How Long Is Forever describes Bai Daxing, an ordinary Beijing woman. From her childhood, she is considered as benevolent by the aged people living in hutongs. This characteristic does not change even after she grows up. She is simple-minded and always gives priority to other people’s interests. Her relatives and her lovers all treat her as a tool to achieve their own goals. They all take advantage of her “benevolence”. Although she is born kind and has a big, generous heart, she is also human, with her own passion and desires. Therefore when she repeatedly helps other people at her own sacrifice and receives no true love in return, she becomes more and more disappointed.
This story, on one hand, recalls the traditional value of benevolence by showing gratitude to Daxing’s kind nature; on the other hand, it shows a deep sympathy for her not being able to protect herself against those who wish to exploit her. The author expresses her strong resentment against the selfishness of the people surrounding Dasheng. The story not only examines Daxing’s life from the perspective of morality and self-interest, it also probes into her inner desire and longing to become a charming woman. Another character in this story is the “bad girl” Xidan Xiaoliu. She is beautiful and sexy. She always tries to fight against social norms, which makes her, at the first glance, the total opposite of Bai Daxing. However, in reality, she is exactly the model that Daxing aspires to become.
How Long Is Forever creates several colorful characters and it covers a variety of themes such as female morality, desire, and rights. What underlies the image and story of Bai Daxing is the author’s profound reflection on Beijing’s local culture.
Tie Ning, originally from Hebei province, was born in Beijing in 1957. She was sent to a rural village named Boye in Hebei province after her graduation from Baoding High School in 1975. She returned to Baoding in 1979 and became a novel editor for Huashan (literally “Bloom Mountain”), a magazine run by the Baoding branch of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Tie Ning was the chairperson of the Hebei Provincial Writers Association, the vice-chairperson of the China Writers Association, and she became the chairperson of the China Writers Association in 2006.
Tie Ning began to publish works in 1975. Her main works include novels such as Rose Door, The Bathing Women, and Stupid Flower; more than 100 short stories, including Ah, Xiangxue, Twelfth Night, The Red Shirt without Buttons, The Opposite Side, and How Long Is Forever. Her prose and essays total more than 4 million words with more than 50 different collections of stories and prose. A five-volume Collected Works of Tie Ning was published in 1996 and a nine-volume Collected Works of Tie Ning was published in 2007 by People’s Literature Publisher.
Ah, Xiangxue and The Topic of June respectively won the National Excellent Short Stories Award in 1982 and 1984. The Red Shirt without Buttons won the National Excellent Novella Award (1983-1984). Adapted from this novella, the movie The Girl in Red won the Golden Rooster Award and the Hundred Flowers Award in 1985. Her novella, Haystacks, received an award for 1986-87 Selected Novellas. Her prose collection Women’s White Night won the National Outstanding Prose Award at the 1st Lu Xun Literature Prize (1995-1996). Her novella How Long Is Forever won the National Excellent Novella Award at the 2nd Lu Xun Literature Prize (1997-2000) and the first Lao She Literature Prize. Her essays collection Distant Perfect won the 2nd Bingxin Prose Award in 2005.
Bai Daxing is my cousin. She grew up in hutongs in the capital city. Compared with most other girls, she is pure, sometimes simple-minded, but adorable, and peaceful with other people. In the early 1970s when she was only seven or eight years old, she was considered benevolent by aged people living in the hutongs. It was always she who was taking care of her grandma, and although her grandma was actually partial to her younger brother Bai Daming, she never complained. When she was 10 years old, Bai Daxing fell in love with an actor of the Song and Dance Troupe, Mr. Zhao, who was sick and was being taken care of by her neighbor at the time. However, she was always nervous and cowardly when she was in front of Mr. Zhao. She did not dare to do what many other girls did with him—play the roles of Xi’er and Dachun.
Unfortunately, Zhao Da’an failed to notice her existence because he was fascinated with the bad girl of the hutong—Xidan Xiaoliu, who was completely different from Daxing. Xiaoliu was pretty, sexy, casual with sex, and enjoyed hanging out with men. All men living in this hutong were crazy about her beauty. They even fought for her. Deep in her heart, Daxing Bai actually aspired to grow to be a charming woman like Xidan Xiaoliu.
Bai Daxing remained simple-minded as an adult. She was pure, innocent, and sincere. In her fourth year of university, she began a serious romance. Her grandma had just passed away and her parents moved in with her younger brother Bai Daming to a new, allocated apartment with two bedrooms. So, the house with two rooms on the Fuma hutong was then left to Daxing. Her boyfriend, Guo Hong, was her classmate. He was handsome in countenance but cunning and crafty. He pursued Bai Daxing because he needed a stable relationship with her so that he could acquire the qualification to stay in Beijing after graduation. Daxing’s greatest joy was to take care of Guo Hong. When his family members came to Beijing, she accompanied them throughout their whole journey, taking care of their accommodation, meals, and shopping bills. However, when graduation was approaching, Guo Hong met an international student from Japan. He wanted to go to Japan with that Japanese student, so he left Daxing.
Daxing was assigned to the Karen Hotel after graduation. Soon enough, her second love began. His name was Guan Pengyu and he worked in the housekeeping department of the Karen Hotel. He was the sort of man born to enjoy family life. However, the appearance of Xiaofen, Bai’s cousin, changed everything. She dwelled in Daxing’s house, lived off her, and took advantage of her. Daxing was generous to all that. However, in the end, she stole away Guan Pengyu and finally became his bride.
In her most miserable days, Xia Xin walked into her life. Without any stable job, he could barely even maintain himself. He lived in her house, ate her food, and used her money. When he noticed her affection, he started picking at her over everything! Poor Daxing still did not wake up. She said, “I can, I can get rid of my bad habits.” However, in the end, Xia Xin still left her.
The Fuma hutong then underwent demolition. The market value of her old house of two rooms was then worth at least an apartment with 3 bedrooms. Her younger brother and his wife wanted to exchange their apartment with her house. Daxing reproached her brother, but soon felt sorry. She paid them a visit in person and proposed to exchange her house with them.
Guo Hong came back to Beijing after his failed marriage. He had nowhere to live. So he took his two-year-old daughter and came to look for Daxing. Guo Hong said, “I want to marry you. You cannot refuse me, and I know that you won’t refuse me.” Following his words he knelt down in front of her, with a pleading yet somehow threatening look on his face. Daxing knew that he did not love her and simply wanted to take advantage of her kindness. However, the little handkerchief dropped by Guo’s daughter touched the softest part of her heart. Daxing decided to marry Guo Hong no matter how hard I tried to dissuade her.
Daxing is such a benevolent woman, stupidly and hopelessly benevolent. It is because of this benevolence that I will forever hate and love her. For the sake of this love and hatred, I would forever be an audience of Beijing, even if all hutongs may be demolished away one day.
Ah, how long is forever?