Chen Ran's strikingly introspective, subjective and individualized writing sets her work distinctively apart from the traditional and mainstream realism of the majority of contemporary Chinese writers.
Her protagonists, all of them female, are outsiders who are indifferent to the political and social dramas staged in China. What possesses their whole attention is the small but infinitely profound private worlds of which they themselves are the center.
Born in 1968, the heroine of A Private Life, Ni Niuniu, has a childhood that coincides with the later stage of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
However, the political harangues broadcast each day on the radio affect her far less significantly than the quarrels between her mother and father, or the fact that her beloved nanny and her pet puppy are ousted from her home by her testy-tempered father.
One political event that holds a prominent place in her memory is the visit of former American President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. But this is only because Nixon appearance happens to coincide with the image of an ideal father that she has created in her fancies.
As a little girl, Ni develops an uncanny ability of extracting herself from the turbulent environment around her and immersing herself in her private cosmos.
She used to call her arms her "Misses Don't," because "they most often followed (her) brain's bidding," and her legs her "Misses Do," because they "most often followed the bidding of (her) body, paying no attention to (her) brain," and indulged herself in long, sweet talks with them. Obviously, even at this tender age, she prefers to follow her own heart, not the "head" of society.
"There are two ways to grasp reality. One is through the phenomena of the outside world, the other is through psychological experience. My way is the second one," said Chen Ran.
It seems only natural that the meditative self-obsession of Chen's heroines should lead to an extreme sensitivity to their gender identity.
Almost all her stories are first-person monologues recounted by young female narrators in a tone that suggests that the hypothetical listeners are also female.
They talk earnestly and fervently, with obvious mutual respect and a certain self-restraint. They confide their most private secrets, and broach issues that all women are likely to be faced with.
Friendship between women is a persistent theme in Chen's writing.
"I am fascinated with women who are endowed with high intelligence and supreme personal charm," said Chen.
She once confided that her conception of the ideal woman is the Widow Ho in A Private Life.
In the novel, from the time Ni Niuniu is a child, she and the graceful, delicate Ho, her neighbor who is more than 10 years her senior, cherish a mutual attraction. Their harmonious, peaceful friendship is a support and comfort for both of them as they confront the unsettling realities of their respective lives.
"She is the very personification of intelligence, independence, tenderness, considerateness, and maternal sympathy -- all the beautiful characteristics I could dream of a woman having," said Chen.
In contrast to the affinity Chen's female characters feel towards each other, the relationship between characters of opposite sex in A Private Life is more often than not marked by tension, estrangement and conflict.
In the novel Ni says: "Very clearly, union between a man and woman requires a special kind of nurturing. Their sexual roles, standpoints, thinking, and behavior are so vastly different that without such nurturing it would be impossible for them to communicate."
Both of the major male characters in A Private Life, Ni's father and Ni's teacher Mr Ti, are embodiments of the obtrusive, all-powerful male world that threatens to annihilate her individual identity. The only real exception to this is Yin Nan, her sensitive and gentle, but courageous, boyfriend who stands perhaps as Chen's conception of the ideal, but perhaps unattainable male.
His presence in the story gives it a balance that makes the book as a whole more satisfyingly real.
(China Daily March 1, 2004)