82-year-old daughter reveals resilience of women in book based on her mother’s life
Published: Mar 31, 2022 06:55 PM
Yang Benfen (right), 82 years old, writes the stories about her mother and publishes her first-ever book in 2021 to remember her mother when she passed away. The photo show Yang Benfen (right) and her mother. Photo: courtesy of Beijing United Publishing Cooperation

Yang Benfen (right), whi is 82 years old, writes the stories about her mother and publishes her first-ever book Qiuyuan in 2021 to remember her mother when she passed away. The photo show Yang Benfen (right) and her mother. Photo: courtesy of Beijing United Publishing Cooperation

After getting all her ingredients ready in a pot, 82-year-old Yang Benfen normally chooses to sit on a stool to write while waiting for the soup to cook. She spends most of her time writing in the kitchen. Despite being a complete rookie when it comes to writing, she has managed to publish her first novel, Qiuyuan, to commemorate her mother's difficult but resilient life.

After her mother passed away, Yang often thought of her. The idea of turning her mom's life story into a book came to her on a whim almost 20 years ago, leading her to launch a writing career in her late 50s. 

"I thought that if those stories weren't being written down by people like me, all traces of my mother would be completely wiped out from the world sooner or later like a layer of dust on a table blown away by a gust of wind," Yang told the Global Times in the interview.

"What's the meaning of me living in this world and who will see my suffering and my struggles? Bearing these questions in mind, I wrote down her stories and tried to publish them for her."

Composing in the kitchen 

When Yang made up her mind to become a writer, the then 56-year-old was herself a mother of three and a grandmother to a 2-year-old. To take care of her grandchild for her second daughter, Yang moved from Nanchang to Nanjing, where the family of five lived in a small apartment. Except for writing and reading, Yang spends most of her time preparing meals three times a day for the whole family.

Having previously worked as an accountant, a farmer and a clerk at a transportation company, writing was a new endeavor for Yang. Using her short moments of rest time while taking care of a baby and the rest of the family, Yang slowly collected around four kilograms of written pages over the years.

"When I write, I can't stop. Those memories flood into me just like an unstopping running water from the faucet in my kitchen," Yang said.

Staying united

At the beginning of the 20th century in China, a time when old social values were collapsing and new ideologies were forming, young women were also working on building a new social identity for themselves. Some of them were lucky enough to enter universities. Yet for the rest, the unrest and complicated social background at the time also discouraged them from following in the steps of their more fortunate peers, leaving them to struggle and sink under old values and new thoughts.

In the first book of the trilogy from Yang, the main character Qiuyuan, based on her mother Qiufang, grows up among such circumstances. Born to a family of doctors in 1914, Qiuyuan is asked by her family to marry a public official who promises to support her while she goes to university after their marriage.

Yet after years of stability, Qiuyuan struggles with her destiny. She experiences starvation, suffers the loss of her children and two husbands, is bullied and humiliated, and finally dies at the age of 89.

Starting from Yang's mother to her own university-graduated daughters, the progress women have made in Chinese society over the past 100 years can be seen in the three generations of this family.

"When you look at this family, you can feel a strong desire from them as women to learn, to take charge of their own destiny. Over the past 100 years, studying has always been the most direct visible path for people who do not have many social resources," said Tutu, an editor who worked on the book.

In Tutu's eyes, the 100 years they've lived is "a history of women's liberation and freedom in this society."

Besides being a writer, Yang is also an avid reader in her own life. She read The Three Musketeers and Anna Karenina when she was young, and now she spends most of her free time exploring her daughter's small library.

After Qiuyuan was published in late 2021, the book quickly rushed to the No.2 spot on the annual favorite list on Chinese media review platform Douban. The book has earned an 8.9/10 from more than 20,000 users on the platform.

Not long after, Yang published two more books to form a trilogy in memory of her family members and her own marriage. 

"It was a hobby and a habit at first, but now writing has become a lifelong pursuit," said Yang.