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Reviews translated from Chinese

The Feral Woman in the Crystal Cage: Justice in the Family and the Nation in Xu Xiaobin’s Crystal Wedding    水晶囚笼中的雌兽——徐小斌《水晶婚》中的家国正义

By Hu Xingzhou 胡行舟

Translated by Megan Copeland & Nicky Harman (July 2021)



‘Love is, therefore, the most immense contradiction’[1]

Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right

Crystal ‘Contract’: A Dual Parable of Family and National Justice  水晶“契约”:家国正义的双重寓言

Xu Xiaobin's Crystal Wedding is a wonderfully creative and thoroughly contemporary novel, a testament to her own life as an educated woman in China. In the novel, Xu exposes the injustices that Chinese women are subjected to, both within the family, and in society as a whole. In fact, Crystal Wedding is a fable that works on two levels. Its strength and depth lies in the way in which it addresses the relationship between married love and political zeal (both are shown to be pointless illusions), as well as between the sexes and that of the individual and the community. The novel simultaneously challenges the crystal cage of marriage and the family, and the coercive nature of the state, picking apart the idea of ‘love of family and country’ and revealing its absurdity. It makes a forceful appeal for justice for the casualties of family and national strife.

‘Wedding Anniversaries: Year One, Paper: First joined, the bond thin as paper […] Year Fifteen […] Crystal: Lustrous, bright and dazzling.’[2] In the novel, Xu highlights the symbolism of wedding anniversaries. As the years pass, the materials, meant to celebrate and affirm the marriage union, become rarer and more beautiful. For example, the first wedding anniversary is the paper anniversary. Xu draws comparisons between this and the marriage contract. This is how marriage begins, a fragile arrangement, recognised and governed by law and ethics, but so easily torn to shreds. With each subsequent anniversary, the contract’s origins are forgotten as it is plated with silver, gold and precious stones. The contract transforms into a thing of beauty, priceless and strong. Naturally, the course of marriage does not always run that smoothly. There are dangerous moments on the way, for instance, the twentieth year, Enamel Marriage, ‘smooth and flawless, but must not be dropped.’ But such dangers are attenuated and overcome in time. These natural twists and turns are seen as merely tests of endurance on a long race course. However, Xu is very clear that, for Chinese women, those who reach the finish line are not the winners. Indeed, those who run the farthest are likely to lose everything.

Time is used as a reference throughout the novel: ‘one year’, ‘two years’, ‘at that time’, ‘I don’t know when it started’. ‘At that time’, when the protagonist of the novel, Yang Tianyi, and her husband, Wang Lian, are newlyweds, they don’t live a gilded life, but they are happy. ‘I don't know when it started’ foreshadows Wang Lian’s rage, their son’s gutlessness, and Tianyi realising that nothing remains of her life but the cage that holds her prisoner. After fifteen years, at the crystal wedding anniversary, Tianyi finally breaks free of her marriage, with nothing left but welts on her heart and the ravages of time on her face. The words of the poet Xiao Gang 萧纲 (503-551) beautifully express her sentiments at that time: ‘If it had known it would lose its mate on the way / It might have chosen always to fly alone[3].’

Tianyi remembers the paper anniversary of all those years ago as a beautiful moment, while the crystal anniversary feels like waste paper. More than that, to her the crystal is a magnet, drawing her inexorably up the ladder of time, draining her womanhood of all brilliance, transforming everything into mud. The crystal is a paper tiger, or merely shards of glass. Tianyi’s fragments of memory in the novel, in fact, piece together a different story, a story of the youth of a beautiful and vivacious woman, whose vitality has been drained away.

Yang Tianyi's defeat is inevitable. When it comes to marriage, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir agrees with D. H. Lawrence when he says, ‘If the union of two people is an attempt to seek perfection from each other (perhaps this kind of perfection itself is an inherent defect), then it is doomed to fail; marriage should be a union of two independent and complete existences. It should not become a retreat, annexation, escape, and compensation.’[4] Unfortunately, Tianyi marries both in order to escape an unhappy home life as well as to seek perfection. She no longer wants to be a lesson in what not to do. She feel her family and neighbours see her as the ‘root of all evil’. She wants to get away from the battlefield of her home life, her spiteful mother and arrogant brother. She wants to do what is expected of her, a women of marriageable age in a patriarchal system.

In Chinese, the word for marriage is chengjia 成家 ‘creating a family’. The very name tells us of the futility of Tianyi's attempt to escape. In many ways, she jumps out of the frying pan into the fire, into a trap of the same mould, only worse. Tianyi started with the firm conviction, popular at the time, that love and marriage are two quite different things. However, she finally admits that this belief is inherently flawed, that it degrades marriage and is its ‘inherent defect’ as de Beauvoir calls it. In fact, she finds it violates her very nature. A contract in which one gives one’s body without love is intolerable, at least to her. This irrevocably leads to divorce for Tianyi and triggers her husband’s increasingly abusive behaviour.

I do not know what led Hegel to declare so confidently, ‘Familiarity, acquaintance, and the habit of shared activity should not be present before marriage: they should be discovered only within it, and the value of this discovery is all the greater the richer it is and the more components it has.’[5] Tianyi is under no illusions that she loved Wang Lian when they married. However, as the marriage progressed, the more she uncovered about herself and her relationship, the more it terrified her. In fact, she found herself believing that married women were no more than caged beasts, condemned to wait for the ‘ethics committee’ to hang another medal around their aging necks for lasting as long as they had. I don’t know how many women in China are forced to put up with such a marriage, whether chosen by themselves or arranged. Many of them may one day find, like Tianyi, that they are drowning, with no hope of rescue. But the family, so often seen as the private domain, is calling for the justice it deserves.

Tianyi does fall in love with a passionate but unyielding man named Hua Zheng. She is inexorably drawn to him and, although he reciprocates her love, neither are prepared to compromise and they split up. When he and Tianyi finally meet again, she is already a mother and feeling smothered by the demands of family. At that point, Hua Zheng is a leading activist embroiled in China’s political turmoil of the late 1980s. He is fighting for political freedom, economic equality and social justice, but this ultimately lands him in jail. Now they are both trapped like beasts, and the implicit symmetry of their positions actually draws them closer together. Indeed, unlike her worldly husband, Tianyi cares about the political struggle going on around her, it brings her to life. When Hua Zheng is in trouble, she forgets her family and rushes to his aid. To her, this is not only about helping someone she loves, she also wants to support the cause he is fighting for. Here we see Xu bring out the interrelated nature of the family and the state. She shows the family and country standing on each other’s shoulders. If marriage is dominated and controlled by the patriarchy how can politics, which has grown out of the family system, not be? Similarly, marital love and love for one’s country are powerful illusions. When a husband and wife are incompatible, their marriage breaks down. By the same token, the love and loyalty of citizens is easily shattered by a repressive state.

Xu Xiaobin’s novel, despite having ‘wedding’ in the title, is not only about marriage. There is the parallel theme of political activism. Xu shows an unusual depth of understanding about the relationship between the individual and the community. She experiments with the idea of marriage as a reference to or stand in for the state, and vice versa. Tianyi and Hua Zheng are joined not only in love but also in their political ideas and actions, which opens up a discussion about the line between the public and the private, family life and life outside the home. How is justice in the family related to national justice? What demands does justice place on politics and the community? How does the system of marriage support the political and economic system and what impact does the latter have on the former? What kind of citizens must we become, and how should we participate in the political process, in order to truly support equality and liberation for women?

Xu Xiaobin’s novel shows an inverse mirror image of Hegel's conception of the family and the state. In Part 3 of Elements of the Philosophy of Right, entitled ‘Ethical Life’, Hegel begins by discussing the family and marriage. He believes that marriage is the unity of two individuals governed by ethical love. He continues that this conjoining of two people, so that they essentially no longer exist for themselves, on the surface constrains and even damages their individuality. Nevertheless, that is where the ‘most immense contradiction’ lies. He believes this unity ultimately means ‘I find myself in another person, that I gain recognition in this person, who in turn gains recognition in me.’[6] By negating the self within this union, self-consciousness may appear to be shut off. However, Hegel believes that only through denial can the self be affirmed. He continues that this rightfully ethical love that connects husband and wife is not romantic love. It goes beyond the ‘transient’, ‘capricious’, and ‘purely subjective aspects’[7] of love. After natural urges and passions have died out, it manifests in loving affection, trust and mutual enjoyment, which transforms the previously external (economic) union of the two sexes into a sublime spiritual union, a kind of ‘self-conscious love.’[8]

As the feminist scholar Carole Pateman explains in her book The Sexual Contract, Hegel’s ethical law treats the family, civil society, and the state as a universal, integrated unity. Marriage ‘offers a glimpse of the differentiation and particularity of civil (economic) society and the unity and universality necessary to membership in the state.’[9] In other words, marriage and family life are the preparation for and a microcosm of economic life in civil society and a public political life. On one level, maintaining individual autonomy in marriage means that equal and independent individuals can freely conclude contracts in civil society. And on another level, the combining of two as one in marriage meets the demands of the state for universality and unity. The dialectical relationship between universality and particularity in the public domain are foreshadowed and, in essence, resolved in the private domain. The bonds of state are merely an extension of the bonds of family. This is actually very similar to traditional ethics in China, which stresses unity between ‘regulating the family’ and ‘ruling the state to pacify the world.

Crystal Wedding prompts us to look at Hegel’s concept of family and state through a different lens. What if this idealised ethical love is actually a form of concealed repression and coercion by one party of the other? What if harsh family life is just preparation for the sanctimoniousness of public life? What if injustice in the family, covertly, perversely, reflects the injustice of the economic system and political power?

As far as political philosophy goes, Carol Pateman's critique affirms that these ‘ifs’ are indeed true. Pateman identifies the prejudice against women inherent in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Hegel purports to take an ‘objective’ look at women. In actual fact, he points out their antipathy towards universality, rational knowledge and the external world in contrast to their more obvious practical nature, and deduces from this that women are purely subjective and passive domestic animals. His representative of women is Antigone, who uses family law or the law of the underworld to fight state laws. Hegel’s interpretation is that if women held the reins of power, they would necessarily prioritise the private over the public.

In addition, Pateman raises a more powerful point that, in Hegel's philosophy, the unequal sexual contract is not resolved with the rationalisation of the social contract. It, in fact, underpins and props up the latter. Since self-consciousness is inseparable from the recognition of and interaction with the other's awareness, and the relationship between master and slave fundamentally cannot be self-affirming, Hegel’s idea of self-consciousness based on mutual reflection faces a dilemma. If the boundaries between master and slave disappear and individuals can recognise and affirm each other as equals, only then can self-awareness be reached and modern civil society be formed. However, this well-known, master-slave dialectic is still a man’s game and issues with the social contract can only be resolved by men, while women are shut out of the process. In fact, in Hegel’s theory not only are women not seen as self-sufficient individuals with the ability to conclude their own contracts in civil society, they are also still victims of the sexual contract, set apart from men, a sacrifice to the patriarchy and to a consciousness of sexual differentiation. It is now clear that Hegel's reasoning has led to a series of contradictions that are difficult to resolve. If the family cannot remain an afterthought when discussing the unity between family, civil society and state, how are women to be brought into the public domain and into civil society? Without the ability to conclude contracts, how can women enter into the marriage contract? If men and women are not seen as equal, how can each party affirm and acknowledge each other’s consciousness, as Hegel argues, and thus deepen their own sense of self as well as their mutual unity in marriage?[10]

We do not know to what extent Yang Tianyi is familiar with Hegel, even though she is described as being engaged in the study of women and gender relations. However, she does send copies of the works of Hegel, Marx and Lenin to her close friend, Qiu Peng, commenting on the foreign-sounding names. She accidentally lets slip her feelings about ethical love at a big family dinner held to celebrate her son’s birth, saying that she ‘felt as demeaned as if she were a household slave, as if anyone could tread her underfoot.’[11] She feels her marriage contract has not brought her equal status or a strengthened sense of self. In reality, it feels like a burden and a struggle, a trap she set for herself, a trap common for women in 1980’s China. At that time, families like Tianyi’s still for the most part followed traditional norms and Tianyi’s political enthusiasm, or her ‘untimely’ universality, is ridiculed by her husband, Wang Lian. He sees it as Tianyi’s desire to see the whole world in chaos for her own personal satisfaction. Under these circumstances, justice cannot be found in either the family or the state.

Tianyi and Hua Zheng both end up fleeing their situations. Tianyi gets divorced, and Hua Zheng leaves the country and goes into exile overseas. The divorce wakes Tianyi up to the fragility of marriage and she laments the fleeting nature of happiness and the years she wasted. The marriage trap, to Tianyi, merely gets worse with time. Waking up to the artificiality and inconsistency of the marriage/time myth, can lead us to explore the advantages of primal ideas of marriage as an equal and autonomous mutual arrangement based on spontaneous love. A flexible arrangement, where neither party is asked to martyr themselves in the name of a shared life. Of course, this type of arrangement does not solve everything. As Carol Pateman points out, focusing purely on marriage as a contract is just a fantasy for upper class women. It conceals the institutional nature of marriage, the way in which such contracts are drawn up, as well as the political and economic structures, which shore up marriage in its current state. If taking to an extreme the patriarchal concept of ‘individual as owner’ in contract theory, it may push the idea of the free transaction of ‘body property’ towards ‘universal prostitution’. For example, in a free and open sex market, each participant can set their own price, where supply meets demand. In this situation, marriage between members of the opposite sex would evolve into a temporary transfer of individuals’ physical and sexual property, irrespective of gender.[12]

In the novel, Xu Xiaobin also explores the idea of the breakdown of the institution of marriage as well as individuals’ mistaken beliefs in the power of the ‘paper’ contract. She clearly doesn’t have high hopes for the formal equality in the market for love and marriage. Time and again, she highlights the structures in which marriage and the family are embedded: the patriarchy, social theory and national politics and economics. She implies that the tragedy for women goes far beyond choosing the wrong partner or having unrealistic expectations of marriage. Rather, the tragedy is having your rights and even awareness taken away from you by this complex structure. When Xu uses the word ‘crystal’, she is, in fact, referring to this complex social fortress or illusion. Divorce, fleeing from the situation or even the ‘de-crystallisation’ of individual awareness and mutual affection, all miss the point. Only if the family and the nation are given the same consideration, and traditional marriage structures are transformed, can we then imagine an arrangement that allows for a shared life or greater flexibility.

As for ‘universal prostitution’, Xu Xiaobin fears it’s too late to avoid. In the foreword to the English edition, she criticises the modern ‘Little Woman’, who flaunts a ‘high EQ’, and uses her physical and emotional capital as a form of exchange. In the novel, China’s unenlightened approach to sex, lack of sex education and the erroneous idea that women almost don’t need sex creates real problems for Tianyi. To her, however, the pure exchange of sex without love is a meaningless one. This indicates there is still much to do to re-shape contract theory, if it is to remain a useful framework which highlights the artificiality and alterability of marriage, through which one can discuss marriage equality.

Given the clear link between family and nation in Crystal Wedding, when considering the theme of ‘leaving’ or the breakdown of relations, we must also think about the relationship between the individual or citizen and the state. The dual parable comes full circuit here, and yet does not fully meet. It’s much easier to leave your marriage without recrimination than it is to leave your country. After Hua Zheng flees abroad, Tianyi observes him worrying about his home and leaving the land he truly loves. To him, it feels like being torn up by the roots. In fact, this actually affirms the relationship between himself and his native land. Unlike Tianyi’s divorce, this isn’t a public or legal declaration from Hua Zheng. However, to a large extent, both ethical love in marriage and the love of a citizen for their country are man-made phenomena. These structures have been built from our own perceptions, forged by the dominant discourses and ideology. When we peel away the layers, we can see the fragility of these crystal illusions. Then divorce, changing ones identity, reforming basic rights, or even reordering the power structure, all become possible.

On the other hand, national identity goes deeper than an ID or a passport. It involves the nature and occasion of an individual’s birth, it involves a specific time and space. The love for one’s country is intertwined with the material world in which you grew up, the memories, the people you knew, the knowledge you accumulated and your cultural identity. It involves every breath that you took, every sound that you heard. The spontaneous passion that erupts in this space is hard to define. It’s also very hard to demarcate the end of this love through physically leaving or legally ending the relationship. It leaves a feeling of despair deep in the bones, and a desire to rage publicly against the perpetrator of your despair.

Individuals may be able to redefine their national identity more loosely and overcome the need for a sense of belonging, but this freedom would require a huge sacrifice. Perhaps it’s only in works of science fiction that you see the truly global citizen, the ‘loner’ who can freely explore the universe without sparing a thought for their home planet or country. What would marriage be like in that type of universe? Or to take the other side, without the traditional system of marriage, how would that affect national identity and politics? Xu Xiaobin’s novel raises these as yet unanswered questions. In any case, Hegel’s argument deserves further discussion. Particularly in terms of his belief that the love between a man and a woman is a subjective feeling, while his view that the connection people feel to their country is beyond this, it is a legal unity, whose content is merely rational.[13] Did Hua Zheng cross the oceans and the seas to unite with his kinsmen and mother country based on rational thinking? I don’t believe this is possible. Love or the sense of unity with one’s country, as has been discussed here, is multifaceted and driven by the internal subconscious.

Transcendence, Immanence and the Descent into the Body 超越、延续与身体的回落

There is considerable complementarity between the ideas in Xu Xiaobin’s Crystal Wedding and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, particularly in the chapter ‘Married Women’. Xu explores the classical conflicts of transcendence and immanence raised by de Beauvoir. In a traditional family setting, de Beauvoir points out that the husband ‘incarnates transcendence’. He is the legal representative and head of the ‘joint enterprise’, he ‘is the one who goes beyond family interest to that of society’, ‘in his occupation and his political life he encounters change and progress, he senses his extension through time and the universe.’ Conversely, the burden of ‘immanence’ is placed on the wife, while transcendence is sidelined. De Beauvoir states, ‘she has no other job than to maintain and provide for everyday life in an orderly way; she perpetuates the species without change, she ensures the even rhythm of the days and the continuity of the home, seeing to it that the doors are locked. But she is allowed no direct influence upon the future nor upon the world; she reaches out beyond herself towards the social group only through her husband as intermediary.’[14] This oppositional state allows universality to hijack individuality. As men have a natural inclination towards universality and transcendence, men can enjoy sex and love before or outside of marriage without issue. On the other hand, women’s responsibilities as a wife and mother are more internal functions, as de Beauvoir says ‘seeing to it that the doors are locked’, which prevents the woman from speaking up for her individual desires. If she were to, this would be seen as inappropriate and unethical.

To go full circle, de Beauvoir also takes on Hegel’s philosophy. Particularly in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel states that wife and mother are the ultimate position a woman can attain. A woman’s personal desires ultimately become one with the universal relationship between her and a husband and children. From this we can see that Hegel believes, not just sexual desire, but even romantic love is subsumed by the demands of family relations and social obligations. The glorious paragon of the good wife and loving mother become paramount. Therefore, as de Beauvoir concludes, ‘while being supposed to lend ethical standing to woman’s erotic life, marriage is actually intended to suppress it.’[15]

The ideas that de Beauvoir raises are exactly what angers our protagonist, Yang Tianyi. All the way through the novel, Tianyi is grappling with how to either withstand or escape her situation, but time and again she retreats in defeat. Early on, Tianyi understands that her husband, Wang Lian, wants a simple life. And Wang Lian, in the beginning, does plan to create the life he wants, to look after his family and participate in the maintenance of the household. However, that doesn’t mean he is willing to fully take on the burden of ‘immanence’. In reality, he has ambitions for wealth and power, and his vision for the simple life is more about him projecting his expectations onto his wife. He wants Tianyi to adapt to and support his dreams, creating a stable backdrop for his transcendence. However, infighting in his company leads to Wang Lian being falsely accused and narrowly escaping being thrown into jail for misappropriating public funds. His failure to realise his own ambitions becomes a living nightmare for Wang Lian, and he ends up venting his frustrations on his family. He blames Tianyi for not being the perfect wife, flying into rages in front of their son. Wang Lian fears his life is collapsing into chaos and doesn’t have the self-worth to pull himself out, ultimately making that collapse inevitable.

As for Tianyi, she can’t be the model wife and mother. As a researcher and writer, her participation in civil society and her interest in politics and the fate of the nation humiliates her husband. Her path, in fact, is more universal and transcendent than most. In her shadow, Wang Lian’s social pursuits manifest as a banal opportunism, intended only for his own well-being. His ambition to place himself above his wife and the private, family realm is frustrated by her transcendence. He feels emasculated and his previous admiration for Tianyi’s transcendent activities turns from derision to fury.

Xu Xiaobin later reveals that, at a young age, Wang Lian made some decisions that altered the course of his life. The breakdown of his and Tianyi’s marriage, ultimately comes from Tianyi exposing his secrets. When Wang Lian was seven or eight, Wang Lian’s father abducted him from his ex-wife’s home in the countryside, as his current wife couldn’t have children. Wang Lian didn’t put up a fight and willingly left for the city with his father. He craved the life promised by the big city and didn’t spare a thought for his birth mother. However, that meant that Wang Lian was, in his father’s eyes, always his ex-wife’s son and he was treated poorly by his new mother and grandmother. He became a yes-man, blindly subservient to his parents.

The seeming immorality of this revelation is a real shock to Tianyi, and the discovery of these secrets leads to the first of Wang Lian’s violent rages. From that time on, whenever he looks at his wife, he sees that long-hidden image of himself in her eyes. Of course, we cannot judge the decisions of a poverty-stricken boy of seven or eight years old too harshly, but Wang Lian’s purported amnesia and his present-day, mild-mannered exterior is clearly a pretense. Through the character of Wang Lian, Xu Xiaobin shows that injustice within the family is often mirrored outside the family, in the political sphere. This highlights the vicious circle between the family and the nation: Hua Zheng fights for justice but is outside Tianyi’s family and, eventually, expelled from the country. Wang Lian is the opposite: he looks after his own interests and opposes political activism. More than that, after his trip to the United States, he writes a damning report designed to please the leadership, an action that Tianyi’s friends despise. Thus injustice within the family mirrors political injustice.  Tianyi’s attempts at transcendence are doomed to failure.

The character, Wei Qiang, is another perpetrator of abuse in the novel. He is Tianyi’s boss, a man educated abroad, and the newly appointed Artistic Director of the film studio. With his wife and children still abroad, he quickly becomes interested in Tianyi. Although in reality, there is nothing substantive between Tianyi and Wei Qiang, Tianyi builds the relationship up in her imagination. With work as an excuse, she lives out her infatuation with Wei Qiang through endless phone conversations. But this doesn’t last, and Wei Qiang eventually acts as is to be expected of men. To protect his name and his beloved project, he shifts the blame for any issues to Tianyi, while loudly defending himself. Again, the woman is denounced as the source of all trouble. She is seen as a barrier to men’s transcendence, not content with her fairly allotted position. And in order to protect and bolster their threatened transcendence, men will attempt to tarnish any woman in the limelight.

Wei Qiang obviously doesn’t reciprocate the extent of Tianyi’s feelings. She is merely a diversion to him and as soon as his social standing or family situation is under threat, he disposes of her. Tianyi, again, is blindsided by this turn of events, although she fights back. It is clear that Wei Qiang and Wang Lian are cut from the same cloth. Even though they blame Tianyi for the issues they face, in fact, it is they themselves who can’t realise their own transcendent ambitions. In fact, their transcendence really revolves around the advancement of themselves and their lives, while Tianyi’s transcendent aims are more sincere and inclusive of society. From this we can see that if you assign the traits of transcendence and immanence, universality and exceptionality, by gender, then the law of dialectics fundamentally doesn’t work. On the contrary, it excuses fictitious transcendence and abominable social actions.

Stuck between these vengeful men, Tianyi is torn between immanence and transcendence. Her love and sexuality have nowhere to go, but she doesn’t stop her search. Here, perhaps readers of the novel will be surprised by her turbulent emotional state. However, de Beauvoir warns against subjective moral judgements, stating, ‘woman is doomed to immorality, because for her to be moral would mean that she must incarnate a being of superman qualities: the ‘virtuous woman’ of Proverbs, the ‘perfect mother’, the ‘honest’ woman, and so on.’[16]

Of course, Tianyi isn’t a superwoman, and she discovers with a heavy heart that she and Wang Lian are at most ‘comrades’, sex becomes a superfluous luxury in their relationship. De Beauvoir describes this as ‘mutual masturbation’, when husband and wife become one and the same, losing their otherness, sex seems mechanical and, indeed, shameful.[17] For Tianyi and Wang Lian, their early unhealthy experiences also has an impact on their sex life as a married couple. They are limited by the repressive moral culture of the time and their lack of sex education. As they don’t have the most basic knowledge of contraception, Tianyi quickly falls pregnant.

From this, one can see that Tianyi’s turbulent emotional state is actually caused by her need to constantly escape one situation or another. She finds that men who are interested in her often retreat, due to seeming lack of reciprocation, before they become more than just fantasy (like Chen Xiao’ou). Alternatively, they are living out the classic marital tragedy (like the driver Xiao Cai, who was seeking an extra-marital affair). To them, Tianyi seems too innocent, too challenging. Ultimately, Tianyi’s life completely stalls. Immanence, transcendence, the constant back and forth of sex and love, none of these things can give her what she wants. Tianyi is like a caged beast, surrounded on all sides, with nothing to comfort her but a cold blanket and her naked desire. In Crystal Wedding, Xu describes her state:

‘An odd smell emanated from the quilt, too much oestrogen, the smell of a woman who had not been with a man for a very long time. She and Lian had not had sex for two whole years […] She was startled out of her dream. Instinctively, she knew she did not want to go back into that house, to that life that was like a living death, to that persistent smell of oestrogen. And her heart broke.’[18]

That is a woman, who has lost the ability to ‘sublimate’[19] and faces her own descent from woman to animal. She is imprisoned by marriage, imprisoned by desires that will never be fulfilled. She doesn’t desire a life of immanence and she doesn’t have the strength to transcend. Her true nature has been shrouded and all that remains is the feral woman.

Womanly Women: beyond ‘guardian warriors’ and ‘little women’ “像女人”的女人:“金刚”和“小女人”之外

By becoming a mother, Tianyi does take on the burden of ‘immanence’. However, she turns the ‘good wife and loving mother’ role on its head, her behaviour swinging between the two extremes of earnest goodwill and betrayal. De Beauvoir talks about the fact that a woman, learning to be a mother in the solitude of her new home ‘feels a chill’[20]. And indeed, Tianyi quickly understands the relationship between ‘mother’ and ‘sacrifice’. Sitting in a taxi in the throes of labour, Tianyi hears the driver unwittingly say, ‘children rush headlong for life as the mother hastens for death, Yama only separates them by a single sheet of paper.’[21] Hearing that is enough to give anyone a chill and Tianyi does, in fact, have a difficult birth. Even though Xu Xiaobin intersperses the account of Tianyi’s ordeal with memories of her early love affairs, Tianyi does indeed seem to be experiencing them as flashbacks as the Grim Reaper confronts her. De Beauvoir exquisitely describes the ‘transcendence’ of childbirth in The Second Sex as:

‘She feels it as at once an enrichment and an injury; the fetus is a part of her body, and it is a parasite that feeds on it; she possesses it, and she is possessed by it; it represents the future and, carrying it, she feels herself vast as the world; but this very opulence annihilates her, she feels that she herself is no longer anything. A new life is going to manifest itself and justify its own separate existence, she is proud of it; but she also feels herself tossed and driven, the plaything of obscure forces.’[22]

This ‘transcendence’ is not the same as the transcendence talked about previously. A mother’s transcendence is more passive. She instinctively becomes a vessel for birth, assimilating into the natural cycle of life, legitimating her own existence. Her seeming ownership of the child allows her a sense of control over herself and things around her. As de Beauvoir explains, ‘with her ego surrendered, alienated in her body and in her social dignity, the mother enjoys the comforting illusion of feeling that she is a human being in herself, a value.’[23] When she is pregnant, Tianyi does experience this blossoming, this ‘stirring towards the future’[24]. She is comforted by the happy illusion that this in some way confirms her existence. However, as de Beauvoir states, during birth, women become ‘the plaything of obscure forces’, the passivity of which is blinding. That dark force possesses the body like a thunder storm, as Xu Xiaobin describes:

‘Tianyi’s contractions were being accompanied by a torrential rainstorm, the like of which, the city had not seen in years. The tumultuous din sounded like the drumrolls of a symphony orchestra, and made the building shudder. Even the stolid Wang Lian, who loved his sleep and could sleep through anything, was shaken awake…In the agony of her labour, Tianyi could not make out exactly what the terrifying din was. She was quite sure it was not just a rainstorm. It was too loud for that. She was in such a blur of pain that she could not hear or think straight. Every time she had a clear thought in her head, the waves of pain seemed to tear it to shreds. She felt the thunderous noise must be ringing in her own ears. An even more mysterious thought came to her: was this the noise that accompanied every childbirth?’[25]

The agony of labour, the storm and the ringing in her ears all blur together, creating a transcendent symphony in the midst of her immanence. It is a composition to accompany her moving from woman to captive tiger to mother. In fact, this isn’t the only storm in Crystal Wedding. Another breaks the day she goes swimming in Miyun Reservoir with Hua Zheng. When the heavens open, she is swimming towards an old boat, and he is gesticulating at the people on the bank, who are ridiculing him for his swimming style. With the storm pressing in on them from all sides, Hua Zheng manages to pull Tianyi into the boat in the nick of time. This storm is not about birth but about love and fate. The two draw near each other in the boat, but the moment passes. At this point, neither catch the hint the heavens are giving them, neither can foresee what will happen between them or the pain that they, their families and their nation will suffer. Using a well-timed thunderstorm to push forward the plot or build romance is something you often see in the theatre. However, in Xu Xiaobin’s works, she frequently uses this device to reveal what the fates intend or the mysterious workings of cause and effect. This device always bundles together lustful desires and pitfalls, or is symbolic of universal circumstances. Perhaps this is ‘materialism’ on another level. It is natural history dictating the fate of our mortal flesh, our births and deaths, our love and hate, rather than we alone having dominion over our lives.

Being a mother is like a storm for Tianyi. Her experience can be quite honestly explained with the question posed in Crystal Wedding, ‘What are you going to do with the baby?’[26] She loves her son, but she sees motherhood as a prison sentence she is constantly fighting to overturn. She isn’t willing to give up her regular life or take on the extra responsibilities. Nevertheless, she is torn in half, often wanting to also escape the freedoms of the world outside. She doesn’t think of herself as a good mother, at one point feeling a deep sense of shame hearing her son sing a nursery rhyme about the love of a child for their mother. In her heart of hearts, she can’t be that type of ‘foolish mother’, who devotes themselves so wholeheartedly to the needs of their children, forgetting their own. The type that is satisfied with the illusion of respect that is bestowed upon them by the patriarchy. In Tianyi’s eyes, these women are superhuman, able to complain bitterly about childbirth one second and elatedly stuff their nipple into their child’s mouth the next. They feel no shame. To Tianyi, these women have simply become ‘gender neutral’ or ‘indestructible’ like Buddha’s guardian warriors.[27] However, the transcendence of gender talked about here does not mean that these women have found liberation. In fact, these ‘guardian warriors’[28] are merely blinded by the glare of maternal transcendence and the approval of society, carelessly laying aside their own individuality, something Tianyi cannot do.

The ‘guardian warrior’ way of being is not instinctual for women. As de Beauvoir explains, ‘no maternal instinct exists: the word hardly applies, in any case, to the human species. The mother’s attitude depends on her total situation and her reaction to it. As we have just seen, this is highly variable.’[29] In Crystal Wedding, we can see that Tianyi, who resents her situation in life, is incapable of playing the role of the so-called ideal mother. However, she cannot escape her life, anymore than she can avoid being pigeonholed by society.

Interestingly, Tianyi names her child Wangzhe, which translates as ‘The King’. On the one hand, this was an innocent move, just a mother picking a strong name for her child. But on the other hand, choosing this name clearly cements the man’s position at the centre of the patriarchy. Having a ‘King’ means your family has an axis and a target for your worship. In this scenario, the mother’s position becomes the ‘King’s guardian warrior’, protecting and shoring up the King’s position, often standing almost invisible by the King’s side. During the celebration of her son’s birth, Tianyi can be seen doing just that. Tianyi becomes just another prop, a nursemaid to her son. Xu Xiaobin describes in Crystal Wedding how Tianyi wishes she could ‘wrap her armour around herself’.

In some of Xu Xiaobin’s short stories, such as ‘Marrying Out’ or ‘Yellow Peace Rose’[30], the transformation of women is also a theme. Wrapping yourself in armour or acting like a ‘guardian warrior’ mother, ultimately means being able to protect yourself and survive the blows inflicted by the judgement and criticism of others. But in doing so, you become inhuman, you transform into the lowest of beasts. Your individuality and your gender both disappear.

In Crystal Wedding, the cry goes up, ‘Save the mother!’ – a veiled subversion of Lu Xun’s famous phrase, ‘Save the children’. Xu Xiaobin, in a sense, is bringing a deeper, female perspective to Lu Xun’s tragic ’foolish mother’ character, Aunt Xianglin. Ultimately, male child would grow into a ‘king’ who upholds traditional norms, if the ‘guardian warrior’ mother doesn’t return to being a normal woman, blessed by freedom and justice. The term ‘guardian warrior’ can be compared to the ‘Iron Girls’ talked about in the Foreword to Crystal Wedding, as they both point to the same kind of malignant transcendence of gender. Of course, the term ‘Iron Girls’ is specific to that particular time period, a time of revolution, where women were subjected to unbearable manual labour, aesthetically reduced to the appearance of sheet metal. Some commentators rationally emphasise that being able to work is very important to women, who do not want to be bound by family life. However, the philosophy behind what happened then, completely disregarding differences in gender, was nonsensical. This type of formal equality in reality is not equality at all.

Susan Moller Okin, in her book Justice, Gender and the Family, argues that the principles of equality in Rawls’ Theory of Justice can also be applied to theories of gender equality. Rawls states that rules must be drafted under a ‘veil of ignorance’. Those involved in the drafting must essentially forget their own gender and position in society, their natural skills and inclinations, personal details of their lives, their world view and all other morally irrelevant details. Divested of their own interests, these people can thus design an equal social system. However, Moller Okin believes that those who assume what Rawls calls the ‘original position’ described above, should not then work under the presupposition that the highest level of equality is a society without gender. This is because the history and current state of gender equality is morally relevant, inequality is a common reality in our society.[31] Of course, there are many things that could be said about the general efficacy of Rawls’ framework and the contradictions inherent in the ‘veil of ignorance’. But it is clear that, if the specificities of gender aren’t considered, the resulting equality would be in name only and perpetuate the same injustices. It’s as absurd as saying that, in order to gain equality, women should not be given a break from work during pregnancy. In addition, considering specific gender differences is important, as women still have to take on the majority of household tasks. Under these circumstances, we should always interrogate whether work actually becomes a form of liberation, or as de Beauvoir’s puts it, simply ‘added fatigue’.[32]

On the other side of the spectrum from ‘Iron Girls’, Xu Xiaobin also condemns the high EQ, transactional, modern ‘Little Woman’. Worth noting is that Xu is not trying to establish the ‘model woman’. Her protagonist, Tianyi, has her good points, but Xu is actually describing a life that has fallen into enemy hands, filled with disappointments. Crystal Wedding is more about women’s self-deconstruction, a point that can easily be missed. Taking Tianyi as an example, she swings between finding the rationale in traditional culture one minute and railing against it the next. She dreams of the pale-skinned women of the past, who never had to leave the house. Yet, when her relationship with her mother-in-law falls apart, so does her treasured ‘rationale’. Tianyi even fleetingly envies the ‘bird-like’ women that perch helplessly on their man’s shoulder. However, here she is showing her tendency to fantasize about escaping her life, and it is merely one facet of her psyche.

Fundamentally, the question of ‘what makes a woman’ is not answered in this novel, but is scrutinised from every angle. Crystal Wedding is not trying to pigeonhole women as either ‘guardian warrior’ or ‘Little Woman’, nor a common denominator of the two. On the contrary, Xu Xiaobin argues that a woman needs to find herself outside these two stereotypes. It doesn’t matter what she finds, it only matters that she rejects the current, unidirectional definitions and is not beholden to the prevailing customs or standards. Xu sees that a woman may have to find the strength of a ‘guardian warrior’ to fight for gender equality in society and that strength to create space enough to find herself. If this means she needs to use ‘high EQ’ strategies when the sharks are circling, then so be it. As Xu sees it, an unwavering belief in love is the only hope for her.

In Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin clearly pities Tianyi’s generation. She calls it the generation ‘when men were not like men nor women like women’.[33] Although the second half of that phrase needs further explanation, when you think about Tianyi’s ideal ‘cool superhero[34]‘, the meaning of ‘when men were not like men’ is not hard to grasp. Tianyi was brought up on revolutionary literature, and so generally considers the men around her, apart from Hua Zheng, too soft. They lack the spirit of the soldier, steadfast and unstoppable. In the novel, she comes to two conclusions that really hit home for her: firstly, Chinese men all care too much about politics, and secondly, Chinese men all seem like ‘little old men, who never grew up‘.[35] Tianyi believes that most men are all talk and no action. She see men shooting their mouths off about politics but doesn’t see the knowledge or bravery to actually back that up. To her, it feels like a repudiation of her and Hua Zheng’s brand of politics. You could say these men are a type of structural ‘short circuit’. A son, who is exalted to the moon and stars by his mother and patriarchal family, is given little incentive to grow up. At the same time, he is forced to take his place as the head of a new family, providing for both his wife and children as well as his parents, far too quickly. This leads to a sort of childish self-importance among men, leaving little space for romance. While what boys really need is to enjoy their youths. They need time to mature and to become real men.

But what about when women were not like women? How can a woman become more like a woman? To answer these questions without resorting to textbook solutions, we must probe the relativity of masculinity and femininity, yang(阳) and yin(阴), taking into account the history of gender relations, as well as of female self-liberation and self-invention. A real answer can only exist in the negative, where being unwomanly means a woman who has been subject to control and alienation, a woman whose self has been distorted beyond recognition. Xu Xiaobin sees these women as repulsive, despotic and cruel, even more so than the original patriarchy, who laid down the first laws. In fact, she always uses strong language to describe these women, almost to the point of ‘reverse misogyny’. Xu does understand why they behave in the manner she describes. The majority are stuck in what de Beauvoir calls the ‘double game’. As de Beauvoir puts it, ‘as a rule woman wants to ‘hold’ her husband, while resisting his domination. She struggles with him in the effort to uphold her independence, and she battles with the rest of the world to preserve the ‘situation’ that dooms her to dependence.’[36] However, Xu is not willing to forgive this lightly.

Despite the fact that Xu Xiaobin often echoes de Beauvoir, you can’t describe Xu as an out-and-out feminist. She is not a proponent of so-called ‘female writing’, for example. In general terms, I would say that Xu Xiaobin shares the same enemies as feminists, but wouldn’t necessarily count herself among them. There are three points at which she deviates from the feminist mainstream. Firstly, Xu Xiaobin believes that people have a natural love-hate relationship with themselves, a force that both attracts and repulses them. She sees it as one of the mysteries of nature, above politics or even humanity. This explains much in her novels, the back and forth between hot and cold or isolation and confrontation, that can’t be attributed to a commentary on rights or the effect of the wider environment.

Secondly, she doesn’t oppose the traditional view of a female disposition, and strategically she finds many obscure examples of women who are ‘like women’ to refute the standpoints of the ‘Iron Girls’ or ‘Little Women’. However, she does not ascribe to the Essentialist or Naturalist philosophies, nor is she willing to thoroughly reinvent the female disposition. She sees one’s temperament more like picking from a database, where traditional female qualities of gentleness and kindness are a valid option. In reality, it doesn’t matter if you choose to exhibit those qualities or something more radical, but they shouldn’t be discarded altogether. Finally, Xu Xiaobin has a rather gloomy outlook on the prospects for humanity. She doesn’t think that solving the problems of gender politics will transform or redeem the human race. She doesn’t believe that humanity can claw its way back up the slippery slope of self-destruction that it’s currently on. Nevertheless, to Xu, that isn’t an excuse for not trying to solve the problems in front of you. It seems that Xu Xiaobin does find reason to love, but the love she carries in her heart is like a desolate cloud, which she won’t let go. The lines about ‘love without love’ in her work Sea Fire, really echo her sentiments.[37]

The Final Escape and the True Crystal  积极的逃离与眼底的水晶

While I was writing this article, news of domestic violence and sexual harassment was regularly being reported in the media or on social media. There has been an outpouring of reaction, with incidents from long ago finally being brought to the public eye. These are frightening and frustrating reports, as many of these incidents were originally classed as ‘family quarrels’, ignored or held up by the slow justice system. Of course, the legal system cannot necessarily solve all issues related to sex, marriage and the family and a considered, step-by-step approach is necessary. However, as implied by Xu Xiaobin in her novel, when the family unit is put on a pedestal, it is in danger of becoming an impenetrable fortress. The light of justice needs to be able to shine into the public and private, the nation and family, as well as on politics and gender. Given how interconnected these spheres are, work in one can often help to unblock problems in another. Justice in both the public and private spheres must be addressed. The family must be seen as an integral part of the law. As Okin says, ‘I reach the conclusions not only that our current gender structure is incompatible with the attainment of social justice, but also that the disappearance of gender is a prerequisite for the complete development of a non-sexist, fully human theory of justice.’[38]

Okin also points out that the family is the first school for children’s moral development. Children are almost imperceptibly influenced by what they see and hear, and if they grow up surrounded by rigid ideas of gender, then their schooling is biased from the start. It is unlikely that they will develop the sense of justice emphasised by Rawls, or be able to later take up an unbiased ‘original position’.[39] No matter what you think of Tianyi or even those of us researching these topics, it is clear that the majority have already lost before they even reach the ‘starting line’. Ironically, Tianyi originally was a researcher working on inter-gender relations, but in the end the best she could do was use her own crumbling life as a research specimen. Through this, Xu Xiaobin warns us that research on these issues cannot bring us freedom and happiness unless the researchers themselves have transformed themselves into authors of a happy life.

Tianyi isn’t proactive about finding solutions. She is indecisive about what she wants and cannot face up to or address the problems in her marriage. If it were not for her son, she may not have found the strength to get a divorce. Yet we must give her bravery credit. She does leave, unlike the female protagonist, Carla, in Alice Munro’s Runaway, who vows to leave and then returns in tears[40]. To Tianyi, escaping becomes her one goal in life, and she doesn’t give up even in the face of defeat. In the end, she brings out the most positive meaning of escape – through literature. It allows her brokenness to become the voice of women everywhere, to seal her place in history, and to become a genuine crystal shining with the possibilities of a brighter future. In the end, the crystal becomes a positive moral message, symbolising the divine insight of a writer. As Xu Xiaobin writes, ‘As she sat thinking, the room seemed to grow brighter around her, to fill with a brightness like the lustre given off by a huge piece of uncut crystal.’[41]

Tianyi once called Hua Zheng ‘the ultimate idealist‘, but this time, her own gaze is like a crystal nail, piercing the mirror and reflecting back. It is as if she can see the image of a humble saviour nailed to her own reflection. However, this is all in the realm of impossibility. As she writes, ‘What were human beings when measured against infinity? They were so small, helpless, rudderless, fickle, anguished, stressed, depressed, deviant, useless, vacillating, acquiescent, self-betraying, self-negating, vile…She was all of these things herself. So was Di, and Xian, and Wang Lian. Even Hua Zheng.’[42]

Perhaps we have no way of fully pinning down the deeper meaning behind those words, as the deeper meaning itself rests with human beings’ ever-changing nature. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty once described the world as ‘the nucleus of time’.[43] Time forms us, but also distorts our reality; history makes mincemeat of us and destroys the best among us; time makes it impossible for the individual, and even the human race as a whole, to determine their self-identity. And that is what creates hope and despair. Ultimately, Tianyi acquires a certain sort of gaze – intangible, but we would recognise it if we saw it – which starts with a woman and then encompasses the entire human race. Through one instant in time, it exposes the illusion of eternity. It connects the universal and the exceptional and brings together the transcendent and immanent in one body. It both transcends human beings, and is sub-human, returning to the universe like animals do. It is the ultimate dialectic of life. Only one sentence from Sea Fire is fit to end this piece: ‘The heaven is lofty, and the sea is calm.’[44]


Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. By H. M. Parshley, London: Jonathan Cape, 1956

W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes, London and New York: Routledge,2012

Susan Moller Okin: Justice, Gender and the Family, New York: Basic Books, 1989

Alice Munro, Runaway, trans. by Li Wen, Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi chubanshe, 2009

Carole Pateman: The Sexual Contract, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988

Xu Xiaobin, 《蜂后》 After the Wasp,[in Chinese only] Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe, 2019

Xu Xiaobin, Crystal Wedding, trans. by Nicky Harman, London: Balestier Press, 2016

Xu Xiaobin, 《海火Sea Fire, [in Chinese only] Beijing, Zuojia chubanshe, 2019

Xu Xiaobin, A Classic Tragedy: Short Stories, trans. by Natascha Bruce and Nicky Harman, London: Balestier Press, 2021


[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 199.

[2] Xu Xiaobin, Crystal Wedding, trans. by Nicky Harman, (London: Balestier Press, 2016), pp. 300-301.

[3] Xu Xiaobin, p.19

[4] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. By H. M. Parshley, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 462..

[5] Hegel, p. 208.

[6] Hegel, p. 199.

[7] Ibid., p. 201.

[8] Ibid., p. 201.

[9] Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p.175.

[10] Pateman, pp. 173-182.

[11] Xu Xiaobin, p.66.

[12] Pateman, p. 184.

[13] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, pg. 298.

[14] De Beauvoir, pp. 418-19.

[15] De Beauvoir, p. 424.

[16] De Beauvoir, p. 458.

[17] De Beauvoir, p. 433.

[18] Xu Xiaobin, pp. 240-244.

[19] Sublimation is the diversion or deflection of instinctual drives, usually sexual ones, into non-instinctual channels. Psychoanalytic theory holds that the energy invested in sexual impulses can be shifted to the pursuit of more acceptable and even socially valuable achievements, such as artistic or scientific endeavours.

[20] De Beauvoir, p. 444.

[21] Xu Xiaobin, p. 45

[22] De Beauvoir, p. 476-477.

[23] Ibid., p. 478.

[24] Ibid., p. 477.

[25] Xu Xiaobin, pp. 46-48.

[26] Ibid., p. 67.

[27] Jingang buhuai zhishen金刚不坏之身 meaning ‘the indestructible body of Buddha’s guardian warrior’.

[28] Jingang 金刚 refers to Buddha’s warrior attendants, one of the earliest appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism.

[29] De Beauvoir, p. 490.

[30] Xu Xiaobin, A Classic Tragedy: Short Stories, Balestier Press, 2021

[31] Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family, (New York: Basic Books, 1989), pp.101-109.

[32] De Beauvoir, p. 466.

[33] Xu Xiaobin, p. 124.

[34] Ibid., p.132

[35] Ibid., p. 93.

[36] De Beauvoir, p. 453.

[37] Xu Xiaobin, Sea Fire, Beijing, Zuojia Publishing House, 2019. 参见徐小斌:《海火》,北京:作家出版社,2019年。[Chinese only, not available in translation]

[38] Susan Moller Okin,  p. 105.

[39] Ibid, pp. 97-101.

[40] Alice Munro, Runaway, trans. By Li Wen, (Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi chubanshe, 2009), pp. 1-48. 门罗:《逃离》,李文俊译,北京:北京十月文艺出版社,2009年,第1-48页。

[41] Xu Xiaobin, p. 302.

[42] Ibid, p.302.

[43] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p.347.

[44] Xu Xiaobin, 《海火Sea Fire, [in Chinese only] Beijing, Zuojia chubanshe, 2019, p. 126