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Amy Tan speaks of a new and old China at the NLA

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Primrose Riordan

Renowned Chinese American author Amy Tan is in Canberra to discuss her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, seen as Ms Tan’s strongest foray yet into sexual territory. The book explores the hidden lives of women tricked into working  in courtesan houses in 1930s' Shanghai under the backdrop of the collapse of China’s final imperial dynasty.

Women led “hidden lives’ in this time, and had to negotiate a male-dominated order in order to survive. Ms Tan says while many Beijing and Shanghai women now cut formidable figures in society, (not without precedent, as June Chung argues in Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China) there is a growing geographical and gender divide.

“The contrast is huge. I was recently in China at a lunch organised by the US Embassy with 12 of the most powerful women in China.”

She then embarked on one of her frequent travels in the Chinese countryside and came across women who “have been left behind” in the nation’s race to modernity.

Ms Tan said she was inspired by “their quality of persistence in the face of challenges to their basic survival.”

“They are often grandmothers looking after children, doing manual labour,” said Ms Tan. She recounted a time when she visited a Dong minority village in Guizhou in southern China, when she stayed up late one night while a small group of older women drained a harvested rice field, caught fish and fermented them in huge barrels.

The Valley of Amazement also deals with the tensions between Americans and Chinese, a tension that continues today in different guises.

“There is there is a wariness, a bit of uncertainly between the expats and the locals there. One day you can watch anything, then the next day they ban the Big Bang Theory TV show. The rhyme and reason eludes the expats”.

In the past two years Australian Chris Buckley and American Austin Ramzy of The New York Times as well as  Reuters reporter Paul Mooney have been denied China visas among others, and local journalists have been detained as the country has cracked down on the internet and media.

But Ms Tan, who was denied a visa 15 years ago after inadvertently appearing in a CNN documentary about China’s orphans, urges today's diplomats to be more culturally sensitive.

She said China’s historical memory is long and it remembers how it was treated after the Opium Wars and through its experiences with foreign imperialism.

“If you want to convince my mum to wear purple pants, you wouldn’t shame her through a public campaign. You would gain cooperation in a different way – maybe say 'oh those purple pants look so great on you!' It sounds ridiculous but we need to look to human nature for answers” Ms Tan said.

Ms Tan’s novels include The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning, as well as a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, and two children's books. She spoke in Canberra at the National Library of Australia in conversation with Colin Steele, emeritus fellow at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.

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