By the River: Seven Contemporary Chinese Novellas provides a view of life in China today. The time is the emerging economy of the last few decades. Many people from the countryside have been forced into becoming factory workers, street venders, pedicab operators, schoolteachers, taxicab drivers, any job they can get to survive. The context is economic and political, but the stories are about the personal decisions of individuals to make their own destiny. The drama of human connection is up close with violence as overt as rape and as hidden as gossip, love both lust and of the heart, political resistance by way of satire, internal noncompliance and humor, and the sheer chaos of living in changing times forcing actions that new, uncharted, economic and political situations entail.
In “The Beloved Tree” by Jiang Yun, the story is of a woman who leaves her family. Meiqiao, “Sir” her husband’s name, called “Mrs. Sir” because of her unyielding drive to obtain a diploma while having four children with full wife duties, experiences life-threatening postpartum depression and anorexia when she cannot get a job with her diploma. Her concerned husband finds her a teaching job, although it is really “the outside world that she loved”; the teaching diploma merely had been what was available. She falls in love with one of her husband’s students, and leaves her marriage and four children to be with him. Her eight-year-old daughter, Lingxiang, the only child Meiqiao nursed, is crushed. At eighteen, she sets out to find her mother. Her first time to be alone, she is on a night bus, “All around her it was pitch-black; only the beams of the bus’s headlights were moving, as if they were slashing a wound through the darkness.” Finding her, out of years of accumulated anger and hurt, she said to her mother, “I came here to tell you something: you aren’t worth my longing for you like this!” The loss of her mother, who chose the path to fulfill her own life and heart, became Lingxiang’s destiny and strength of heart-centered generosity. Was creating such a wound by Meiqiao worth it . . . ? Both yes and no . . . how much does one listen to one’s own heart?
It is a challenge to interpret symbols, humor, and irony in literature from another culture. “Mountain Songs from the Heavens” by Han Shaogong, is such a challenge. Old Yin, a poor peasant, is a trickster-like character who acts up the entire narrative, disrupting any smooth expectations held to be proper for a social interaction or the “proper” (i.e., the current ruling party) view of history. Old Yin’s disruption is from top to bottom of social expectations, from how to make music to how to let his wife divorce him, with logical good humor setting both of them free. Old Yin, who “liked everything that made people as happy as music did,” acted out resistance to convention and oppression imposed by political ideology, the story told under the political radar with satire, metaphor, and humor. Upon his death in the wilds of the back country, Old Yin is “suddenly” buried in a crystal coffin:
people could imagine that the crystal coffin was a bullet-proof glass case, and the one to be buried in it the most worthy and heroic of dignitaries [ . . . ] with which he would greet the salutations of ten million visitors paying their respects [ . . . ] the image of a child playing dress-up . . . .
Mao as trickster (designer of a manmade famine killing millions, 1958 to 1961, alluded to in most of the novellas, but never explicitly named), trickster Old Yin is a force of nature and nature itself and “life lasts a lifetime” and “death is death.” Old Yin calls himself a fool and he likes to be with other fools. The river is, life is, there is no “sense” here: folkloric, existential, absurdist.
“Voice Change” by Xu Zechen is a coming of age story, the maturing protagonist, dealing with the violence of neighborhood thugs, finds the way to preserve his humanity. In “A Flurry of Blessings” by Chi Zijian, from the fissure created in a woman being asked “what her given name was,” the web of her life and her family is reconfigured by an unraveling with this one thread tugged. “Love and Its Lack Are Emblazoned on the Heart” by Fang Fang is a subtle horror story of fantasy and the process of breaking the spell with twists and turns that feel psychologically authentic. “Safety Bulletin” by Li Tie, a worker accident is researched in which morality and power collides; there are those who look the other way and those who cannot. “The Sanctimonious Cobbler” by Wang Anyi shows the temptations found in our everyday routine with others and the unexpected results of extramarital love that comes in an opportunist way.
Nature is a sentient presence throughout the stories. Many illuminated passages of human kinship with nature’s holding otherness occur: “One day he walked to a hollow where the moon was so bright, trees far and near cast clear black shadows from the incandescence in which they were bathing” (“Mountain Songs from the Heavens”). The ending in each novella seizes our hearts to ponder how we choose to make meaning for ourselves. Along with the stories’ characters, we experience moral dilemmas without a clear cut solution, hard choices with nothing for certain to win, fallout of the irretrievability of actions once set in motion, junctures that arise for everyone no matter in what culture we live.