As soon as it was published in the literary magazine Yanbian wenyi in 1983, Lin Yuanchun’s “Ragged Skirt” created a sensation within the Chaoxianzu community of ethnic Koreans in China. It also became the first and, to this day, sole recipient of a national prize for literary achievement when it was awarded the National Outstanding Short Story Award the following year. The story was later translated into English, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and French, adapted for television and aired on the state network CCTV; it continues to be taught in Chaoxianzu high schools.
One reason a single short story has led to such unparalleled success was its strong sense of ethnic identity and regionalism. Described by Vice President Feng Mu of the China Writers’ Association in 1984 as “a beautiful painting of Chaoxianzu folklore,” Lin’s story is set against the background of a Chaoxianzu community in the late 20th century, where a wedding and 60th birthday celebration take place, offering a comprehensive look into the traditions and customs of the ethnic Koreans in China. Drawn into that painting are subtle changes of attitude within the family that reveal the cruel reality of shifting dynamics within a group of people caused by changes in their financial and social status, resulting in a stark portrait of human nature and the ways of the world. In the 1980s when most writers were still focused on discourses about society and the times, “Ragged Skirt” gained attention as the first novel of manners on the daily lives of ordinary Chaoxianzu since the beginning of the economic reforms that began in 1978.
Another reason for the success of the story was the positive personality of the main character, Lady from Tongfosi, a hard-working Chaoxianzu woman from the countryside with a kind heart and good manners. Even though she is the wife of the first son’s first son, Tongfosi is not given the appropriate respect because they are poor, and while her in-laws demand she work at various family events, she is always forgotten when it is time to feast on the food and drinks for which she helped prepare. At a wedding or birthday celebration of an in-law, she always wore a ragged black skirt that barely covered her knees, and would never leave the cooking hearth, taking care of the most physically and mentally demanding tasks. Later when the husband of the narrator “I,” and deputy manager at the local industry department, is accused of being a Korean nationalist and exiled from their rural home, only Tongfosi continues to show them kindness, bringing over food and clothes, while the other relatives turn a blind eye. Whether she is poor or rich, whether others flourish or are in decline, none of that matters to Tongfosi.
Many readers were moved by how Tongfosi treated everyone equally with goodwill, refusing to discriminate against those inferior to her in social status or financial means, and never giving up throughout a difficult life full of obstacles and adversities. She is the embodiment of the traditional virtues of Chaoxianzu women, being gentle in appearance but strong in spirit.