DESPITE the chaos of wartime, China in the 1930s and 40s is considered a special time in history.
Many influential figures, including writers and artists, emerged in that period; traditions collided with modern values; concepts of love and marriage were dramatically changing.
Stories of romance between celebrities and intellectuals of that time, long a subject of discussion among China’s academic circles, have inspired new movies.
Following the success of her last film “A Simple Life,” Hong Kong director Ann Hui has now taken her lens to the life and love of writer Xiao Hong (1911-42). The film, titled “The Golden Era,” will hit screens in September.
Xiao, widely regarded as one of the most talented and influential female writers in modern China, lived a short but legendary life.
She is best-known for her novel “The Field of Life of Death,” an account of peasant women’s harsh lives under Japanese rule.
Xiao died at the age of 32, her life marked by poverty and turbulence. Twice she left a partner while pregnant for a new lover.
The film stars Tang Wei, who shot to fame for her role in Ang Lee’s 2007 movie “Lust, Caution,” as Xiao. Much of the movie is based on the letters of the writer and her friends.
Hui says that Xiao is avant-garde and rebellious in many people’s eyes, and her novels are full of power and empathy.
“I didn’t shoot the movie to seek novelty,” Hui told local film buffs at a recent salon hosted by the Xinmin Evening News. “I was touched by Xiao’s never-ending pursuit of love.”
The salon, titled “Where Love Goes,” also brought together well-known local female writer Wang Anyi and Hong Kong critic Ma Ka-fai to discuss what love means to different generations.
Wang, famous for her novel “The Everlasting Regret,” says that the film is a courageous attempt to portray Xiao’s complicated relationships.
“Love, for Xiao, is a strong feeling of warmth and redemption that nourishes her and gives her the strength not to bow to destiny,” she says. “Then Xiao transfers her passion to a higher level of power in her novels. She has a serious, simple and honest writing style and her novels convey a sympathy for the tortured lives of Chinese people at that time.”
Hui and Wang claim that in comparison, love today is less refined — often diluted by commercial forces.
“However, to many intellectuals in the 1930s and 40s, love was a kind of ‘revolution’ and an experimental experience,” Wang adds. “As there were more pressures from society at the time, love was more sincere and cautious then.”
But they agree that the basis of love hasn’t changed — with curiosity, attraction and sexual desire constant through the ages.
Another much-anticipated movie focusing on relationships of the time is Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home,” based on Yan Geling’s novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi.”
Starring Chen Daoming, one of China’s most acclaimed actors, the film tells the story of a man who returns to his wife after a long separation when he is imprisoned.
While in prison, memories of his wife are the man’s only solace, and only then does he realize his true feeling for her. But when he’s released and returns to the woman, he finds that she has forgotten him.
Set against a backdrop of tremendous historical changes, the film deals with the love, emotions and strong family ties of a generation of Chinese intellectuals. It’s slated for release in May.
Retired teacher and movie fan Xu Zhongqing says that as love is an eternal theme, people will never cease in their efforts to explore and understand this special feeling.
“The influence of Western culture and concepts began to work in the 1930s,” Xu says. “Before that love didn’t come easy because young people’s marriages were mostly arranged by their parents.”
Xu recalls meeting his wife in the early 1980s, when finding your own partner was more common but matchmakers still played an important role.
“My wife and I got to know each other through the introduction of our teacher,” he says. “Like most couples of that time, we were poor and lived in an attic that was only eight square meters. We lived a simple life but were happy and fulfilled.”
Relationships at that time were considered more stable. Since Chinese people earned roughly the same at that time, few looked at what others were earning or what property they owned, says Xu.
But nowadays, as people have more choices and alternatives, China’s divorce rate is rising rapidly.
Daisy Wang, a local accountant in her 30s who divorced her husband several months ago, says she has already recovered and moved on.
When she found her husband flirting with another woman on the WeChat instant messaging platform, Wang decided the next day to get a divorce.
“Divorce is not such a fearful thing to women of today,” Wang says. “We are more independent and have more freedom of self-expression. I couldn’t bring myself to live with a man who doesn’t love me anymore.”
Lin Yizhen, a local psychologist and sociologist, claims that love and marriage should be considered separately.
She says that while that love is about feelings, marriage is more a product of rational decisions.
“What has changed is people’s criteria for marriage,” Lin says. “Love itself hasn’t changed.”