Winter 2005 vol 4.1
The Universal and the Particular: Six Stories from China
Karen Gernant
MANY CHINESE WRITERS view the present as the best period for the development of Chinese literature. In the last quarter century, writers have broken away from serving the political demands of the government, thus also casting aside ideological restraints. Chinese authors have achieved freedom both in subject matter and in writing style. In the six stories presented here, readers can see the variety in theme and style. Although their themes and styles vary, each of these writers shines a light on the universal question of what it means to be human.

Coursing through these stories, then, is a sense of the familiar. Who has not known the anxiety of unemployment or the fear of losing a job? In these stories, we see persons coping in much the same way that persons at the edges of their societies do everywhere.

Who hasn't felt disappointed in finding an old friend or mentor changed beyond recognition?

Who hasn't felt betrayed by the realization that one's trust and acceptance have been misplaced?

Those living in environments made hazardous by human greed will recognize kindred spirits in Lin Bai's villagers. Stay on in their homes, despite the looming disaster captured by Ms. Lin's boat metaphor? Or leave in quest of a dream that may be illusory?

Since shaking off ideological fetters, Chinese writers have rapidly entered the mainstream of world literature. Does that mean, then, chat these stories could just as well have been written elsewhere? No—with two exceptions.

The stories by Can Xue and Lin Bai must be excluded from this part of the discussion: except for Can Xue giving her characters Chinese names, nothing in either work stamps it as uniquely Chinese. Both Can Xue and Lin Bai seek to transcend the particular. In contrast, a sense of place marks the works by Alai, Zhang Kangkang, Yan Lianke, and Wei Wei. Through their pieces, we can better understand the society and history forming the backdrop for these characters and their stories.

Rooted in Tibetan culture, later overlaid with the Chinese, Alai focuses upon Tibetan practices and beliefs in an indefinite past sometime before the Communists brought Tibet back into the Chinese fold. He shows us a Tibet that many outsiders would prefer not to confront, for his Tibet, like the historical Tibet, clashes with the Shangri-la image so passionately fostered by Richard Gere and others, including the increasingly media-savvy Tibetan exiles. Alai shows us the tight control maintained by the elites in Tibet's past; although he emphasizes the headmen, he could just   ' as well have emphasized the lamas. In one way or another, the ordinary people served both. Brutal punishments, not unlike the one depicted in "The Silversmith in the Moonlight," were not unusual. Threaded through Alai's story are also the importance of fate; the belief in an afterlife; and the belief in Buddhism. (Readers who would like historical corroboration of the dark side of traditional Tibet are referred to Melvyn Goldstein's A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951; and The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography ofTashi Tsering.)

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a violent upheaval unleashed by Mao Zedong ostensibly to narrow the gap between bureaucracy and party members, on the one hand, and the ordinary people, on the other hand; to close the gulf between city and countryside; to enable China's youth to relive the revolutionary experience; to dampen nascent stirrings of capitalism, shaped all those who went through it. The "educated youth," who were "sent down to the countryside and up to the mountains" to learn from the peasants, were molded by their experiences. (The term "educated youth" refers to urban youngsters who had been middle school students or high school students. An acquaintance recently shook her head and laughed as she recalled those years: "Just imagine. We were 'educated youth.' But really we were only middle school students. Just kids.") Nowadays, when some compare their youth with that of their privileged children, they note that their children have never had to "eat bitterness." Some of these "educated youth" were permitted to return to the cities only years after the Cultural Revolution ended. These lengthened stays in the countryside were mandated at least in part to mask a burgeoning urban unemployment problem. Zhang Kangkang looks at these years from the vantage point of a middle-aged man whose favorite childhood teacher was one of the teenagers sent down from the cities. The more he thinks about her, the more he realizes that she has influenced his entire life. He vows to see her again, to give to her his prized creation as a show of gratitude and as a show of accomplishment.

Over the last two decades, the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping have resulted in the world's fastest growing economy. They have also contributed to ever widening chasms between the urban and the rural, the educated and the unschooled, and the wealthy and the poor. The reforms have also meant that persons are no longer restricted by their "official residence" to remain in their native villages; migrants in search of better lives glut the cities and the seacoast. They're easy to recognize, for their clothing differs from that of urban residents. And, once they open their mouths, their accents instantly give them away. At best, the city dwellers are indifferent toward them; at worst, contemptuous and sometimes cruel. Migrants are blamed for the relatively new phenomenon of crime in the cities. Along the coast, we may hear: "He's from Sichuan. You can't trust him." Or: "She's from Henan. Don't give her a job. She'll steal from you." Hapless laborers sit along curbsides, tools of their trades beside them, hoping for work and idling away their time by playing cards. In "A Dove on Top of the Tower," Yan Lianke gives us Birdy and Phoenix, unforgettable characters who rely on their resourcefulness to get by in the city. Much of the story takes place at the 2-7 Memorial Tower and Square in Zhengzhou, Henan. The tower and square commemorate the thirty-five railway workers who were killed when warlord Wu Peifu crushed their strike in Zhengzhou on February 7, 1923. The strikers' slogan was, "We have been treated like animals; now we want to be human beings." Whether or not Yan Lianke intended the parallel, readers can see that he has situated Birdy at the very site where these martyrs spilled their blood. The egalitarian ideal embodied in these strikers characterized the revolutionary movement from its inception until well into its years of governing. With the economic reforms beginning in the 1980s and continuing to the present, this ideal was explicitly set aside. Here, innocent twelve-year-old Birdy has chosen to meet his death in this square and in death to exact from his tormentors recognition of his essential humanity. This story could have been written only in China, and probably only after economic reforms had taken hold.

In her "Old Zheng's Woman," Wei Wei also portrays the lives of those leaving home in search of better lives—in this case, in a "small town." The story takes place in a traditional Chinese home—with an interior courtyard and a number of rooms in separate wings. In the past, such a home would have belonged to a wealthy family. Early in the 1950s, these homes were expropriated from their owners, with those owners allotted perhaps a room or two of what had once been all theirs. The other rooms were parceled out to strangers. In the 1980s, many of these homes were restored to their former owners, either in whole or in part, or restitution was made for the homes. Telling her story through the eyes of an alert teenager who doesn't miss much, Wei Wei shows some of the changes that the small town undergoes. These changes include the introduction of prostitution (via migrant workers) to the town. Prostitution was outlawed in China shortly after the Communists came to power in 1949. Over the last several years, it has made a comeback. Wei Wei's sympathetic treatment of the issue makes it clear that it is wretched circumstances that lead women into prostitution. The money thus earned helps to support the family. Although Wei Wei shows the changing times, she also captures the traditional centrality of the land in people's lives: despite the hardships of farming, a farmer rejects out of hand the notion that he give it up for other work. "From the beginning of time, one could depend on the land."

We read these stories, then, for what they tell us about China and for what they tell us about the universal condition of being human. These works touch souls and hearts. They elicit our rage, our tears, our despair. The characters depicted here do not claim our pity, but rather our admiration for—or at least our understanding of—their choices. In what strikes us as a very existential approach, each character takes responsibility for his or her choices. His or her destinies.