English by Wang Gang, Viking US$24.95
Brothers by Yu Hua, Pantheon Books US$29.95
Adolescence is often viewed as a time of great chaos in a young person’s life. Combine that with the external strife of the Cultural Revolution and you have a breeding ground for strong narrative. It is from this fertile terrain that two recent Chinese literary works – now translated into English – emerge.
English by Wang Gang and Brothers by Yu Hua both tell the stories of young male protagonists (Love Liu in English and stepbrothers Baldy Li and Song Gang in Brothers) who reach maturity in 1960s China. The authors share a similar bond in this respect: They are roughly the same age and released the Chinese editions of their books about the same time – Wang in 2004 and Yu in two volumes in 2005 and 2006. But their views on the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the major characters in their works are very different.
English is a re-telling of Wang’s childhood, and a constant reminder of the dim prospects young people faced during the Cultural Revolution. Love Liu is stuck in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in China’s far west, unable to complete his education because the schools keep on closing. He sees studying English as his only way out of Xinjiang and, despite the disturbances, it is the relationship between Love Liu and his English teacher that rules the day.
Brothers, meanwhile, tackles the chaos of the Cultural Revolution straight on through the adventures of Baldy Li and Song Gang as they make their way in the world. The book is a morality tale that sees the Cultural Revolution as the start of China’s cultural downward spiral into what the author sees as its present day decadence. In order for the stepbrothers to escape their peasant status, they need to fight, scheme and cheat their way to riches.
Time and place
The locations of the two books are a further reflection of the authors’ contrasting approaches.
Love Liu’s Urumqi is distanced from the main events of the Cultural Revolution as though pushing them aside, effectively imparting a sense of innocence and idealism to the story. Consequently, Love Liu comes across as quite a passive character. Although his story is marked by difficulties – for example, his mother is revealed to be having an affair with the school principal – Love Liu’s misdeeds stretch no further than sneaking a peek at a naked Ahjitai, his former half-Uighur, half-Han teacher, in the local bathhouse.
This is completely at odds with the worldliness of Baldy Li and Song Gang, whose adventures take place in a fictional town just outside of Shanghai – an area in which political events of the time were felt most strongly, as indeed they are depicted in the first half of the book.
The stepbrothers’ burning ambition is born of hardship, each one having lost his parents at birth before enduring a childhood of near-starvation due to food shortages. Just as it’s no surprise that Love Liu fails to achieve his goal of escaping Urumqi, it is clear from page one of Brothers, with Baldy Li sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, that he and Song Gang will become rich. Their eventual emergence as successful businessmen in the 1980s is characterized by a large dose of risk and a willingness to put morals aside – provided there is money to be made from doing so. An example of Baldy Li’s scheming is his popular “virgin beauty pageant.” Not only are most of the contestants not virgins (they’ve had hymen reconstruction surgery), they also sleep with the judges to boost their chances of victory. Baldy Li awards prizes to two of his sexual conquests, underlining what Yu sees as the corruption in today’s Chinese society. Song Gang is no less a trickster, going so far as to get breast enlargement surgery so he can confront potential customers with “proof” that the shoddy sexual enhancement medicines he sells are the real deal.
The two novels are not completely about struggles and scheming, though. As is often the case during periods of chaos, humor breaks through from time to time, lightening the mood. In addition to Love Liu’s trip to the bathhouse in English, Brothers opens with Baldy Li trying to get a view of women’s bottoms by peeking under the partition wall in the public toilets. (The twisted irony of the situation is that Baldy Li’s father tried to do the same thing on the day of his son’s birth – and died as a result.) Baldy Li is caught while admiring the rear end of the local beauty, but still manages to dine out on the experience, swapping his tale for expensive bowls of noodles bought by men in the town.
Although at times the humor borders on the surreal, it serves to emphasize the extremes of the Cultural Revolution. Neither author wishes to return to this difficult period, but by dipping into their personal histories, Wang and Yu offer snapshots – contrasting, yet both colorful and at times touching – of a Chinathat has long since slipped away.