husband. They end up arguing and Yang Fenfnag tells him she loves another man. Her husband is furious and begins to rape her. He Wuji, who was spying on them comes and tries to kill Liu Qinsheng.

Liu Qinsheng does not die but He Wuji is condemned to death. As for Yang Fenfang, she is condemned to twenty years of imprisonment in a reeducation camp.

Second part: the reeducation camp

The second part of the book begins 5 years later. This part of the book shows the daily life of Yang Fenfang and the other prisoners. Zhang Yuhe, a new prisoner comes to the camp with an unusually high quantity of luggage. Contrary to many of the other prisoners, she is not a peasant but comes from a family of intellectuals. Some aspects of her life remind of the other’s own life. 

Wue Lixue, another prisoner, suffers from a mental disease. There are times when she can’t control herself and begins insulting everyone, including important person. She becomes a cruel punishment from the head of the camp.

Sun Zhisin, the new director of the camp, is more humane and compassionate than his predecessor and the fate of the prisoners becomes slightly better. However, his passion for Yang Fenfang leads him to a series of mistakes which end up with a scandal. The young woman has to pay for a relationship that she was not able to refuse as a prisoner.

The book finally ends up when Yang Fenfang leaves the camp. However, we can guess that life still won’t be easy for her even if she is free again.

What I thought of the book

I liked this book. The writing is very good and you learn a lot about China and the Maoist time. This is not an easy book because the main character has to face violence and injustice. There are moments in the book that are difficult to read, such as the moment when Yang Fenfang is raped by her then husband or the moment Wu Lixue is punished by the camp authorities. However, the character of Yang Fenfang is likable and you want to know about your destiny even if you know that it won’t be a happy one.

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