A Writer from a Different World—Bing Xin

As we celebrate the lunar new year and embark on the Year of the Tiger, it seems an appropriate time to turn attention to China and one of the women who had a large influence on modern Chinese literature.

Bing Xin was born in 1900 and died in 1999. She lived for almost the entire twentieth century, a time when China changed dramatically from a traditional empire to a powerful modern state. During her long, prolific career, Bing Xin wrote poetry, children’s books, and commentary on the life around her. 

Bing Xin as a young woman

Born in Yuhan, China, Bing Xin began writing short stories and poetry as a child and her early work soon attracted attention. After her conversion to Christianity, she read widely and became familiar with many European and American authors. She continued writing as she earned a bachelor’s degree at Yanjing University and then attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts for her master’s degree

The 4th of May movement in 1919 awakened Bing Xin’s  interest in political events. Many young Chinese students and others objected to decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles and became convinced that China must move away from traditional Chinese government and welcome change. Bing Xin’s studies in the United States increased her interest in learning more about the Western world. As a member of the class of 1926 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she served as an informal cultural ambassador, moving easily between the literary worlds of China and the United States.

In 1929, she married Wu Wenzao, an anthropologist who also studied in the United States. The two of them visited countries around the world and met many leading intellectual and cultural leaders. Bing Xin wrote about her travels and published reports of her journeys in China, making many young Chinese students aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. Bing Xin became a national figure and was a prolific writer all during the war with Japan during the 1930s. Her works were very popular, but as a writer for children as well as for the general public, she was not always considered an important intellectual influence.

During the Cultural Revolution, both Bing Xin and her husband were sent to the countryside for re-education, even though both of them were in their 70s at the time. They were allowed to return to the city after one year.

Despite her importance as a writer, Bing Xin’s work is not widely available in English translation. Her poetry was much influenced by modernist poets of Europe and perhaps her most widely available English-language work is A Maze of Stars, a collection of her poetry.    

Why not love,

mankind?

We all are travellers on a far journey,

returning, to the same country.

(Xin, Bing. A Maze of Stars and Spring Water (pp. 15-16). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

Readers who do not understand Chinese have missed learning about the work of Bing Xin and other  important cultural figures. The importance of translations is often underestimated, even by people who love books and reading. Perhaps this year would be a good one to seek out and honor some of the translators who help us to broaden our view of the world. After all, as Bing Xin writes: We are all travellers on a far journey.