In the early part of the last century, there was a notion that in Shanghai, nicknamed "paradise for adventurers," men were adventurers while women were parasites on the men.
Under the pens of such famous novelists as Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing (1921-95) and Wang Anyi, women in Shanghai are portrayed as having weak characters, without enough courage or independence to make a living on their own.
But not to novelist Hong Ying. Hong defies the stereotypes with her two new novels about Shanghai that have subverted the traditional notion about women in this metropolis.
In her two fictional works, "Lord of Shanghai" (Shanghai Wang) and "The Death of Shanghai" (Shanghai Zhi Si), she has created two women protagonists and portrayed their lives in the early part of the last century in Shanghai, the largest and arguably the most modern metropolis on the Chinese mainland.
The city was a melting pot, and residents came from all over the country to seek their fortunes there.
"Those women with weak characters could not dare to seek fortunes in this 'paradise of adventurers,'" Hong said.
"At least those women with weak characters did not represent the main quality of women in this city."
In Hong's opinion, Shanghai epitomizes the modernity of the country.
The adventures of women under her pen give expression to her own understanding of the country's modernity.
Cassia, the heroine in "Lord of Shanghai," is an orphan girl from a small village on the Yangtze delta.
Despite her humble beginning and her failure to win acceptance into the family of her lover a triad member Cassia learns to become independent, pursues a career as a performing artist and eventually rises to stardom.
Meanwhile, "The Death of Shanghai" reads much more like a suspense novel, with the protagonist Jean Yu working as an undercover agent in Shanghai in 1941, when the city was under Japanese occupation.
Unlike Cassia, Jean Yu is a well-educated young city woman who has set a purpose in her life, even though she has to encounter a world of international politics more complicated and intriguing than Cassia's. Explaining the motivation for writing the novel "The Death of Shanghai," Hong said that there were many coincidences that made a difference in history.
The fiction's intrigue lies in how a writer builds a story on these coincidences.
The heroine Jean Yu in "The Death of Shanghai" does receive intelligence about Japan's planned attack on Pearl Harbour, but she intentionally withholds the information, in the hope that the attack would take place and force Western powers to get involved in the war against Japan.
The intelligence Jean Yu receives, of course, is one of many that failed to find its way to the intelligence department of the United States.
It was just by many coincidences, which Hong based her story on, that the United States failed to prepare itself against this covert attack.
She admitted that she wanted to present the awakening of women to take control of their destiny in her novels.
The two heroines she has created in her two new novels have both demonstrated such convictions in trying their best to take fate into their own hands.
But as in her other novels, the protagonists must cope with the conflicts between their desire for love and their sense of getting hold of their own destiny.
When a woman is in a situation which requires her to suffer or sacrifice her life for the sake of love, she discovers a colorful inner world.
"That makes a story fascinating," Hong said.
She said that she presents her heroines' desire for love usually in a poetic or Taoist manner. But at the same time, she emphasizes how these characters liberate themselves from the shackles of desire.
Like all novelists, Hong best known for her "Daughter of the River: An Autobiography" (Ji'e De Nu'er), "K: The Art of Love" and "Summer of Betrayal: A Novel" (Beipan Zhi Xia), is always obsessed with what her next novel will be about.
She suffered from insomnia, especially after a reporter from the Netherlands emphasized that the world was too cruel for a fiction writer. The reporter told her that her publisher will be very likely to turn her down if her next novel was not as good as her previous ones.
She said that she was really terrified, and she was consumed with worry at the thought of what might happen to her.
It might be because of such pressure that Hong considers fiction writing as part of her life.
The fact that she had two books published in the year 2005 tells how hard she has been working on her writing.
In Hong's opinion, literature or fiction provides an option for people to escape from the obsession with their everyday problems.
She compares herself to a gatekeeper at the exit of the "world factory," where people bury themselves in their daily work. She said she hopes that once in a while, she could lead people out of that black hole of boredom with her novels. She may very likely succeed with the rich, evocative narrative and inspiring characters in "Lord of Shanghai" and "The Death of Shanghai."
(China Daily February 17, 2006)