Mao’s Town by XIE Hong / Whyte Tracks / 978-8-792632-93-7 / 2018 / 204 pages
This review is written by TANG Qiyun, and translated from Chinese by SUN Jicheng and Hal Swindall.
If Jean-Paul Sartre believed that all the literary writings in the world are “writing for freedom,” then we can also regard XIE Hong’s novel Mao’s Town, published by Whyte Tracks Publishing on April 16, 2018, as a writing “for human dignity.” In fact, human freedom and dignity are two sides of the meaning of writing. Without freedom, where does dignity come from? The writing of Mao’s Town tells people that literary stories can be absurd, and that the events that occur in human history can also be absurd, but also that you and I, living in reality, should not lose our dignity as human beings.
Mao’s Town is XIE Hong’s first novel written in English. However, in the story, English is ridiculed as “bird language” by the characters. Ahn, who is a decent middle school English teacher, is “recommended” as a “rightist” because he has to urinate at a mass meeting, and goes out for relief. After that, he becomes the object of criticism and struggle from previous political movements. His crime is that he can speak English, so he may be a special agent of “a foreign country.”
Ahn finally commits suicide by jumping into the river while being paraded as punishment. Yet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, a boy named Baoguo, his is not the “sinful suicide” asserted by Lee, the organizer of the parade, but rather ends his life because a stinky urine bucket is dumped on his head by some Red Guards, and he cannot stand the loss of his dignity. He used to love his life so much, and he loves his motherland so much that he moved from Indonesia to the mainland to participate in the socialist revolution in the New China. For the revolutionary construction, he can endure the hunger in the “May 7th School” which is the farm that was established in accordance with Mao Zedong’s “May 7th Instruction in 1966” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the Twentieth century. It is the place for intellectuals to carry out labor reform and engage in unbearably heavy physical activity, to accept “re-education” by poor peasants. In order to cope with the ritual of “victory” in the revolutionary struggle, he can accept a slap in the face, squat, have his head shaved in a yin-and-yang hairstyle, but he cannot tolerate the revolutionary teenager depriving him of his right to cleanliness and self-respect.
Ahn’s wife, Jing, also commits suicide in this cruel abusive political “game.” The difference is that she does not jump into a river, but into an earthen steel furnace to burn herself to death like a revolutionary martyr in the movies.
In the Great Leap Forward campaign of “Catching up with American and British People” in the steelmaking industry, the tailor Jing also replaces her dress with the black worker’s uniform, and becomes a furnace worker, throwing the pots and pans of the villagers’ homes into the steel furnace, and using the trees behind their houses as fuel. This is not a “revolutionary production” in the eyes of Baoguo, but “a game of abuse that belongs to adults.” In order to prove that the quality of steel is perfect because of the ridiculous logic of the bourgeois conspiracy to destroy it, Jing’s body and personal clothing become criminal evidence that she is part of the bourgeois counter-revolution.
Although Jing, like her husband, is also forced to have her head shaved in a yin-and-yang hairstyle, she is furthermore subjected to exposing her underwear and bare skin publicly, and so is robbed of her dignity; however, she really cares about the bright colors of her clothes and her tender skin, which are taken as evidence of her bourgeois lifestyle. Beautiful clothes can be cut off and thrown into the stove to burn, but how to deal with her natural skin? All she can think of is that, like burning beautiful clothes, she must throw herself after them into the stove and burn her body, too. Obviously, Jing is using her life to resist the absurd political logic of “grasping the revolution and promoting production” in the Great Leap Forward.
As the narrator of the deaths of Ahn and Jing, Baoguo certainly cannot understand the politics of their clothing and skin and the logic of this political movement, because he is still a child who wants to eat candy with his playmates. However, it is the child’s innocence and intuition that makes him instinctively complete the testimony and telling of the tragic story of the innocent couple. In Baoguo’s eyes, the couple are not only the bad guys accused at the mass struggle conference. On the contrary, the whole family is a friendly group who love life, and treat people fairly. The warmth of their family has even become a magnetic field that attracts Baoguo to visit their home. Meanwhile, his own family and Jing and Ahn’s form a huge contrast. Baoguo’s father is fearful of the political struggle in the town; when he returns home, he is an authoritarian who only issues orders such as “shut up” and “eat your meal.”
Jing and Ahn’s little girl Sun loves small animals as much as Baoguo does; their eldest daughter, Moon, not only has a beautiful face, but also has a talent for acting, so she often leads small plays. In addition to sewing clothes for the whole town, Jing often tells them interesting foreign fairy tales. Ahn, for his part, often goes fishing in the small river next to the town, and enlightens Baoguo by telling him that in foreign countries, fishing is actually a sport, not just for eating. Even after Ahn is dismissed from his teaching position, he is still eager to privately teach Baoguo English, despite his rejection by Baoguo’s parents because they are afraid of getting into trouble. In order to become a Red Guard, Baoguo’s elder brother draws a line with Ahn, and starts his “big united movement” in which they can travel and learn revolutionary experiences from others. After returning to the town, he tries to publicly denounce Ahn, and searches Ahn and Jing’s house, confiscating their property.
Obviously, Baoguo’s reminiscences of the deaths of Ahn and Jing is not only a defense of their grievances but also a rational reflection on the absurdity of the history. Because of this, his narrative tone is quiet: the brutal historical details he remembers are just some rough impressions that have been intentionally filtered. It is no wonder that after the reform and opening up in China, he has an awkward moment with Sun, who had already immigrated to the United States. He described the encounter as follows: “Then we began talking over the memories from our shared past, but not all our memories were sad, we remembered the good times too” (p. 194). So, what are the good times that Baoguo and Sun have missed together? Of course, it is not the insults and horrors encountered in the turbulent years, but the innocence and support Baoguo receives from Sun’s family, and its respect for Baoguo in terms of his personality and the enlightenment of civilization.
However, Sun’s enlightenment of Baoguo, which represents knowledge and civilization, does not end with the deaths of her parents. Baoguo’s brother has “confiscated” Ahn’s English comic Business Relationships, which he had loaned to Baoguo; later, they become enlightening for his English study. This foreign language enlightenment, which helps Baoguo pass the college entrance examination after the reform and opening up, completes the change of his destiny.
The language that loses Ahn his life, the “bird language” ridiculed by the “revolutionary masses,” has not only become a bridge to knowledge and civilization, but also a national channel to dialogue with the world. Obviously, in the course of Baoguo’s growing up, English as the world’s language became no longer a tool of speech communication in the ordinary sense, but a symbol of human civilization and new thinking, especially in China. It not only makes Ahn and Jing calmly put an end to their lives, but also allows a nation-state to return to itself with rationality and dignity. This is the reform and opening up that Baoguo recognizes in his own life experience.
Therefore, we can make a judgment about XIE Hong: he has abandoned his original Chinese writing, and starts to use English to write a contemporary Chinese story about the language, completes the best memorial to his enlighteners, and which is also a sacrifice to the age of the loss of individual dignity.
Tang Qiyun is Doctor of Literature, Professor of the School of Humanities, Shenzhen University, China, and Vice Chairman of Shenzhen Association of Literary Critics.
SUN Jicheng is an associate professor of English, Shandong University of Technology, China and the translator of major works by D. H. Lawrence, Martin Luther King Jr., W. Edgar Geil, Eugene Nide, Philippe Delerm, Jerome Mandel and Shao Xunmei; his academic interests are literary translation and Missionary study in China.
Hal Swindall is a native Californian, with a PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside in 1994. He is a vagabond English professor around East Asian universities in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. His main research interests are late nineteenth-century European literature & art.