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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Remote Country of Women

Bai Hua

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To purchase The Remote Country of Women

Title: The Remote Country of Women
Author: Bai Hua
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 369 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Remote Country of Women - US
The Remote Country of Women - UK
The Remote Country of Women - Canada
  • Chinese title: 遠方有個女兒國
  • Translated by Qingyun Wu and Thomas O. Beebee

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Our Assessment:

A- : a major novel of the era, impressive far beyond just its use of the Mosuo

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
JESHO . 38:2 (1995) Anne Sytske Keijser

  From the Reviews:
  • "(B)oldly written, satirical and very funny (.....) The novel virtually abounds with prison-related imagery." - Anne Sytske Keijser, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Remote Country of Women begins during the latter years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution -- the flame of which: "was dim but still smoldering" in the tail end of the years of: "an entire nation gone insane". For most of the novel the narrative switches back and forth, chapter by chapter, between its two main characters. There is Sunamei, a thirteen-year-old Mosuo girl in 1975, when the chapters centered around her begin, and Liang Rui, an initially destruction-embracing revolutionary who, like so many, found the tables turned on him and begins his account: "leading a half-imprisoned life on a farm" as the Cultural Revolution puttered and sputtered on. The chapters focused on Sunamei are presented in the third person, while Liang Rui narrates his own story; eventually -- very late in the novel --, the two characters' paths cross, and the final chapters are all narrated by Liang Rui.
       The Mosuo are an actual Chinese ethnic group, living in the hinterlands, near the border to Tibet. They are famous for being matrilineal; they do not recognize the formal (much less legal) concept of marriage and do not take a single spouse; instead, the woman, when she comes of age, allows an axiao ('sexual friend', as the translators put it in their glossary) into her huagu (a private 'boudoir'). For much of the novel, Sunamei's transition to adulthood -- womanhood -- and the new role that comes with it are chronicled, giving a good overview of Mosuo traditions and mores.
       The Red Guards had come to Sunamei's backwater Youjiwa Village to spread the word early on, but the locals had found the calls to: "rise up and make revolution" baffling (but: "At least it had been a great party for the children"). The Red Guards didn't stick around long, and so for years: "the entire great Cultural Revolution became a story from far away", as the Mosuo continued to live the way they always had. Eventually, People's Liberation Army soldiers came back to the area and again tried to impose the new national order -- notably, in insisting that men and women marry, and that any extramarital sex was illegal. They lasted a bit longer, and the Mosuo more or less humored them for the duration, but when they too left things returned more or less back to the old normal, and Sunamei finds her way in the usual Mosuo way, taking first one and then another axiao.
       The local deputy head of the county cultural bureau, Luo Ren, is the rare government official who comes to visit this remote village. He hears the by then more mature Sunamei sing and is taken by her beautiful voice, and recruits her for the county singing and dancing troupe, and she is tempted by the possibility of this adventure, becoming one of the few locals to venture into the outside world ("a Han place full of dishonesty and turmoil", as the locals suspiciously consider it). She remains mischievous and can't wrap her head around the moralistic ways of this world -- "Sunamei thought to herself: 'Why do people have to make so many codes ? If I followed them, what kind of person would I become ?' -- but at least everyone is fairly understanding of her, treating her as something of an exotic creature and trying to keep her from getting into too much trouble.
       Liang Rui's path, far more in the middle of the upheaval caused by the Cultural Revolution, is considerably more arduous. At the farm where he is basically a prisoner he meets Fang Yunqian, who comes every month to visit her father, a disgraced former deputy mayor sent here for reëducation. She holds down the fort at their apartment in town -- the three rooms allotted to the deputy mayor in better days --, not going to school and otherwise laying low:

She concentrated all her knowledge and her strength in hiding herself, in making herself inconspicuous, in order not to be noticed by anyone. Public attention was detrimental during those years.
       Liang Rui eventually manages to make his way into town, pretending he has TB and needs the medical attention only available there; Yunqian is still well-connected enough to get a doctor to fill out a faked medical report, which Liang Rui periodically presents to the PLA rep at the farm; they don't care where he is staying as long as he reports in every now and then.
       Liang Rui basically moves in with Yunqian -- a sort of freedom, yet also just another prison, as the two rarely venture out of the rooms, and indeed barely dare peer out of or open the windows. As Yunqian explains to him about her cocoon:
During the daytime, inside the window is a small jail, and outside the window is a large prison. I'd rather imprison myself in the small one, all alone. Only my imagination is free. Here I can exist for myself. Stepping outside of it, I have to exist for others. All my behavior and words have been denied by others.
       A fellow prisoner at the farm that Liang Rui was close to -- and whose treatment he has reason to feel some guilt about -- is Gui Renzhong, an intellectual with a PhD who had studied in the United States -- which of course made him suspect. As Gui acknowledges -- having swallowed (at least sufficiently to parrot it) the party indoctrination-line pounded into him:
I received a Western-enslaving education and was poisoned through and through. My experience led me to admire the American lifestyle, and, as a bourgeois intellectual, I stank and putrefied wherever I went.
       After Nixon's visit to China, the American connection is suddenly no longer seen as that terrible -- and when a classmate from university plans a trip to China as part of the thaw between the two nations the authorities realize they have to put on a bit of show, to present a face of China that will impress the foreign visitor. Gui is installed in a vacant house, complete with a servant, for the visit. True, he's not even allowed to sleep in the bed while he's there, but at least for a few days he gets to live in some comfort. It's made a bit more uncomfortable by a shrew who insinuates herself on Gui, marrying him for show -- and for the lifestyle the marriage (briefly) affords. (This is among the novel's more broadly comic characters and episodes -- continuing also after Gui's services as showpiece turn out to be in some demand later, too -- and it takes Liang Rui to finally drive her away. It is perhaps the most extreme example of the meaninglessness of formal, legal marriage in the novel, one of the story's central motifs.)
       It is in trying to help Gui that Liang Rui gets himself into greater trouble: disturbed by how the man has allowed himself to be crushed by the forces of the Cultural Revolution he writes a letter to Gui -- but it's made public, leading to the denunciation of Liang Rui and a lengthy prison term. Here, too, Yunqian is of some help to him, but mostly he's stuck -- with a group of men imprisoned for similarly vague threats to the national order. (The absurdity of who is sent to prison, and for what reasons, is highlighted by the eventual incarceration of a true innocent, a six-year-old girl -- "the world's youngest prisoner" --, whose crime was accidentally breaking a household Mao-bust; at least she's imprisoned with her mother, so mom can watch over her.)
       With a return of some semblance to normality after Mao's death, Liang Rui is eventually released. He demands a reversal of his verdict but, typically, is told:
Your imprisonment was an error. Because there was no verdict, there is nothing to reverse.
       At least the authorities are willing to set him up with a job -- though they're surprised when he asks to be sent to: "the most remote, most primitive place, better still a place in a prehistoric state". If not right into the Mosuo backlands, he is sent to the nearby county town, where Luo Ren arranges for him to take over running the local cinema -- a job that suits Liang Rui well. It is here that he comes to meet Sunamei and they fall in love. Marriage would seem to solve everyone's problems -- Sunamei's troupe would be pleased to have her somehow settled down, since her ways are a bit too wild for them otherwise -- and she agrees to go along with it, even as she is a bit baffled by the whole concept. Nevertheless, the couple manages to live together quite happily for a while.
       Visiting Sunamei's hometown, Liang Rui can't help but be jealous of how happily and comfortably -- and freely -- his wife acts in this unusual society. It's too much for him, and there can be no happy ending for them; he realizes that he had a good situation -- "I knew I was leaving a beautiful dream behind" -- but ultimately he couldn't fully embrace it.
       The Remote Country of Women is a comic-horrible novel of the Cultural Revolution and the terrible human toll it took, a time when: "the Chinese, almost without exception, were being wolfified and pigisized to various degrees". The idyllic lifestyle of the Mosuo -- backward though their life still is, in many respects -- is a great contrast to the situation elsewhere. Not entirely untouched by the political, social, and cultural crackdown, the Mosuo prove hardy enough -- even if mostly out of sheer naïveté, it can sometimes seem -- to withstand these challenges. But, as Liang Rui realizes when he and Sunamei travel to Youjiwa Village:
During the day, I could see more clearly that every Mosuo courtyard was too dirty for me to set foot in. Everywhere there was manure, and the worn-out clothing of the children and the elderly seemed never to have been washed. Although beautiful girls wore beautiful clothes, their necks were dirty. Supposing I had met Sunamei here but not in town: could I have brought myself to kiss her ?
       It is a nearly impossible world for outsiders to accept -- as also the early PLA soldiers and government officials who try to make their mark and change the place came to realize. So, for example, one devoted party official who tries her best but is frustrated by what she comes up against:
She felt a tender sorrow rising from the bottom of her heart. She was disturbed by an emotion she had not experienced for many years. She was unable to figure out her past and present. She was particularly confused by the Mosuo life. Although the Mosuo did not live in a civilized way, it was impossible to change them, as if the long history of mankind and the influence of the majority races and their governments had no power over them at all. They, especially their women, were full of self-confidence. According to our social norms, they should have been cursed as shameless women, yet a queenly pride shone in their eyes.
       The Mosuo remain as if on an island. Sunamei ventures out, but cannot integrate into this contemporary Communist China; she remains true to herself (and her Mosuo ways) -- which ultimately also leads her back to the place she belongs. Liang Rui tries to adapt, and for a while finds happiness -- but he can't help himself from imposing some of his (and his society's) expectations on Sunamei; she goes along with it as best she can -- she wears a bra to humor him, for example, even though she can't see the use of it -- but ultimately he asks too much.
       With its twin tracks, The Remote Country of Women is only half about the exotic 'remote country of women' and its society-outside-society; indeed, more of the action takes place beyond Mosuo confines -- in a world that proves to be more fundamentally backward.
       For all its otherness, the world of the Mosuo is not only more idyllic, it is much more clearly structured -- with its citizens carefully following tradition and long-established standards -- and functions healthily. The China beyond it, on the other hand, is a shifting mess in which nothing and no one can be depended on. While Liang Rui matures, and even tries to do good, and while he is able to find two women with whom he can, for a while, make the best of circumstances -- first Yunqian and then Sunamei --, he can not hold onto either one. The Mosuo are presented as, ultimately, living in a world apart -- one Sunamei can't really leave (though she manages well enough, she never really fits in in the world at large) and one Liang Rui can not become part of.
       Liang Rui's story, until he meets Sunamei, is very much of the Cultural Revolution and the chaotic conditions of the times. The examples of those he is imprisoned with and by, first at the farm and then in actual prison, and their various fates -- including one who is executed -- show the cruelty, arbitrariness, and absurdity of those times.
       Bai Hua doses in some biting satire, as well, and even beyond the two-track narrative is creative in the presentation of some of the story, including with a full (short) playscript, 'Flames of Passion', written by a drama student Liang Rui meets. Liang Rui assumes it is: "based on real persons and real events", but the playwright tries to disabuse him of that notion. For all the official talk of socialist realism as the only proper and authentic art form, conditions necessitate an entirely different approach:
As if anyone were allowed to write about real people and real events ! The more realistic it is, the more your writing wil be vilified.
       After reading it to Yunqian, she and Liang Rui disagree about how realistic the play is: she insists it's: "not realistic at all", while he argues: "it's extremely realistic. It truly reflects reality". But he won't take her friendly wager up, that if he read it to anyone else, not a single person would find it realistic:
     "Unfortunately, I wouldn't dare read it to anybody else. But even if I did, I'd still lose the bet."
     "Because the play is unrealistic."
     "No. It is only because the play is truly realistic that I am bound to lose."
     "Why ?"
     "Over the past twenty years, millions of people here have acquired a false sense of reality."
       The Mosuo-world Bai Hua introduces here would seem to be a product of fantasy but is, in fact, closely based on an actually existing one; the madness of the Cultural Revolution appears no less absurd but was, of course, also all too real. Bai Hua cleverly uses them together -- including with some overlap (a rare example of almost immediate failure on the part of the would-be revolutionary destructionists) -- in his portrait of these terrible times, with the irrepressible brightness of Mosuo-life an effective contrast to the otherwise so dark and bleak picture of much of Chinese life at the times.
       There's a bit of danger of a false romanticizing of the Mosuo, but Bai Hua doesn't simply present them as 'noble savages'. His choice of this kind of society is interesting too for the main difference that is emphasized: repeatedly he points to the problems caused by marriage -- marriage certificates that bind husband and wife together (even as in some cases, as with Gui, they're not for anything other than show). There are no happy marriages here (Gui's first one briefly was, but wife Jane's fate was among the more horrific described here, and all he was left with was her ashes; interestingly, she too was an outsider brought into a society/world that could not accept her) -- but even in this revolutionary Chinese world in upheaval marriage is insisted upon as a fundamental and essential unit of society; Bai Hua does not directly attack it but with his examples, and that of the Mosuoian alternative, certainly does his best to subvert it.
       The Remote Country of Women is generally summarily described as a novel of the Mosuo, but it's very much also a novel critical of the times -- the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath --, and a very good one of and at that. The strong and independent female roles -- extending beyond the Mosuo, to Yunqian, for example -- help make for a particularly well-rounded novel. In some ways, of course -- as also any summary of the novel suggests -- Bai Hua would seem to be making things too simple and obvious, making The Remote Country of Women a popular classroom choice, a mainstay of modern Chinese fiction courses (outside of China ...), but there is more to it, and it is quite deserving of a readership beyond an academic setting. Indeed, there's little doubt that this impressive work is one of the major Chinese novels dealing with the Cultural Revolution.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 July 2020

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The Remote Country of Women: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Bai Hua (白樺) lived 1930 to 2019.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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