Books covered in this dual review:
• Brothers, Yu Hua (Eileen Chen-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas, trans.). Pantheon Press. 656pp, $29.95.
• English, Wang Gang (Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, trans.). Viking. 320pp, $24.95.
(continued from page 1)
Like Brothers, Wang Gang’s novel, English, also tells the story of a child growing up during the Cultural Revolution, but Wang Gang is less concerned with the effects of this period on society. Instead, English explores the personal journey that individuals must make in order to survive during periods of hyper-political madness when conformity is the only refuge against violence and persecution.
The novel is set in China’s far west, in Xinjiang Province, a land that has long been rocked with ethnic division and an often semi-public, if violently suppressed, independence movement. The protagonist, Love Liu, is a Han Chinese whose parents (both from Shanghai) work as architects in this distant and dry desert land thousands of miles from the center of Chinese civilisation. Xinjiang’s far-off location is key to a certain form of individualism that it manifests, and Xinjiang comes to be both a harbinger of the limitations of individualism and of the path by which an individual finds freedom. Xingjiang is not a pleasant place for Love Liu or his parents. It is a place of exile and last hope.
Despite Xinjiang’s distance from the Chinese center, it’s made perfect clear, nevertheless, that Mao’s grip on power is strong there. Love Liu’s father is painting a public portrait of Chairman Mao, one in the style of the famous portrait that hangs on the outer wall of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square. When a local cadre sees the portrait, he slaps Love Liu’s father for neglecting to paint both of Mao’s ears. The perspective, though, should not allow for both ears since Mao’s face is turned. The problem is that Love Liu has slightly rotated Mao from his Tiananmen portrait (which shows both of Mao’s ears), so the slap is meant to entrench conformity: even Xinjiang must submit to the will of the distant political forces.
It’s impossible to write about the Cultural Revolution without considering class: the chaos was often the result of turning class expectations and limitations completely upside down by force. Teachers were tools of the capitalist educational system, but nor were other professionals immune: engineers, doctors, landlords, artists, writers, even political cadres. Everyone but the worker and the peasant needed “reform,” and reform would allow a more just state without the shackles of feudalism, class oppression, and injustice.
Though the chaos is largely attributed to an attempt by Mao and his cronies to distract the Chinese people from economic problems in the early 1960s by creating a cult of personality, it soon descended into a madness that no one, not even Mao, could control. Ideological fervor was the only route to salvation, and those with education, foreign connections, or “suspect” class backgrounds especially needed to eschew their pasts and convince their neighbors, colleagues, and friends that they were now ideologically aligned with the new realities.
Into this environment, Love Liu’s English teacher, Second Prize Wang, arrives from Shanghai. Love Liu is entranced by his new teacher’s gentlemanly ways and almost feminine devotion to hygiene, language, and culture. Second Prize Wang wears cold cream and cologne, carries around a phonograph and an enormous English dictionary. Almost immediately his morals are suspect. He begins his teaching career at the local junior high school, oblivious to the class upheaval all around him. He considers himself a “gentleman,” tells Love Liu that he, too, is a gentleman since his father is one—this despite the fact that Love Liu’s parents try desperately to bury their upper class background at a time when being anything but a peasant or worker could be disastrous.
“What does a gentleman look like,” I asked?
He thought for a moment and then said, “Like your father.”
His answer disappointed me. Like my father? What kind of man is my father?
I thought of the glasses he wore and the frightened expression that was always on his face. Still, I had to ask: “Do you know my father?”
I lost interest in Second Prize Wang’s description of my father. And for a long time after that, I did not have positive associations with the word gentleman.
If my father could be considered a gentleman, what was the point of being one?
To the teacher Second Prize Wang, class helps distinguish good from evil. Class brings prosperity. Being a gentleman is equated with moral behavior. Though the teacher sees Love’s parents as sophisticated and worldly, Love Liu knows the reality: he sees his parents’ violent and unkind relationship to each other and their negative view of their neighbors, who come from more humble class backgrounds. But though terrible snobs in private, Love’s parents are obsequious and pliable in public since they know their urban, upper class backgrounds are dangerous in this environment.
If the characters in English can be said to determine their fate, then love—most specifically, failed love—is where that individuality finds its expression. The tale abounds in secret crushes, love affairs, adultery, obsession, and broken hearts. Love becomes subversive, a personal route through the complexities of a conformist society. It also becomes more than this, as Teacher Wang informs us after asking Love Liu the origin of his name:
“Do you know what ‘love’ means?”
“It means when boys and girls. . . . No, I don’t know.”
“No, not any of that. It means compassion.”
“What is ‘compassion’?”
“It’s . . . it’s . . . how should I put it . . . ? It means you can feel pain when you see others suffer.”
Not only is love the only route to self-definition, it’s the only way a society can be saved: through compassion. Forget revolutionary ideals, forget correct or incorrect class backgrounds. Despite his snobbery and foppery, teacher Second Prize Wang’s most important lesson is this: if we truly loved, we wouldn’t want to see people suffer, and class suffering would be put to an end. It’s a lesson that Love Liu himself (and the rest of the society) has yet to learn. It is, perhaps, far too naive a belief to survive. Later, when Love Liu reads his parents’ early diaries from the time when they met and fell in love, he is sickened by their self-absorption and lack of real emotions:
The two of them, a sensitive man and a sensitive woman, were not mindful of each other’s feelings. All they thought about was themselves. This was probably the reason they were later deemed to be in need of thought reform.
Here we see the effects of the ideological message being absorbed by the young Love Liu’s impressionable mind. His parents’ selfishness is not an individual selfishness; it is a class problem, or more precisely, the result of an incorrect class background. As the forces of the Cultural Revolution close in, Love Liu’s confusion at the contradictory messages causes him to turn on his parents. Though he tries to imagine and understand their suffering, reading through their diaries only makes him sure of their own shallowness. Teacher Wang’s “lessons” about love are multi-dimensional, and although he equates love with compassion, in this world love also acts as impetus for betrayal, persecution, and death.
It is through learning English that Love finds his youthful calling: from his teacher he learns about Yeats and Western pop music. But in the Cultural Revolution such lessons are dangerous, and everyone seems to understand, except Second Prize Wang. In a later scene, Love Liu reflects on his interest in learning English:
Why did I want to learn English when so few of my classmates had an interest in it? I had been hungry for power ever since I was a child. . . . Was it because I was born with a love for the language? What kind of power did English possess to captivate a kid at that age, when everything was so confusing?
The confusion is believable, and the fact that Cultural Revolution only operates on the margins of the book and from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy means that Love Liu does not need to come to a personal ideology. We never learn what this childhood “means”; for both Love and for China as a whole the meaning is elusive. Wang Gang captures the confusion and contradiction that necessitate growing up in this kind of environment:
Do heroes make history, or do slaves? You may answer heroes, but I insist it is slaves—from Director Fan to the principal, and Second Prize Wang and me and Sunrise Huang and my parents . . . not a single one was a hero. We were all slaves.
Even Mao himself can’t change the world without an army of slaves willing to do his bidding. And nothing illustrates this fact more than the chaos that started and ended the Cultural Revolution.
English does what Brothers should do: it shows the effects of the Cultural Revolution, not in the broadest brush strokes possible but by demonstrating how individuals are affected and how they individually overcome (or don’t overcome) the chaos. Less consciously instructive than Brothers, English is a fascinating and loving portrait of a painful childhood full of fond memories. It succeeds in revealing our own lives in those of its characters, making us wonder about how we might survive in such a situation. This tender, if sometimes bitter portrayal of an adolescence in exceptional circumstances allows us to glimpse the humanity we all have in common. For that reason, the book does what good literature should always do.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer and translator based in Montreal. His writing on and translations of Chinese poetry and short stories have appeared in various publications.
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