Mao Badges and Rocket Parts

Robert Macfarlane

  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke
    Chatto, 208 pp, £10.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6982 6
  • The Drink and Dream Teahouse by Justin Hill
    Weidenfeld, 344 pp, £12.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 297 64697 4

It was said that The Little Red Book had ‘supplied the breath of life to soldiers gasping in the thin air of the Tibetan plateau; enabled workers to raise the sinking city of Shanghai three-quarters of an inch; inspired a million people to subdue a tidal wave in 1969, a group of housewives to reinvent shoe polish, and surgeons to sew back severed fingers and remove a 99 pound tumour as big as a football’. Mao and his men rated the power of words higher than most, and this may explain why they went to such lengths to suppress non-aligned literature in China. From the early 1960s until the mid-1980s almost all Western books were prohibited and the printing presses clattered away producing agitprop: multi-volume hagiographies of Enver Hoxha and Stalin, tendentious political parables and the fiction of pre-1949 Chinese writers such as Lu Xun in editions that provided the correct ideological spin.

For the ‘educated youth’ – the young city-dwellers who were sent in their millions to the countryside for ‘re-education’ through labour during the Cultural Revolution – these restrictions induced a powerful hunger for literature beyond the prescribed Communist diet. Inevitably, Mao’s embargo wasn’t foolproof. Books from libraries raided by Red Guards found their way into wider clandestine circulation. Banned volumes were also translated and published in limited print runs for ‘internal distribution’ to high-level cadres; and with the right guanxi – ‘connections’ – it was possible to obtain copies. In the countryside, where Party surveillance was less thorough, volumes were passed from hand to hand and became known as paoshu, or ‘running-books’.

Early on in his story, the unnamed narrator of Dai Sijie’s charming novella Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress very briefly explains all this: a sign that the book has been written for Western audiences unfamiliar with recent Chinese history. It is 1971, the high noon of the Cultural Revolution, and the narrator and his best friend, Luo, have been sent for re-education to a mountain-top village near the Tibetan border. For entertainment they have only the ideologically vetted films they are forced to watch by local Party henchmen. Desperate for distraction, the boys discover that Four-Eyes, another ‘educated youth’ in a nearby village, possesses a suitcase that is mysteriously heavy. They infer – correctly – that it is full of forbidden Western books and harass Four-Eyes until he finally lends them Balzac’s novella Ursule Mirouët. It’s a revelation:

Picture, if you will, a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.

The boys are so smitten – ‘This fellow Balzac is a wizard!’ – that the narrator copies the text in tiny characters onto the inside of his sheepskin jacket before returning the book to Four-Eyes.

When Luo falls in love with the eponymous seamstress, a diminutive beauty who lives on the other side of the mountain and whose deft fingers create neat little backstitches, he woos her with a reading of Ursule Mirouët. She is entranced by the story, and by proxy with its teller. The boys eventually obtain the entire contents of the suitcase and Luo keeps his Little Seamstress happy with recitations of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet and Notre-Dame de Paris. Each new book affects her more than the last – Madame Bovary inspires her to make a brassiere, ‘the first item of lingerie on Phoenix mountain’ – until finally Flaubert’s influence reaches out of the page with unforeseen results.

It isn’t a complicated book but its pleasures are considerable. It is written for the most part in a disarmingly candid prose, and its moral – that great literature has a universal power to move – is clearly and joyfully proclaimed. It is notable, however, for its take on the Cultural Revolution. Since the success of Wild Swans, Western readers have become accustomed to certain arresting tableaux: the struggle session, the book-burning, the labour camp, scenes of Red Guard brutality. But the Cultural Revolution lasted for a decade, and life continued, mutatis mutandis, between the flash-points. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is one of the few books to fill in the gaps and Dai – who was himself sent for re-education – seems admirably determined to recall the positive aspects of the experience: friendship in the face of shared hardship, the power of literature, and love.

The popularity in the 1990s of Cultural Revolution memoirs has distracted Western readers from contemporary China, which tends to be neither seen nor heard in a fictional context. Justin Hill’s The Drink and Dream Teahouse is doubly unusual in that it is set in present-day China and that despite having a Western author, it contains no Western characters to mediate the narrative. Hill’s first book was A Bend in the Yellow River, an earnest memoir of two years spent teaching English in the central Chinese province of Shanxi. Its dominant register was wonder: the Westerner weaned on visions of the exotic East discovers the contemporary reality of concrete and poverty. There were dabs of literary colour, but by and large it was the plain-speaking account of a young Englishman abroad, staggered by cultural difference into writing about it. Seven years on (three of them spent in China) and Hill – still only 29 – has written a hugely ambitious first novel which aims to see China not through Western eyes but, as it were, from the inside in. There is no convenient culture-broker here: Hill tries to delete himself entirely from the narrative and to let his Chinese characters have their say.

It is a bold idea, and one which raises the question whether non-Chinese have the right to ventriloquise the Chinese. One of Hill’s few precedents is the work of Pearl Buck, the American novelist who won the 1938 Nobel Prize largely for – in the Prize Committee’s unfortunate phrase – her depiction of China’s ‘primordially primitive peasants’. Buck’s success caused consternation among Chinese critics: one arraigned her for ‘selling the heads of savages to Westerners’. Justin Hill can’t be accused of peddling exotica, although his publishers have done their best to point up the more attractive aspects of what is in fact a bleak representation of China (the cover of the book, for example, features a quartet of technicolour butterflies and the head of a Chinese girl; the cover of Dai’s book features a quintet of technicolour silk bobbins and the feet of a Chinese girl). Chinese critics, should they read Hill’s book, will be more alarmed at its pessimism than its post-colonial derelictions. For The Drink and Dream Teahouse has aspirations beyond its appealing realist veneer – Hill has written an allegory in which everything and everybody is a symbol for some larger trend or type in contemporary China.

The novel’s chief character is its setting, the dilapidated rural town of Shaoyang. We are left in no doubt that shabby Shaoyang, with its paradoxes and flagrant inequalities, is intended as a metonym of present-day urban China. The old Communist-style buildings are draped in neon, but few of the inhabitants have anything to celebrate. The Cultural Revolution Commune Restaurant has become the most expensive eatery in town. Only PLA officers and Party cadres can afford to dine there: men who have made their money corruptly, by privatising the town’s only profitable businesses – restaurants and brothels. The majority of Shaoyang’s population is comprised of unemployed workers with little to do except drink, dream and watch pirated American videos. The town, in other words, is an inversion of the Maoist utopia: it is a misogynist plutocracy in which social status is index-linked to money, the corrupt live off the fat of the land and the poor gnaw the bones.

Like most of Shaoyang’s inhabitants, the novel never leaves the town. The narrative is set in motion by the closure of Number Two Space Rocket Factory, a paradigmatic state factory. For decades the plant has manufactured steam engines, Mao badges and rocket parts, but the new economic climate has rendered it unprofitable: a Party directive orders its decommissioning and the employees are given their notice. The novel follows the fortunes of the redundant workers and their families. Each of the characters is clearly emblematic of a contemporary Chinese type, though Hill works hard to give them individuality and involve us in their lives. Party Secretary Li, the disillusioned Communist, hangs himself in protest at the fate of the factory. Old Zhu and his wife, also Party veterans, are convinced that the closure is a consequence of China’s wrong turn in opening up to the West. Their belief is challenged by the return of their son, Da Shan, who had left home eight years earlier to work in Shenzhen, one of Deng Xiaoping’s Special Economic Zones. The son’s new-found wealth is set against the father’s Mao jacket and Little Red Book – capitalism goes eyeball to eyeball with Communism.

Nobody is allowed to be only him or herself, and at times this hyper-symbolism threatens to reduce the narrative to a Bunyanesque tour through the People’s Republic, in which we encounter Old Party Veteran, Mr Pro-Democracy, Down-Trodden Woman and so on. It’s a shame, because Hill’s two principal themes are interesting. The first is the way yesterday’s iron-clad truths are melted down and recast by the Party. Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 ‘reappraisal’ of Mao began the process of revisionism which continues today, and which has allowed China’s emergent capitalism to continue masquerading as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Hill is fascinated by the way the Party continues to use Mao-style slogans to disseminate policy: though the message has changed, the medium remains resolutely the same. Returning home after eight years, Da Shan passes through the factory gate:

The painted characters had been chipped and eroded by time, but they were still legible:

Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory, down the right column.

Work to Build the Four Modernisations, down the left column.

We Wel Come Your In Vest Ment, written in English across the top.

It was so tragic he almost laughed.

Hill’s second theme is Chinese society’s unwillingness to come to terms with the recent past, its ingrained habit of denial. Since 1949 the Chinese have had to endure waves of political campaigning which have turned neighbour against neighbour. The result, as Hill notes, is that ‘there are now communities full of people who have abused each other, or spied or punished each other in various political campaigns.’ For a country which has built its own national identity to a large degree on victimhood at the hands of other countries, China is none too keen to fess up to its self-mutilations. There are no museums or memorials dedicated to the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine – together the cause of more than thirty million deaths – and academic or artistic work must follow the Party line precisely. Chinese historians do well to keep to the well-trodden paths: those who go too far into forbidden territory are prevented from publishing or sacked. Hill dramatises the competing versions of nostalgia and denial at work in Shaoyang. Old Zhu looks back fondly to the early Maoist years. Madam Fan, the local diva, finds release only by singing arias from Chinese opera from her balcony. Da Shan, who is unable to bear the hypocrisy of it all, dreams of writing ‘The Annals of Shaoyang’ as an act of historical accountancy.

At first glance, the indecisiveness of the narrative voice in The Drink and Dream Teahouse is disconcerting. It is only gradually that you realise Hill is using the free indirect style to allow his characters to gain local control over the prose. So when Hill says, for example, ‘Questions were useless things unless they had answers to go with them,’ this is not the narrator hawking fortune-cookie wisdom, but the author trying to replicate the linguistic texture of his characters’ thoughts – in this case, those of Madam Fan, who has been brought up on a blend of Confucian pithiness and Maoist formulae. Hill’s model here, I suspect, is Joyce’s Dubliners. This, incidentally, is not the style in which Pearl Buck told her agrarian epics: ‘Ling Tan married and begat his own sons and then they quarrelled because their bellies were not full.’

Despite its sophistications the book has some basic faults: it is overcrowded, not for symbolic effect, but because of Hill’s determination to pack it with incident, character and emotion. It also has some irritating tics – among them Hill’s habit of finishing chapters with a supposedly resonant image: ‘the moon rose high in the branches and turned the dew to a snow-white frost,’ or ‘outside stars were picked off, one by one, by the storm clouds that turned the heavens black.’ True, these little nature poems nod back to the exquisite imagery of Li Bai and Du Fu – two of the ‘Tang poets who contributed, through Pound, so much to British Modernism – and you can see that Hill’s aim is to light a tiny imagistic firework and leave it to explode on the blank page. Repeated too often, however, the effect becomes showy – less a firework than a flashing neon sign.