Books covered in this dual review:
• Brothers, Yu Hua (Eileen Chen-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas, trans.). Pantheon. 656pp, $29.95.
• English, Wang Gang (Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, trans.). Viking Adult. 320pp, $24.95.
It’s a common belief in modern China that the Cultural Revolution ruined society forever. Many argue that before this tumultuous period (which lasted from 1966 until the death of Mao in 1976) Chinese were more civic-minded, put more faith in society, and were kinder. Whether or not this is actually true is irrelevant: it is far too pervasive to be dismissed.
No doubt, the period was hugely important to the Chinese national psyche. So prominent has the Cultural Revolution been to the way Chinese view their recent past that an entire group of Chinese is called “the lost generation,” so-named since they grew up without education in a chaotic world where values and social responsibility were turned upside down. They are often looked at suspiciously but sympathetically, this despite the fact that many of China’s wealthy elite are members of this “lost generation.” It’s not wholly counter-intuitive: their lack of formal education and exposure to horrific tragedies helped them step out of the stringent rules and expectations, leaving them with them a certain level of personal freedom once the period was over and Mao was dead.
The question of how writers reflect on a traumatic episode from their country’s history is central to understanding how writers are responsible for remembering the past, and how, more specifically, they can debunk widely held beliefs about it. Thus it’s no surprise that in the last generation the trauma that has enchanted many Chinese writers is the Cultural Revolution.
Writing about this period is not new, despite many Western critics who look at books like Yu Hua’s Brothers and find something novel in its subject matter. People have been writing about this bitter and painful chapter of modern Chinese history for a generation. In earlier novels Yu Hua himself has focused on this period, to varying degrees of success. His most famous book, To Live (made into a movie by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou in 1994), chronicles the history of a family as the forces of the twentieth century change their fortunes, mirroring China’s own fortunes. The highly naturalistic Chronicle of a Blood Merchant tells the story of a family’s struggle on the brink of starvation.
Though these works operate on a slightly less allegorical plane, Yu Hua has never excelled at creating three-dimensional characters. Rather, his aim has always been to tell China’s story.
In the case of Brothers, many critics have glossed over the novel’s opening section, which begins right before the Cultural Revolution and focuses on the agony of that period as seen through the eyes of two young boys. In fact, the entire arc of the story is defined through this first section. Starting just before the Cultural Revolution demonstrates the power that the Revolution itself had in shaping the modern Chinese citizen and the dichotomies that divide China to this day. Yu Hua shows how the years of state-sponsored violence (forced suicides, public floggings, denunciations) during the ten years of political wrangling was unique to rural China, even if violence itself was not. In one complex metaphor, Yu Hua alludes to this “original” violence when a prominent character, in the clutches of a traveling charlatan, travels the Chinese countryside trying to sell artificial hymens to restore the virginity of the nation’s women. Virginity itself becomes an illusion, and only capitalism can “restore” it, leading the nation out of its feudal past into a new kind of sexual liberation.
The first third of Brothers deals almost exclusively with the experience of Baldy Li and his step-brother Song Gang as they grow up in the midst of cultural mayhem and ideological fervor in a small town near Shanghai. Baldy Li, son of a peasant woman, is portrayed as a young man who is destined to overcome his humble beginnings and disadvantaged place. He is creative but has few moral scruples, and he resembles many of those in today’s lost generation who have moved from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to make millions of dollars in business, corrupt or not. Bald’y step-brother, Song Gang is the son of a landlord, and he represents the moral core of Chinese society long ago relegated to history: his virtue is a foil against Baldy’s crass selfishness, his humility held up against Baldy’s egotism, his honesty against Baldy’s exaggeration and lies.
Brothers is not a tale of two individuals struggling to overcome. Rather, it is China’s story, and the experience of Baldy and Song Gang can be seen as the germination of the “modern” and the “old” ideologies that currently duel to establish credibility in modern China. Like the common story of a new star rising while the older one falls, the novel traces the beginning of “new China” by exploring how Baldy Li becomes wealthy, influential, and corrupt. He sponsors a national beauty contest for virgins (who aren’t actually virgins) complete with all the familiar modern trappings of capitalist success: multimillion dollar sponsorship, blatant bribery, sexualized and exploitative advertising campaigns, and sexual favors in exchange for successes.
At the same time as New China burgeons and then takes over, Song Gang is crushed and forgotten. Baldy Li still cares about his brother as he struggles to survive in a changing society, but despite all his good qualities Song Gang’s archaic morality and kind-hearted nature quickly become irrelevant and forgotten. His fate is sealed and he is reduced to a feminized puppet (almost literally) as he tries and fails to make sense of a New China that in the end destroys him.
Author Yu Hua has said that the brothers represent extremes from his childhood, and while this might be true, extremes (brothers, no less) become dangerous symbols in literary worlds. Whereas tales of obscure individuality flourish in American literature, China’s writers often find the need to make their characters representative of certain national ideologies. Maybe this is a holdover from years of Communist rule; regardless, China’s tendency toward open-faced allegory in its art and literature is quite well established. Reflecting that, the characters in Brothers are noteworthy for being far more ideological than realistic. This approach is both appealing and dangerous, since any story can be seen as allegorical if one takes the metaphors too far.
The edges of the Cultural Revolution show themselves in a happy-go-lucky series of scenes when the town seems to come together, when Li Lan (Baldy’s mother) and Song Fangping (Song Gang’s father) meet and fall in love. Here, the melding of China’s feudal pasts seems like a possible dream that can be overcome: Song Fangping, the tall, powerful, and warmhearted, embracing the luckless peasant daughter of rural China, Li Lan, who has a painful history and is followed by shame everywhere she goes. For a few pages it seems that these contradictory lessons of China’s past can be forgotten, that history doesn’t have to follow a predicted trajectory—that there can be a happy ending.
We of course know better, and happy endings rarely make up the fodder of 650-page novels. In the grip of the Cultural Revolution, when the town turns on Song Fangping, we can guess at the tragedy that will befall the new family, as well as the tragedy that will befall all of China. The book’s violence is almost picaresque in its episodic and humorous repetition, but this is mostly certainly a violent book. In fact, the naïve, fairy tale–like melding of the tone with the naturalistic and detached approach to violent rural life makes the story hard to categorize. Is the portrayal of violence supposed to be ironic? It is hard to find one’s bearings in a novel with this kind of tone.
Was this Song Fanping? His face was smeared with blood and dirt, so they couldn’t really tell. They felt that it looked a little bit like Song Fanping, but they couldn’t be sure. Was it him? They got up from the ground and decided they should ask someone.
First they walked to the spot where two men were smoking. They pointed at Song Fanping, asking, “Is that our father?”
The two men smoking under the tree froze, then shook their heads, “Don’t you know your own father?”
The children walked up the station steps to Popsicle Wang. Wiping away his tears, Song Gang asked him, “Is that our father on the ground over there?”
Popsicle Wang slapped the wood block against his icebox, staring, “Scram!”
Baldy Li complained, “But we’re not drooling anymore” [for your ice cream].
Popsicle Wang replied, “Scram anyway!”
If Song Gang comes to represent a China long ago pushed aside by the chaos of capitalism, then Brothers holds out little optimism. Although Baldy, despite his crass immorality, is essentially good-hearted, he certainly does not have anything but his own interests at heart. Perhaps this is the author’s point: the effects of the Cultural Revolution are too deeply a part of the modern-day Chinese psyche to be reversed. As “old China” fades from view, Brothers reminds us nostalgically of a time when the crass money grubbers didn’t hold all the political power, when moral questions were an important compulsion and not just abstract fumes and plumes. Yu Hua also shows us modern China as ruined, debauched, corrupt, obsequious, yet full of humor.
Social satire can be dangerous. There is a temptation to overplay it, and this, perhaps, is why Brothers fails: it’s exceedingly difficult to read it as anything but an allegory—the characters are too pat, too iconic, too unable to confound expectation. Although authors should not be penalized for creating characters that broadly represent a point of view or a political ideology, there should be more to them: they should challenge, they should remind us people we know, of ourselves. Characters fall apart when they are only ideologies, loose and ill-defined as the ideologies may be.
Whether or not the Cultural Revolution ruined Chinese society, Brothers does nothing to either undermine or entrench this notion. This is not due to any idealizing of this period—the experience that the brothers survive is very much a wound that will always leave a scar. But all of the novel’s action, even in modern-day China, has its source in the pain that China experienced and can’t forget during those terrible 10 years. As China changes, its history also changes, and myths adapt to reflect the reality of modern life.
Like Brothers, Wang Gang’s novel, English, also tells the story of a child growing up during the Cultural Revolution . . . (continues on page 2)
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