This book, K:The Art of Love, by Hong Ying was first published in Chinese and translated into English by Nicky Harman and Henry Zhao, and it has a fascinating history of its own – indeed it has been described as China’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.
This is the story of a love affair between an Englishman and a Chinese woman in the mid-1930s, and was inspired by two real people and their relationship.
The couple in the story are Julian Bell, son of Vanessa Bell and nephew of Virginia Woolf, leading lights of the Bloomsbury Group, and Ling Shu Hua . Julian Bell was 28 years old when he went to China in 1935 to teach English Literature at Wuhan University. Smitten by the exotic surroundings in which he found himself, and supremely confident of his own appeal he began a passionate affair with Ling Shu Hua the 36 yr old wife of Professor Chen head of his department, at the time she was already an acclaimed Chinese writer.
Julian wrote regular letters to his mother, Vanessa Bell, with whom he had an exceptionally close relationship. In these letters he refers to Ling Shu Hua as ‘K’ and describes their affair. The reason he refers to her in his letters as ‘K ‘ is because he has called all the girls/women with whom he has had sexual relations (discounting prostitutes) by sequential letters of the alphabet, and by the time he meets Ling Shu Hua he has reached the letter K.
The ancient Daoist techniques which were contained in the fabled ‘Jade Chamber Classic ‘ also known as ‘The Art of Love’, had been taught to ‘K’ by her mother who was the fourth concubine of a rich man who became Mayor of Beijing. ‘K’ introduces Julian to sexual practices which he has never encountered before, and in the book the descriptions of their love-making are extremely erotic and very explicit. This is not a book for prudes!
Hong Ying gives a wonderfully vivid picture of what China was like during the mid-1930s, with beautiful descriptions of how the middle class intelligensia lived in those days, and describing the casual racial stereotyping of the Chinese by westerners who are living and working there. I was struck by how similar it all seemed to today’s China, with the vast disparities of wealth between the bourgeoisie and the agrarian peasantry.
The ongoing battles between Mao’s cohorts who are still on the Long March and local warlords who loosely attach themselves to the Kuomintang is touched on, but is just a murmur in the background to the love affair. There is one episode in the book where Julian fancies himself as an international freedom fighter and after a rift between the lovers he sets of to join Mao and his comrades only to discover – following a bloody battle with some local banditry – that he doesn’t have the stomach for it. He realises that he doesn’t really care about either side in China’s battles. Apart from that chapter, there is little in the book about the growing rise of the Communists. The well-to-do Chinese are far more worried by the impending invasion of China by Japan.
Julian sees himself as a completely honorable Englishman, albeit with a ‘wham, bam, thank you m’am’ attitude to sexual relationships, so he is surprised at himself when he becomes so enthralled by ‘K’. She on her part has taken an enormous risk in her own society in embarking on an affair (and an affair with a foreigner who is working under her husband’s aegis to boot), and she is deeply in love. She thinks her lover will stand by her. However, when in 1937 they are eventually caught out by her husband, Julian abandons her forthwith, quits his post at the University immediately, and leaves China. He travels to Spain to become an ambulance driver for the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, and is killed during the battle of Brunete.
At the end of the book are several of the poems K wrote for Julian.
THE BACK STORY:
For many years the Bloomsbury scholars pored over all the diaries and letters of Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf but had no idea of the identity of ‘K who featured in the letters between Julian and his mother, although in the Chinese intellectual community the affair and the identities of the protagonists had long been known.
When the Chinese novelist Hong Ying read these published letters she knew who K was, and decided to write a novel about the love affair. However when her book was published in Chinese – first in Taiwan, I’m not sure why – the daughter of Ling Shu Hua, Chen Xiao Ying, decided to sue the author for defamation. Chen Xiao Ying lives in the UK and is married to a Scotsman and goes by the name of Mrs Ying Chinnery, but she instigated the case against Hong Ying in a Chinese court of law, and the reason she did this is because in neither Britain nor Taiwan can anyone libel the dead.
However, China had enacted a law in 1993 which allows 3 generations of family from any dead individual to bring a lawsuit for ‘ Defamation of an Ancestor’. If found guilty of breaking this law, the defendent has to pay massive damages and the offending writing can be banned. This law was almost certainly devised to protect the reputations of senior political figures for the next 100 years. Chen Xiao Ying said that this novel was pure ‘pornography’, and that it damaged her late father’s reputation by saying he was impotent. (Reading the book myself, I thought her father came out of it rather well, and I certainly did not get the idea that he was impotent).
Ling Shu Hua‘s daughter won her case, but Hong Ying took it to appeal, and there the earlier ruling was overturned. I don’t know all the legal ins-and-outs of the case (if you want to read more about it, click here), but suffice to say that Penguin reprinted the English edition of the book in January this year, and I was able to buy my copy here in Beijing.
I should tell you that I have never been a fan of Virginia Woolf and her writings, nor of what came to be know as ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ for reasons too complicated to go into here; and if it were not for this book being set in China and written by a Chinese author I would probably never have bothered to read it – but I am glad I have done so. If you are a Bloomsbury groupie you may find this novel very intriguing, and if you don’t care one way or another it is still a good read.