The King of Trees by Ah Cheng (trans. Bonnie S. McDougall). New Directions. 208 pp., $14.95.
Whenever I’m in Shanghai, which is about twice a year, I always stop by my favorite independent bookstore. In recent visits I’ve seen a number of books, some of them memoirs and group memoirs, that document the lives of the zhiqing, or “educated youth,” the high school students who were sent down to the countryside in the wake of the violent and fractious first years of the Cultural Revolution. Ostensibly on a mission to “learn from” the poor peasants by performing agricultural labor, the zhiqing—many of them former Red Guards—were shipped away from their urban homes largely to help diffuse political tensions that had all but tilted China into civil war. These accounts, many of them lavishly illustrated with period photos of zhiqing, have an air of nostalgia. The faces gaze out from these pictures with youthful enthusiasm—they are on a great adventure, or so it must have seemed at first. Many zhiqing, now entering their mid to late 50s or early 60s, are looking back on this period, which may seem to have become burnished with age. I am not sure what occasioned this year’s reprinting of Bonnie S. McDougall’s 1990 translations of three of Ah Cheng’s early stories under the title The King of Trees, but their republication by New Directions coincides with this reflective trend in China.
The stories collected in The King of Trees are all concerned with the zhiqing who have been sent down to a remote corner of Yunnan province. Ah Cheng himself spent much of the Cultural Revolution doing farm work in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and this border area is clearly the inspiration and basis for the setting of these three tales. All of the stories were written in the mid-1980s, when memories of the Cultural Revolution were still very fresh. Reading these stories a quarter-century later, I was struck by their subtlety and attention to detail—Ah Cheng captures the rudimentary living conditions experienced by the students and their peasant hosts, while also pointing to the cultural gap between urban youth and their rural countrymen. Without being didactic, Ah Cheng highlights the naivety and cultural insensitivity of his urban protagonists. His sympathy for and admiration of the peasants is only superficially in alignment with the Socialist Realism that dominated Chinese fiction in the Mao years. Delivered without sentimentality, these sympathetic portrayals are interwoven with a common-sense critique of the policies and political culture of Mao’s China—and the Cultural Revolution in particular. By the mid-80s, it was officially acceptable for writers to criticize the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, but Ah Cheng does so in a way that manages to be both humorous and non-polemical.
The most overtly political story in the collection is the title piece, “The King of Trees,” which opens the collection. It introduces the reader to the lush environment of southern Yunnan, where the zhiqing have been sent to clear the jungle (by cutting and burning) in order to replace the “useless” trees of the primeval forest with “useful” trees. The arrogance and abstractness of this enterprise is underlined by the fact that nowhere are we given a hint as to what those “useful” trees might be. (The author, Ah Cheng, was part of a team that cleared the jungle to plant rubber trees, something that seems to have been a fool’s errand.)
“The King of Trees” was written decades before international attention was called to the ecological threat posed by the flooding of the Yangzi—and the havoc wrought by that massive engineering project. Delivering a critique of the short-sighted policies that were creating wonton destruction of China’s ecosystems, this story pits central government authority (the will of which is implemented by fervent young people) against the age-old wisdom of the indigenous or uneducated peasantry. The peasant hero of this tale is a somewhat Rousseauian character—noble, in touch with Nature—and he is clearly in the right. Unfortunately, his defense of the mystical and spiritual values found in nature is no match for the zealotry of the zhiqing and the materialistic ideology of the Communist Party. Not all of the zhiqing are ideologues of course, and the narrator’s glimmers of understanding bring the tragedy to light.
The second story in the collection, “The King of Chess,” fills in more of the background of the zhiqing. Drawing on traditional (non-Communist) modes of thought like Daoism, Ah Cheng uses Chinese chess as a metaphor for an approach to life that falls outside the boundaries of political ideology and that somehow manages to coexist, sometimes under official cover. The ultimate lesson of this tale is that it is not enough in life to have one’s material needs met—there is a spiritual element to human existence that must be honored for our lives to have meaning. An impoverished youth of humble origins, the narrator of this story is a misfit who happens to be a chess prodigy. Despite his painfully difficult circumstances, he is nonetheless able to find meaning and transcendence through the game of chess. Notably, much of the society and values that Ah Cheng portrays in this story are very traditional—the game of chess, the Daoist-based philosophy that guides the chess master’s strategy, and the persistence of class-based inequalities and official (Party) corruption in Maoist China.
The final story, “The King of Children,” is an account of a high-school educated zhiqing‘s experience as a schoolteacher in rural Yunnan. Promoted overnight from field worker to elementary school teacher, the protagonist of this story, known only by the nickname of “Beanpole,” is appalled at the poor conditions and teaching materials he’s expected to use. In short order, he replaces a dull and ineffective textbook with freeform exercises in composition. The students become better readers and writers under Beanpole’s instruction, but Party higher ups get wind of the fact that he’s not making his pupils study and memorize the propaganda in the textbook, and he is fired. The political authorities are presented as foolishly didactic and ideological—they aren’t concerned with educating children so much as they are concerned with toeing the line. The narrator complains at one point that while his students don’t have textbooks due to a supposed shortage, there seems to be no shortage of paper when it comes to distributing written materials for political study nationwide. These are the sorts of ironies and indignities that would have resonated with Ah Cheng’s early readers.
Ah Cheng’s work made a huge splash when first published in China in the mid-1980s, and Ah Cheng’s contemporary and fellow former zhiqing, Chen Kaige adapted “The King of Children” into a film, which screened at Cannes in 1988. Ah Cheng shares much of the background of his protagonists, and his stories feel heavily autobiographical. But unlike many of the thinly veiled memoirs written after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ah Cheng’s stories have stood the test of time. They are not sensationalistic or melodramatic; nor is there any gratuitous violence. There is a hint of magical realism in these tales, but not to the extent practiced by writers like Mo Yan or Yu Hua. Ah Cheng’s works stand apart from his contemporaries because of their realism, their humanism, and their acute but compassionate observation of human foibles. Although Ah Cheng is now primarily a screenwriter, he is still revered by other writers, and the trilogy of novellas that make up “The King of Trees” cemented his reputation early on. New Directions is doing readers a great service by bringing these important and compelling works back into wider circulation.
Andrea Lingenfelter is the translator of Candy by Mian Mian, Farewell My Concubine by Lillian Lee, and The Last Princess of Manchuria by Lillian Lee.
Photo credit: Rodney smith
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