Chen Rong created the character of Lu Wenting representative of the intellectuals in their middle age. In her letter to the readers, she wrote: “like their predecessors, they are a great generation in that they contribute so much more than they ever receive. They and their families live a hard life and make so many sacrifices, which, unfortunately, goes largely unappreciated by society.” Lu Wenting, like a saint, dedicates her life to work and family and finally falls seriously sick under the combined burden. By describing her hard life, the author raises awareness of the following twin issues: first, how the middle-aged intellectuals, arguably the pillars of the society, should receive a fairer treatment, and second, why contemporary Chinese female intellectuals are on the verge of physical collapse under the combined burden of work and family.
At Middle Age also features unique narrative structure: it combines traditional plot-driven structure and stream-of-consciousness techniques, thereby breaking through the time-space constraints of traditional structures and delving deeper into the psychology of the characters.
Chen Rong, originally named Chen Derong, was born in Hankou (now part of Wuhan) in Hubei province. She had experienced a turbulent childhood during the war against Japanese aggression. Her education was interrupted in 1951, then she studied Russian and other high school courses by herself. In 1954, she was admitted to the Russian Academy of Beijing (now Beijing Foreign Studies University). Upon graduation, she began to work for China National Radio as music editor and Russian translator. In 1973, she began to teach Russian at Beijing No. 5 Middle School. Subsequently, she was hired as a full-time author at the China Writers Association.
She started her writing career as early as 1964 and began publishing her works in 1975. At Middle Age, her masterpiece, won the 1st National Outstanding Novella Award. The Secret of the Taizi Village won the 2nd National Outstanding Novella Award. Her other works include novels such as Evergreen, Light and Darkness and At Middle Age; novellas such as The Eternal Spring, Flowers Bloom and Fade and The Seventh Color; collections such as The Paean, Collection of Novellas by Chen Rong, Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!, and Collected Works of Chen Rong, etc. Aside from fiction, she is also an essayist. Her works have been translated into English, Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish.
In 1982, At Middle Age, a feature film adapted from the novella, released on the Chinese mainland to wide acclaim, winning the 1982 PRC Ministry of Culture’s Outstanding Film Award, the 3rd Golden Rooster Award and the 6th Hundred Flowers Award for the best feature film category.
The story opens with the scene where Dr. Lu Wenting, an ophthalmologist now in her middle age, is confined to bed following an attack of myocardial infarction. She alternates between coma and consciousness, fuzzy scenes flashing back.
In 1960s, Lu Wenting, a fresh graduate from medical college, is assigned to work in an ophthalmic hospital as a resident. The hospital stipulates that all residents must devote their time and attention during the residency to the hospital and shall not be permitted to marry. This is perfectly fine with Lu Wenting, as she is completely absorbed in work. Against all expectations, Lu Wenting is the first amongst her class to marry upon expiration of the residency. Her betrothed is Fu Jiajie, a poetry-loving metallurgy engineer who happens to be her patient.
Eighteen years ago, Dr. Sun Yimin, director of the Ophthalmology Department at the hospital, begins to choose the top performers amongst the graduates of the medical college for residency. Along with her classmate Jiang Yafen, modest, perceptive and insightful Lu Wenting gains the approval of Dr. Sun. In their first year, they perform extraocular surgery. In their second year, they perform intraocular surgery. In their third year, they are already capable of performing the rather challenging cataract surgery. Dr. Sun, highly appreciative of her diligence and professionalism, predicts that, “she will make a brilliant ophthalmologist.” Eighteen years later, however, although Lu Wenting and Jiang Yafen become the backbone of the Ophthalmology Department, they are not yet attending doctors. The Cultural Revolution has blocked their way for professional advancement.
Lu Wenting is now in her forties. One day, Mr. Zhao, president of the hospital, asks her to come to his office, where he introduces her to Mr. Jiao, a vice minister in the government, in need of cataract surgery, and Mrs. Qin Bo, his wife. Qin Bo, unconfident in Lu Wenting’s competence, asks her many questions. From the very start, Qin Bo does not like the idea of Lu Wenting performing the surgery on her husband. She keeps on making unpleasant comments and finding faults in a tone bordering on insolence. Lu Wenting, for her part, however, keeps calm. All her patients are equal in her eyes. Apart from Mr. Jiao, there are Mr. Zhang, an elderly peasant, and Wang Xiaoman, a young girl, both waiting for her to perform the surgery.
The kindergarten calls to inform her that Jiajia, her daughter, has fallen ill. It is only after attending to the last patient of the day that Lu Wenting hurries to the kindergarten and takes Jiajia to seek emergency treatment. It is already 1 a.m. when they finally return home. Another day, when her son is in a hurry to have his lunch and go to school, she fails to find any food at home or even stoke the fire in the stove. She has no other option but to buy him a piece of flatbread.
Burdened with the increasing combined load of work and housework, Lu alternates between the scalpel and kitchen knife as well as the doctor’s overall and the apron. Her husband, an expert in his field, is also getting busier. Consequently, she has to do more and more of the housework. At home, a small room of 12 square meters, her husband measures out a corner with several pieces of cloth, where she could study in relative peace. She has to give up this corner to the kids, however, when they return home from school. What a difficult life hers is!