BEIJING -- Clenching her teeth over cups of tea, journalist Zhang Jieying recounts a few of the sad -- and sometimes sordid -- tales she's recorded over the past year from China's brokenhearted.
They include the story of the 27-year-old office clerk whose boyfriend's wife caught them in bed. There is the young tour guide who resolves to marry a foreigner because she believes no Chinese man would want her, now that she's had two abortions. And there's the lonely wife who explains her growing reliance on sleeping pills and liquor after her husband has left her.
Since she began writing a weekly column in Beijing Youth Daily last year, the 29-year-old reporter has broken ground in this reserved culture by exposing the private lives of Chinese people.
Wearing the latest fashions and sporting a pink cell phone, Zhang is a woman for these rapidly changing times in China: an entrepreneurial storyteller with a sympathetic ear. Part Shere Hite, part Studs Terkel, she has compiled an oral history of promiscuity, failed relationships and infidelity in a nation where public discussion of such subjects has long been taboo.
And readers are fascinated. When "Absolute Privacy," a collection of her columns, arrived in May, it became a best seller.
"This book is a pop culture phenomenon," acknowledges Liu Bohong, a researcher at the All China Women's Federation. "This is the first time anyone has written vivid, first-person accounts of what happens inside romantic relationships."
Critics -- Liu has her reservations, too -- see Zhang's work as shallow and sensational. "To expose one's privacy and enjoy doing it is a kind of exhibitionism," Chao Fengqin, an editor with the state-run New China News Agency, said in a recent newspaper article.
Like it or not, with nearly 400,000 original and pirated copies sold, "Absolute Privacy" has pushed the envelope of China's culture.
As the government has loosened economic and social controls over the past two decades, Chinese have enjoyed greater freedom in areas ranging from travel and work to housing and love. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, young Chinese wore boxy, unisex suits favored by Mao Tse-tung. Local committees paired husbands and wives based on their revolutionary credentials.
Today, many young, urban women prefer a different sort of uniform: a black miniskirt, platform shoes and a tight T-shirt. Inside Western-style bars, they search for men based not upon ideology, but on personality, looks and bank accounts.
"The society has come to a period when we have enough to eat and enough to wear, and now we've begun to think about the enjoyment of life," says Li Yinhe, a professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
And that translates into more sex, before and outside of marriage.
Data on sex in China is sketchy, but the trend is clear. A rural survey this year found nearly 23 percent of respondents had had pre-marital sex. In 1996, nearly 70 percent of couples visiting a Shanghai clinic for prenuptial health checks acknowledged being sexually active.
Although relatively low by U.S. standards, China's divorce rate has more than tripled since 1981, rising from 3.7 percent to 12 percent in 1996. That year, Beijing courts said that one-third of divorce cases centered on extra-marital affairs.
Struggling to sort out the changes in their own lives and curious about others', some Chinese have turned to Zhang's columns. Many of her subjects, such as promiscuity and abortion, would seem relatively tame to an American audience familiar with the Jerry Springer television show. In staid China, though, "Absolute Privacy" is racy.
One of the book's more sensational chapters involves a clash between modern sexual behavior and the traditional values of virginity. Despite the rise in premarital sex, many Chinese males still expect inexperienced fiancees.
When the son of a senior Communist Party leader learns that his intended has had a previous partner, he is devastated, according to Zhang's account of his story.
In a bizarre piece of psychological theater, he slices open his hand and drips blood on the spot where the couple has had sex to persuade himself that he is in fact her first lover.
Later, after they have broken up, he considers spending $25,000 -- a staggering sum by Chinese standards -- to have her hymen surgically repaired so as to spare a later suitor similar pain.
Amid the tales of loss and loneliness, some readers see themselves.
Zhang Jing, a 31-year-old clerk for a Chinese underwear company and no relation to the author, recently lost her live-in boyfriend to another woman and attempted suicide. She found hope, though, in an "Absolute Privacy" story about a pregnant wife whose husband abandons her for someone else.
Distraught, the wife eventually overcomes her grief and raises their son alone.
"She turned this suffering into strength," says Zhang Jing. "I appreciate her a lot, because she is strong enough to live alone without depending on men."
Other readers, such as Li Lan, a 30-year-old travel agency manager, find the tales in "Absolute Privacy" repetitive and short on analysis. "This book has grabbed the attention of faddish urbanites," Li complains. "It does not dig out the deeper meanings in relationships."
The daughter of Beijing accountants, Zhang began recording Chinese private lives in earnest several years ago during chats with female friends about their troubled relationships with men.
Zhang writes under the pen name An Dun, which in Chinese means "to calm someone down." She says she sees herself as providing a voice for society's weaker members, who struggle with problems they are often too embarrassed to discuss.
"I function as a bridge to turn their personal suffering into public statements," Zhang says of her interviewees, most of whom are chuppies (Chinese urban professionals). "They should not shoulder these burdens by themselves. They should be accepted by society."
Dressed in a black silk and velvet dress with her hair tied back in a black lace bow, Zhang resembles many of the young professional women who make up the majority of her audience.
With a college degree in accounting, a husband of four years and a car, she is firmly ensconced in China's emerging middle class, which includes entrepreneurs, lawyers, university professors and those employed by foreign firms.
"Absolute Privacy" has provided a small measure of fame, inspiring newspaper profiles and the occasional autograph seeker, but earned her little money. She says she has made less than $2,500 from the book.
Because she writes so often about unhappy wives and girlfriends -- male readers complain the stories are one-sided in a "Thelma and Louise" sort of way -- people wonder about the state of her own marriage. Zhang says she has a good relationship with her husband, who is employed with a telecommunications company and supports her work.
She can relate, though, to the feelings of loneliness and isolation that consume some of her interview subjects, all of whom remain anonymous.
Divorce carries a powerful stigma in China. When Zhang decided to marry her husband, who had a child from a previous marriage, many did not understand why.
People asked if she had physical or mental problems, she recalls. "When I say I'm healthy, they ask if I marry him for money, but actually he is not a rich man. Nobody believes me."
At Beijing Youth Daily, she began writing about high-tech issues and later used her network of friends to develop the column on private lives. "Recorded Words," as her column is known, became so popular that letters and phone calls soon began pouring in.
Not all tales fill her with empathy, though. When the conversation turns to a recent reporting trip in northeastern China, she glances around a crowded cafe and lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
With her hand at her mouth, she smiles and laughs as she tells of a kept woman with four illegitimate children and adulterous couples who stroll along the beach with the knowledge of their spouses.
Zhang is by no means the first person to write about sex in China. Sociologists and novelists have tackled the subject for years and such books as "Our Bodies, Ourselves" are available in stores. What distinguishes her work is the narrative style and realism.
However, the government tolerates only so much realism. Zhang says she has reported a number of stories that the censors at her state-owned newspaper would not allow.
What publishers in China can get away with today isn't entirely clear, and enforcement remains uneven.
This month, the Office Against Pornography and Illicit Publications began confiscating copies of the Starr report -- a huge seller in Beijing -- in a move that was also probably driven by diplomatic considerations. However, at an airport in northeastern China last week, the Starr report remained on display next to glossy magazines filled with photos of nude Chinese women -- which are also supposed to be forbidden.
Zhang says she eventually plans to leave Beijing Youth Daily and devote herself to writing books. Her editors have encouraged her to examine new subjects. Her next book will focus on another area of Chinese culture traditionally off limits -- family relations.
The tentative title: "Absolute Distance."
Pub Date: 11/01/98