The Woman Back from Moscow: In Pursuit of Beauty Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Nov 14, 2023

736 pp


List Price US: $12.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-378-5


List Price US: $21.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-377-8

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The Woman Back from Moscow: In Pursuit of Beauty

A Novel

by Ha Jin


Yomei was wondering why Jiang Ching wanted to meet after the evening class. They were both at Lu Hsun Academy of Literature and Arts in Yan’an, the legendary Communist base in the remote Shaanxi Province. Ching was an instructor, Yomei a student. Both had come to this place the previous year, 1937.
Yomei was seventeen and Ching twenty-four. But their seven-year age gap set them as apart as if they belonged to different generations, especially when they were onstage and in the arena of love. They had known each other since four summers before in Shanghai, when they were in the Oriental Troupe of Modern Drama—Yomei had been an apprentice there and even taken an acting class taught by Ching. At that time the girl was still too green to perform in plays, while Ching, called Lan Ping then, was a burgeoning actress seeking her place in the metropolitan’s theater circle. In The Government Inspector, the Gogol comedy, Ching played only a minor role, a locksmith’s wife, despite her moderate success as a starlet in several movies. That same year, however, she had managed to snatch a leading part—Nora, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—and then another major role—Katherina in Ostrovsky’s The Storm. But here in Yan’an, Yomei, younger and more talented, could easily outshine Ching onstage. A few months before, they had acted together in The Blood Sacrifice in Shanghai, which commemorates that city’s fight against the Japanese invasion six years earlier. Yomei performed the leading female role—the daughter of a rich capitalist—whereas Ching had to settle for a secondary part—the rich man’s concubine. The play had been so successful that it was performed twenty times in the town of Yan’an alone, watched by more than ten thousand people. Some even perched on the trees around the platform to get a better view. Numerous Communist leaders saw it and praised the performance. It was said that Ching had met Mao Zedong personally at one of her performances. Mao was so impressed by the troupe’s recent productions that he suggested establishing Lu Hsun Academy of Literature and Arts, and his colleagues unanimously supported the idea. After the performance season, both Yomei and Ching became well known—even children in the streets would call Yomei “the Miss” and Ching “the Concubine.” To a degree, Ching was annoyed by such notoriety, and she knew that as far as acting went, Yomei may have been getting ahead of her—in recent years, after her apprenticeship and before coming to Yan’an, the girl, Yomei, had acted in several movies and plays in Shanghai and earned a name for herself. She was already like a professional.
Now the two of them were going to meet beside the grand Catholic church that boasted a pair of belfries and stood next to their academy. Yomei had never liked Ching, who, to her mind, was a second-rate actress who engaged in one affair after another in Shanghai. Some men had abandoned their families or attempted suicide thanks to her casual entanglements with them. Ever since coming to Yan’an, Yomei had tried to avoid Ching, following instructions from her mother Ren Rui, who had arrived in Yan’an soon after Yomei and had also been a student here, at the College of Marxism and Leninism. Ren Rui believed Jiang Ching was bad news, so Yomei had better not mix with her.
There Ching was, walking toward Yomei with feet slightly splayed in suede boots. Tall and willowy, she wore a gray-blue woolen coat and an army cap. She was a kind of sartorial expert, good at giving advice to other women on what clothes to put on and how to alter a tunic or jacket. In this red base, most women just wore baggy gray uniforms like their male comrades, but Ching seemed determined to stand out by dressing differently.
“Yomei, my little sister,” Ching said with a faint smile, “I’d like to talk about Yi-xin.” In the silvery moonlight her mouth stiffened, her left cheek’s muscles twitched a little while her large eyes glowed.
“All right, what about him?” Yomei asked, having in a way expected this. Yi-xin headed the Education and Training Section of their college and was also a teacher in socialist thought. A lean, intelligent man, he could speak Russian, having studied in the Soviet Union seven or eight years before.
“Yomei, I’d like to advise you as an older sister who has gone through more in life,” Ching went on, her voice a little husky and uncertain. “You know, by rule, you’re not allowed to carry on with a man like Yi-xin. An affair between a teacher and a student is strictly forbidden here. You might get him and yourself into trouble if you don’t stop soon enough.”
“He’s been kind to me and I can’t just brush him aside,” Yomei replied honestly, even though she was unsure of her own feelings for that somewhat attractive man. “I know you like him, Ching, but you mustn’t blame me if he doesn’t leave me alone. I’m only seventeen, too young to date, so I’m not that eager to go with any man.”
“Don’t you hope he’ll stop chasing you?” Ching looked her in the face, her eyes shimmering in the moonlight.
“Well, he’s a leader of our college. I can’t be rude to him.”
“Can I tell him to leave you alone?”
“Please let me handle this by myself. Right now I can only say this: if you two are in love, I’ll step aside without interfering with your relationship.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Keep in mind, Yomei, you’re still a young girl, and there’ll be infinite opportunities for you. Everybody views you as Zhou Enlai’s daughter, the Red Princess of Yan’an, but I am new here, with no one to rely on.”
“So you need a man like Yi-xin?” Yomei asked, knowing Ching was often blunt and brash. A practical woman indeed.
“Yes, I need a man here. Truth to tell, Yi-xin is handsome and smart, but he may not be powerful enough to protect his woman yet. He’s probably running after you because he intends to be associated with your dad, Vice Chairman Zhou.”
“I don’t think Yi-xin is that calculating,” Yomei said, her anger rising. “If I’m fond of someone, I’ll never bad-mouth him behind his back.”
“You’re still young and innocent and believe in the purity of romantic love.”
“You don’t then?”
“Honestly, I don’t, perhaps because I’ve been betrayed by too many men. Trust me, Yomei, most men just use women to advance their careers or satisfy their lust and vanity.
You must take more precautions to protect yourself against them.”
“Thank you for telling me.” Yomei felt annoyed and hoped to end their conversation.
“Actually, you’re such a smart girl that I don’t need to dwell on this. You’ve already transformed yourself into a Red Princess—to be sure, you know how to promote yourself.”
“You think too highly of me,” said Yomei.
“You know I’ve always appreciated you. Do give thought to what I’ve told you.”
“Of course I will.”
Ching turned and strode away as if peeved. Her slanted shadow was wavering ahead of her in the pale moonlight. The night smelled of charcoal fire and was peaceful. A dog barked sleepily in the distance as Ching moved away with a swinging gait. It was whispered that one of her feet had six toes, but nobody had ever seen them. Legend had it that a person with six toes on one foot could be either a saint or a demon. Ching never revealed her naked feet, always donning socks. Even when wearing straw sandals, she would decorate the fronts of the shoes with red strings, which made them pretty and unique. People all agreed that Ching had refined taste and knew how to make herself up and dress smart. At a big locust tree, she veered to the left and faded into the night.
Yomei turned around, heading back to her lodgings. A cockerel, confused about time, crowed as if dawn were breaking, even though it wasn’t yet midnight. Here and there, bean-oil lamps were glowing behind paper window screens, some flickering on hillsides. Yomei could tell that Ching must be irritated by her—by her having to take such a drastic step, personally admonishing her rival to stay away from the man they both liked. That woman could indeed act aggressively. Even without provocation, she could be outrageous and menacing.
Without further delay Yomei headed for the cave room she shared with four other female students. A sentry demanded loudly: “Password?”
“Flying red flag!” she cried back.
The man shone a flashlight on her. “Oh, the Miss,” he snickered, then bowed a little and let her pass.


But Xu Yi-xin continued to pursue Yomei. The next morning, after teaching his class, Introduction to Social Sciences, he caught up with her and asked her to meet after dinner. Such a request flustered her, but it also pleased her. For the whole day she was under the spell of a peculiar sensation, as if she were blushing constantly even when she was alone.
To some extent Yomei adored Yi-xin, who had a lean face and was in his late twenties. He was also a noted figure in Yan’an. Within the CCP there was a group of senior cadres nicknamed the Twenty-Eight and a Half Bolsheviks, who had all come back from the USSR, where they had attended Sun Yat-sen University, a school in Moscow established by the Soviets for training and educating Chinese revolutionaries. The group was headed by Wang Ming, a short, dapper man who, sent back by Stalin, was almost equal to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in power. Wang represented the Comintern (the Communist International), which had been founded by Lenin two decades before as the international headquarters of Communism, so even though Wang was not experienced in Chinese revolutionary work, he carried a lot of clout, was backed up by the USSR, and had been in charge of the United Front that tried to bring together all the forces in China to support the CCP. Yi-xin was the runt among those Chinese Bolsheviks, the “half” after the other twenty-eight, because he’d been so young, so inexperienced, that he hadn’t always been able to function like the full Bolsheviks, and he was also less contentious than the others. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, with a strong memory, easygoing, and amiable. Every once in a while, he even served as Mao’s Russian secretary. By the time he arrived at Lu Hsun Academy of Literature and Arts, he was already a full-fledged revolutionary, a capable and outstanding leader in cultural affairs. In class he would drop a Russian word or phrase, which impressed the students all the more. He was such a kind and articulate man that many young women were fond of him. His attentions to Yomei flattered her, though she was nearly ten years his junior. Now she was wondering if she should bring up the topic of Jiang Ching to him.
When Yomei reached the side of the Yan River, a little creek actually, he was already there waiting. He was wearing a flapped cotton hat and leggings, which made him look like a soldier on the front. His small eyes flashed as he smiled. “I’m so happy you came, Yomei.”
“Well, I’m here. What’s new?” she said, her heart expanding with delight.
“I just want to talk to you.” He held her hand as if to claim a unique intimate relationship with her.
Instinctively she wanted to pull her hand out of his grip, but didn’t. Together they turned, strolling along the gurgling stream, its surface shimmering while the water wound away into the distance. A crosswind tossed up some dried leaves, which skidded along the riverbank with a tiny crackling sound. Yomei noticed that his legs were slightly bandy, and that in spite of his wiry physique, he was healthy, sturdy like a Mongolian pony. He must have had women before, considering he had once lived in Russia, where he had undoubtedly rubbed shoulders with female revolutionaries, but Yomei knew that may have been part of his work.
She asked him, “You know, as a student, I’m not allowed to have a relationship with a man, especially a leader.”
He smiled and said, “But I’m already twenty-seven, entitled to look for a wife.”
At that word, her heart leaped. She felt herself going red. Luckily, the darkness covered her hot face. She ventured, “During your career, have you ever played the role of husband to a woman comrade?”
“Not really, but I have often carried out tasks together with female colleagues.”
She’d heard that revolutionaries often lived together as couples, especially in the area of the White Terror, which was occupied by the Nationalists and warlords, and Communists had to operate in disguise. Some of the ad hoc couples had become lovers eventually, even though many also lost their marriages because their spouses couldn’t stomach such infidelity.
“Do you know Jiang Ching well?” she asked him.
“Not really, but she often comes to my office. She’s eager to learn and has a lot of questions.”
“She’s interested in you for sure.”
“Probably, but I want to be with you. She seems too smooth to be trustworthy.”
Yomei stopped to face him. “Ching and I talked last night. She warned me not to mix with you.”
“Why did she do that?” He sounded surprised and a little irritated.
“Because I’m just a student of yours.”
“Even if you weren’t here, I wouldn’t feel comfortable spending personal time with Ching. Of course, I can respect her as a comrade. She’s a decent actress.”
What he said put her somewhat at ease. If push came to shove, she might tell Ching candidly that she wouldn’t have a chance with Yi-xin anyway, so it would be unnecessary for her, Yomei, to back down. Before they turned around toward their quarters, Yi-xin kissed her on the cheek, and she kissed him back, but on the mouth. She liked his male scent, pungent like fresh grass, and his palm on her chest, for the first time, gave her such a thrill that she shook a little.

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