Square-bashing summer

Caroline Moorehead praises the courage of a young Chinese writer: Summer of Betrayal by Hong Ying, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99
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Anyone involved in literature in China," observes Lin Ying, the young heroine of Summer of Betrayal , "was bound to come to an unhappy end". The novel has not been published in China, where Hong Ying's work is banned as too erotic and too political. She lives in London. Her earlier futuristic trilogy, Far Goes the Girl - a fantasy woven around the theme of minorities, both sexual and cultural - did appear in China some years ago, but only heavily censored. For writers and dissidents, China has not moved far since the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Lin Ying is a poet, a girl from China's remote countryside with a harsh past and a great deal of talent, who has won a place on a prestigious writing course at Beijing University. During the spring of 1989 she finds herself drawn into the ranks of the students pushing for democratic reform. She joins their vigil in Tiananmen Square, looks at the slogans, listens to rumours, poetry and pop music. When the tanks arrive, early on June 4, she is among those who succeed in getting away. She reaches home, the flat in the People's Daily compound she shares with the journalist responsible for rescuing her from the anonymity of the provinces, only to find him in bed with his former wife.

Later, having again fled through the streets piled high with the debris of smashed cars and bicycles, she takes refuge with a young critic called Li Jiangjiang, in the dormitory of his institute.

Outside, in the streets, the tanks and army trucks patrol: there are reports of arrests, suicides, the hunting of wanted student leaders. The mood is one of blame and incrimination, as newspapers and magazines are closed down and culprits for "rectification" sought by "culture officials" who declare that the nation should no longer waste money on degenerate writers, producing trash ordinary people neither understand nor wish to read.

Inside, against this background of menace, in Li Jiangjiang's tiny room and in the larger flats of more established writers and painters, Lin Ying pursues her erotic fantasies. It is a very different China from the austere country dimly visible from the west. Here, young and successful intellectuals worry whether the people they are married to are faithful, watch pornographic videos about male prostitutes and experiment with new art forms using their own bodies as paintbrushes. The women scoff at the sexual prowess of their "illustrious" and "radiant" men.

Almost half the Chinese poets who began writing in the 1980s, as well as a quarter of the novelists, are said to be living today in exile abroad. Among these are some who criticise writers like Hong Ying for producing novels that have moved too far from their roots in traditional Chinese culture, and whose works have so little to do with China that they could belong anywhere. In Summer of Betrayal - even if some of its scenes could come straight from Paris and the French student protests of 1968 - Hong Ying cleverly sets her narrative against the battles between old and young, the hardcore Communist leaders and their wayward artistic children testing the freedom of the west. Her few, well placed, details of Chinese student life, interspersed with flashbacks to the hardships of the 1960s and 1970s, are sharp and evocative. She is also good at the literary fashions, dictated by the politics of the day, whether the "realism" that celebrated the Communist Party, or the "folksy sentimentality" that followed, or the "twists and turns" of the "dark rain of individualism" of the avant-garde writers, increasingly under assault in the later 1980s.

For her heroine Lin Ying, there is really no choice. She observes her friends debating whether to go abroad and concludes that to go would be to lose her identity as a "Chinese language poet". In such a frankly autobiographical novel - Hong Ying herself was born in 1962, towards the end of the great famine, the daughter of a boatman on the Yangtze River, studied writing in Beijing and left China in the wake of Tiananmen Square - the reasons her heroine gives for staying have a poignant ring.

Behind the stories of sexual exploration lie serious issues about modern China. Not least is the split that has divided the Chinese in exile about the events of Tiananmen Square. Hong Ying has several of her characters attack the student protest, arguing that democracy was advancing in China at its own pace and that the confrontation of June 1989 served only to provoke a clampdown and return the Chinese authorities to a more repressive stand. China might well be a liberal country today, one character observes, had it been allowed to progress at its own speed.

In her search for a place in modern Chinese society, Lin Ying is not altogether a sympathetic figure. For all her self-awareness her hardness and egotism are chilling, her metaphors uncomfortable. "Above and below" she muses, as she contemplates her own future, "were wolves, blood fangs bared, anticipating. Two mice were slowly gnawing through the vine". But the picture Summer of Betrayal paints of Beijing in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square is remarkably vivid. To write such a book, so clearly a fictionalised account of her own life, knowing how it will be viewed in China today takes considerable courage.