The hard lot of China’s peasants—still the majority of the population despite a steady exodus from the countryside to China’s growing megacities—has been the focus of much Chinese fiction since the first decades of the 20th century. Peasants, and peasant women in particular, were portrayed by socially engaged writers of the Republican period (1911-49) as the social group that bore the brunt of the feudalism, superstition and ignorance of traditional Chinese society. Mao Zedong saw the peasantry as potential vanguards of a Chinese revolution—both because of their vast numbers and because of the extremity of their oppression. His decision to go against Marxist orthodoxy and champion the peasants over the urban proletariat not only caused tension with the USSR but also became a crucial factor in the Communist victory in China’s civil war.
At war with both the Nationalist (KMT) government and with Japanese invaders, Mao found a rural stronghold in Yan’an, located in a remote area of Shaanxi Province in North China. In the People’s Republic, the “Yan’an spirit” was invoked for propaganda purposes and identified with a revolutionary outlook and ideological purity. Yan’an was also, and perhaps not incidentally, the site of Mao’s first purges of writers and intellectuals in the early 1940s. These campaigns were later replicated on a national scale from the 1950s-1970s, with the Cultural Revolution standing out as the largest and most destructive movement of this type.
Yan’an was impoverished, and conditions were basic. The local people traditionally lived in caves—dwellings carved into the hillsides, with adobe and/or wooden facades at their openings. The presence of this distinctive architecture alerts the reader to the fact that Cao Naiqian’s collection of linked stories, There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, is set in the same hardscrabble region of rural North China where the Communist Revolution had its roots. (The book’s able translator, John Balcom, refers to this book as a novel, but it could just as well be seen as a collection of stories.)
Born the same year as the People’s Republic, 1949, and a veteran police officer, Cao Naiqian belongs to a generation that was raised on Maoist ideology and revolutionary thinking, so there is something rather sly about his portrayal of the peasants of the village called Wen Clan Caves. Party ideology and the rules of Mao-era Socialist Realism would have dictated that these peasants be the most progressive, the most ideologically pure of all. But Cao’s characters are anything but heroic. Furthermore, Party cadres are not depicted as saviors, but rather as self-serving fools engaged in a game of mutual exploitation with the locals. Wen Family Caves is a subsistence-level Our Town, full of survivors, eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells. With his rural setting, masculine point of view and focus on poverty, corruption, sexual repression and perversion, Cao is writing in what has become a familiar and well-established vein of contemporary Chinese letters. (Mo Yan immediately comes to mind, along with Su Tong and Yu Hua.) Less of a magical realist than Mo Yan, Cao nevertheless creates extreme characters who are driven to further extremes by an irrational social and political system—a tenacious system that was there long before the advent of the 1911 revolution or Communist revolution of 1949 and that the establishment of the single-party Communist state has only seemed to strengthen.
There’s Nothing I Can Do is a catalogue of psycho-sexual dysfunction and social pathology. Competing for scarce resources, the inhabitants of this unfortunate village are united mainly by their suffering. Party officials at all levels are corrupt buffoons, and everybody else uses whatever means are available to gain what little comfort can be gleaned in such harsh surroundings. The men are too poor to marry, the women, many of whom aren’t even given names, are often shared, suicide is common, and the pilfering of crops is rampant.
Hunger for food and sex dominates these characters’ lives, with the latter often being bartered for the former. Each story focuses on a family or an individual and his or her story, with characters resurfacing in various sections. We meet the brothers Old Zhu Zhu and Young Zhu, who come to share a wife; Dog, a physically powerful but dull-witted bachelor; Old Pothook, the town drunk; Widow San, a former prostitute, who long ago had set out on foot to find the father who had sold her as a child but only got as far Wen Clan Caves; landlord Wen Shan’s woman; the crippled Bannu and her lover, a childhood sweetheart nursed by the same wet nurse, and a large cast of other unfortunates. There is a murder and a handful of suicides, both intentional and accidental, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, sometimes both. Bit by bit, the relationships among the villagers of Wen Clan Caves emerge and become clearer, with bloodlines and family histories intertwined.
Apart from a few clandestine sexual relationships that come across as triumphs in the face of social and political repression, the brightest and most hopeful moment comes when an old laborer—a poor peasant and hence the purest and most esteemed of all the social classes in Mao’s China—saves his illegitimate son from political persecution and possibly death. Overall, though, There’s Nothing I Can Do travels a road marked by privation, repression, frustration and deviance, all of which culminate in the final tale, a massive multi-car pile up of a climax, where sexual perversion, bestiality, incest, superstition, and official corruption all converge in a toxic apotheosis.
The none-too-subtle thesis that runs through these stories is that the Communist Party didn’t eradicate poverty, superstition, oppression of the peasants, or corruption and that, at best, the Party perpetuated these ills through its incompetent policies and its obsession with political campaigns. The villagers don’t seem to be inherently bad people; rather, they are driven to acts of petty cruelty or sheer madness by pinched circumstances and a lack of constructive alternatives.
Cao’s humanistic but satiric vision exposes the revolutionary heartland as more backward than one could imagine, and yet he delicately stops his narrative in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, indicting Mao at least indirectly but steering clear of current politics and society. This leaves the messy and more dangerous job of tackling contemporary rural problems to others, like Mo Yan and Yu Hua. The Chinese countryside is in a crisis, as farmers lose their land to projects that enrich only a corrupt few and often pollute the rivers, the air, and what little arable land may remain. Peasant protests are common among those who opt to stay in their home villages; but many are leaving the countryside to seek their livelihoods in China’s expanding mega-cities.
Although the struggle of China’s peasant population for dignity and a decent life continues, the dwindling rural population has lost its emblematic quality, as popular interest shifts to the cities, along with much of China’s population. Whether writing about the countryside can engage the present and remain a compelling subject for Chinese readers, or if it will become a subcategory of historical fiction, remains to be seen.
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.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The King of Trees by Ah Cheng 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...
- The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas. Columbia University Press. 272pp, $27.50. We are not lacking for signs that publishing is at a crossroads. Though perhaps obscured by the higher profile implosions of the American auto and finance industries, publishing has had plenty of its own problems. Since October 2008...
- Brothers by Yu Hua 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...
- Reading and Publishing in Print’s Late Age: An Interview with Ted Striphas Ted Striphas is an assistant professor of media and cultural studies and director of film and media at Indiana University. His book, The Late Age of Print, has just been published by Columbia University Press. Scott Esposito: Your overarching argument is that books—their production, consumption, and dissemination—have been developing alongside...
- Brecht at Night by Mati Unt Every once in a while you stumble upon text within a novel that utterly describes the experience you've had while reading that novel. Such is the case with this quote from Mati Unt's recently translated novel Brecht at Night. Actually, "novel" is too narrow a term to define this work....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Andrea Lingenfelter
Read more articles about books from Columbia University Press