Thank you for reading. Thank you for your interest.
Most entries on this website—originally, a blog in the style of early 2000s, an indulgence in amateur criticism and travel writing—have been scrubbed. Their contents have occasionally been recycled into other pieces of writing; unless they can serve the same purpose, the rest will probably remain locked away (I have left a few of the tamer entries below). But the address remains, and so, with the idea that anyone typing my name into a search engine might arrive here, I will introduce myself.
My name is Dylan Levi King. I'm a writer and translator.
Since 2015, I have been based in Tokyo. It is an inexpensive, frictionless place to live. In the ten years prior, I moved every six months average, with relatively longterm stays in Guangzhou and Vancouver.
I translate from Chinese to English. As a translator, most of my work is invisible. The better the compensation, the less likely it is than my name is attached. On that side of things, I have worked on CEO autobiographies, works of political theory, a volume on modern monetary theory, and consulted on localization. On the other side—meager compensation and meticulous crediting of the translator—there is literary fiction. My most recent projects have been Vessel, a memoir by Cai Chongda (HarperCollins 2021), Shaanxi Opera, a forthcoming translation with Nicky Harman of Jia Pingwa's late-career masterwork (Amazon, 2023), and Mai Jia's The Colonel and the Eunuch (it has a publisher and a date with the press in early 2023, but nothing has been formally announced).
I write mostly on East Asian culture and politics. Recent pieces include an obituary for an itinerant blind musician in Inner Mongolia, speculation on North Korean environmentalism, and a review of a novel by a young writer from the Northeast.
Another page has a more detailed list of publications.
My interests, by which I mean targets of curiosity but also areas of not insignificant knowledge or experience, are 1980s to present Chinese cultural politics, Chinese drug policy and the illicit drug market, organized crime in East Asia, applications of cybernetics and systems theory, radical online politics (right wing populism, left Maoism, whatever else), Japanese elite politics, Southeast Asian borderlands, potash, small arms development, Japanese radical cinema, and fashion.
The rest is trivia.
Please email me.
There are reasons for that: the movie industry was in the doldrums and nobody was going to see these movies, let alone taking them seriously, and it was hard to find them outside of bootleg VCDs, since quite a few were rarely screened and got erratic distribution.
The other day, I went to watch an opera. I mean, I went to stream an opera online. Since I translated Jia Pingwa’s Qinqiang 秦腔 I’ve had some interest in Shaanxi’s local opera. I even went to see some productions when I was in Xi’an in the last couple years. But so, when I went to find out more about what I was about to watch, I found that nearly nothing had been written about it in English.
There are reasons for that: this is an artform with a long history, but it hasn’t made a dent in the Occidental consciousness. The academic and popular writing on Chinese opera focuses mainly on Beijing opera 京剧 and Shaoxing opera 越剧. Most writing in Chinese focuses on those two forms, too. There are complicated reasons for that, which are not worth discussing here.
I feel like I should include some kind of further pitch—why you would want to sit through a three hour Shaanxi opera 秦腔—but I don’t have one. For me, I like the music and I like the costumes and the stories are engaging once I get the basics. It’s an important, living artform that has a history stretching back centuries. You could dedicate your life to discovering everything there is to discover about Shaanxi opera.
Knowing the basic story is the key, though. So, here, my idea is to tell the story behind a popular Shaanxi opera 秦腔 drama. This story appears in other operatic traditions, but it's best known as a Shaanxi opera.
It's also mentioned in Jia Pingwa’s novel, so if the translation is ever released, you might it helps your enjoyment of the book.
I think knowing the story is the only way to sit through an opera. I was watching an interview with young people about local opera in Shaanxi and the ones that didn’t care for it said about the same thing: “I have no idea what they’re singing about.” You can pick up the story as you go along, but it can be tough.
I’m not an expert on Shaanxi opera. I’m sure there will be errors.
This is another benefit of nobody having written about them extensively before: I can make errors and anyone that knows better will probably appreciate my effort enough to offer a correction, or they’ll write me off as a rank amateur without digging deeper, or they’ll write something themselves...
I'm going to start with The Fiery Stallion 火焰驹.
Sometimes a film version can be the best way to get a grip on the story, since they tend to simplify things and emphasize narrative to fit the form and the runtime, but the 1958 version of The Fiery Stallion is somehow more confusing than sitting through a production of the opera.
I couldn’t tell you the actual source of the opera’s narrative. Most of these are adapted from historical or traditional stories. But this one is credited to Li Shisan 李十三 (Li Fanggui 李芳桂) (1748-1810).
All of my knowledge of Li Shisan comes from Chen Zhongshi's 陈忠实 famous short story about him—"Li Shisan Turns the Millstone" 李十三推磨—which imagines him as a failed bureaucrat that becomes a passionate but impoverished writer, relying on handouts from locals. He made a living selling scripts to shadow puppet players—these were more specifically píyǐngxì 皮影戏, and even more specifically wǎnwǎnqiāng píyǐngxì 碗碗腔皮影戏, but I’m not qualified to say much more than it refers to a specific strain of Shaanxi opera popular in Weinan 渭南, which is where Li Shisan lived and worked, accompanied by a shadow play with characters made from animal hide.
The Chen Zhongshi story ends Li Shisan’s death, hounded by men acting on the Jiaqing emperor's call to root out obscenity in the arts. Whether or not that was the case, I only have the Chen Zhongshi story to go on.
The setting of The Fiery Stallion is Bianliang 汴梁, I believe, which is almost where modern day Kaifeng 开封 is (I think the changing course of the Yellow River necessitated the move, among other things, but, again, I'm not an expert), so probably sometime in the Northern Song (960-1127). One evil imperial minister—Wang Qiang 王强—is conspiring to stitch up another minister—Li Shou 李绶—by attacking his son—Li Yanrong 李彦荣.
Now, I'll pause here to say that I'm using clips from a production by the venerable Sanyi Society 三意社, filmed last year for CCTV-11, the national broadcaster's xìqǔ 戏曲 channel, devoted to opera, drama, etc.
The subtitles are my own and they tend toward glossier translations that lose a bit of the poetry of the original. The point is to get to know the story, though.
Wang Qiang has conspired to make it look as if Li Yanrong 李彦荣 has disgraced himself while fighting at the northern border, possibly defecting to the other side. Since there’s no reliable communication with the remote garrison, it’s hard to confirm the details of Li Yanrong’s campaign. He reads a proclamation that Li Shou will be imprisoned, his possessions confiscated, his house sealed, and his family expelled from the capital. Yanrong's mother—referred to throughout as just Mother Li 李母, I believe—his wife—begs for mercy, but eventually she takes Yanrong's wife—Zhou Ruiju 周瑞菊—and his younger brother—Li Yangui 李彦贵—and flees for Suzhou 苏州.
Their reason for going to Suzhou—at least several weeks’ travel away, especially as they’re on foot—is that Yangui is engaged to a young woman—Huang Guiying 黄桂—that lives there. Since the two families are joined by the engagement, Yangui hopes to be welcomed into her home.
The opera shows us the horrible journey they make, then it cuts to Huang Guiying and her maid Yunxiang 芸香 in Suzhou.
It’s one of the more famous scenes from the opera, and this duet aria is often performed as a piece by itself. When you watch it for yourself, you'll appreciate it more. But we're just telling the story here. In the opera, it introduces us to two central characters and shows us their relationship: Guiying was wasting the afternoon in her room, pining after her Yangui, but pragmatic and empathetic Yunxiang has dragged her out into the garden to show her the flowers. (In this production, it’s Ma Lulu 马路路 playing Yunxiang and I think she’s pretty great.)
Guiying is clearly still in love with Yangui, and hoping to eventually join him in the capital. She has no idea of what’s happened to him. But Guiying’s father—Huang Zhang 黄璋—has learned of the unpleasantness. He vows not to let his daughter marry the brother of a traitor. Right as he’s breaking it to his Guiying that the engagement will be called off, Yangui shows up, seeking refuge.
With his daughter and her maid listening in from the corridor, Huang Zhang breaks it to Yangui that the engagement is off. Yangui doesn’t quite get it at first. He asks how Huang Zhang could suddenly change his mind, since he had personally helped arrange the marriage.
Huang Zhang hands Yangui twenty taels of silver and tells him to get out. Not only is the engagement off, but Yangui, his mother, and his sister-in-law are left with nowhere to stay.
The section from Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden to what happens after Yangui arrives takes up more time than anything else in the opera, so I'm simplifying things greatly.
The next scene shows us Yangui in simple clothes. Here, the actor does a good job, I think, of transitioning from the smooth-cheeked dullard princeling to a man almost adjusted to life on the streets of Suzhou. He tells us about the state of himself and his family after being expelled from the capital and his former father-in-law's home. They seek refuge at a temple and he goes out on the streets of Suzhou, carrying water to earn money.
This is another scene sometimes sung as an aria, and it also gives its name to another version of the opera, performed in other traditions, called simply Selling Water 卖水.
It’s Yunxiang that spots him first. She’s out in the garden and sees him staggering up the street. None of the main characters in the opera accomplish much, but marginal figures like Yunxiang push things forward.
If not for her, Yangui might go on dragging water around town, and Guiying might go on mooning around the estate—but Yunxiang invites him into the garden and they arrange a secret rendezvous.
The two lovers and their matchmaker in the garden are unaware that their plans have been overheard by Wang Liang 王良, Huang Zhang’s right hand man. He rushes to tell Huang Zhang what he knows and the two men conspire to disrupt the meeting.
The next scene is an introduction to Ai Qian 艾谦, a horse dealer that happens to be a friend of the Li family, hanging out in Suzhou. He’s another seemingly marginal character that pushes the narrative forward. The fact that he’s a horse dealer also suggests that we’re going to find out why the opera is named The Fiery Stallion.
And back to the rendezvous.
On a moonless night, Yangui approaches, calling out to Guiying. Yunxiang—coming in Guiying’s place because she’s been kept from leaving—arrives from the other direction, calling out to Yangui.
Before they can find each other in the darkness, Wang Liang finds Yunxiang, stabs her, and drops the blade by her side. Hearing her cries, Yangui rushes over. Wang Liang emerges from the shadows and demands to know why Yangui killed the poor girl. He’s been framed!
Yangui gets trussed up and dragged off to prison. His execution date will be Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节.
It seems as if Yangui will be put to death, since his family no longer has any power, and the powerful Huang Zhang is pulling the strings. Li Yangui's mother breaks down, lamenting the injustice. But she’s overheard by Ai Qian, the horse dealer. He revealed in his first soliloquy that he owes the Li family a favor, and this seems like the perfect time to repay it.
He has a horse—the Fiery Stallion—he says, that will be able to carry him out to the northern border and back. He vows to get help.
Ai Qian takes off for the border. No matter how fast the horse is, it's going to be a long, treacherous ride, and there is always the danger that might fall into the hands of Wang Qiang's men.
We eventually get a scene of him in Li Yanrong’s camp, sorting things out, but he still has to make it back.
He still hasn’t returned by Yangui's execution date. We see Guiying, dressed in mourning clothes, seemingly on the brink of sanity, clutching a blade and preparing to end her life beside her lover. She meets Yangui's mother on the road to the execution grounds. Yangui’s mother is furious at her, suspecting that she and her father conspired to have her son executed. She slaps Guiying. But it gets sorted out eventually. They head to the execution grounds together.
This isn’t a tragedy, so you can guess how the rest of it plays out.
There's some final drama with Yangui tied to a stake, meeting his family for a final time, with Guiying taking out a dagger and trying to cut her own throat. But Ai Qian and Yanrong show up at the last moment.
Yangui is saved. Justice is restored. We have a happy ending.
My idea is that now you can go and watch the full production.
The scene of Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden is beautiful by itself, but it’s all the more impressive when you know that Guiying’s lover is in flight from the capital and that Yunxiang is doomed to be murdered in an alley by another member of the household. Guiying twirling in her mourning clothes is beautiful without context, but it’s more significant if you know that she’s concealing a dagger that she will try to use to slit her own throat at her condemned lover’s feet.
I’ve simplified the plot, but now you can pick up the subtleties. You have some foundation, I hope.
The production these clips have been pulled from was performed by the Sanyi Society and filmed in Xi’an last year for CCTV-11. You can watch it here, as long as the link works.
I'm going to try to get to a larger point about political novels and leftist literature in China, but it's going to take a minute.
I always talk about the experience of arriving in China in the mid-2000s, when times were good and there was nowhere else to go because Europe was culturally moribund, Japan definitely wasn't interesting, and most of the rest of the world was closed to Westerners. For most of the people that went, if they weren't on an exchange with a prestigious school or working for a multinational corporation, they likely ended up living somewhere that reminded them of home: a deindustrialized shithole where close to everyone their own age would have jumped at the chance to relocate to some nearby metropolis, even though they had no fantasies about really settling down there but figured they might be able to make something of themselves and return home... You had flyover state Americans parlaying degrees they’d be paying off for decades into six thousand renminbi with a free apartment in Jinzhou.
That’s the situation I was in when I arrived in China. I was living in a suburb of a city in Jiangsu and my friends there were going to shitty colleges, like the Whateverzhou College of Aeronautics and Animal Husbandry, without much hope of doing anything but going to work in Nanjing. One of the neighborhood success stories was a young woman that had gone to Dubai and ended up marrying a guy that had made some money in a restaurant over there... So, you start looking around—or, I did at least—trying to figure out why things are the way they are. The story I had been told was that most young people were so much better off than their parents that the gulf between them and the truly wealthy was unimportant, and that development was still rolling out, and I was just too far from the center to be seeing much of it.
Chinese literature was often my window into Chinese history and culture, but when I read what had been written after the 1970s, there wasn’t much in it to explain what I was seeing. This is a generalization, but the two main flows of literary fiction in China, for most of the past few decades were: first, rural literature with a focus on either the native place as an alternative to the nationalistic narrative or with a focus on native place to metonymize the nation, and then neorealist fiction written by urban elites. I have some problems with C. T. Hsia but there is something to the idea of an “obsession with China” (he was talking about how Chinese writers are unwilling or unable to penetrate into the depths of the soul and dig up some universal human suffering, and instead get mired in recounting Chinese impotence, etc. etc.), even if I’m about to apply it incorrectly. Hsia wrote off all leftist literature or decided that the books he liked weren’t leftist, but there is something universal and human in a lot of what was written in China under the influence of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, I think, and when that lens was taken away, work that was critical of the prevailing social order or whatever had to be written as a particularly Chinese story. Like, so, if you write a book about, say, migrant workers in Shenzhen, you’re stuck, without any theoretical framework, writing it as a particularly Chinese story, or at least a story disconnected from history and the rest of the world.
That’s probably something I need to develop further to have anyone understand what I’m talking about. I can't say Chinese fiction written after 1979 is apolitical because nothing is apolitical or stripped of ideology, but often, I think, an attempt at being apolitical or unideological. The social novel doesn't really exist in contemporary Chinese literature. That's ironic, since one of the reasons people outside of China read or recommended Chinese fiction in translation is for its supposed ability to explain China! Talking about Yan Lianke 阎连科 or Yu Hua 余华, pulling two examples at random, the reviews often stress what their books say about contemporary China. I could spend a while picking through reviews of Yu and Yan (or whoever else) to make the point, but let me be brief, because you know what I mean: Yu Hua gives us a "portrait of the country's transformation from political thuggery to money worship" in Brothers, according to a review in the Guardian by Julia Lovell, who, in fact, faults Yu Hua for not offering a better explanation of the history he's recounting, and a review in the
In a review of Yan Lianke's The Day the Sun Died by Isabel Hilton: "[Yan] insists that he writes about life rather than politics, but his work is deeply entwined with China’s tortuous politics – its absurdity, hypocrisy, corruption and the suffering it causes." Why do you have to argue with the man? If you want to read Yan Lianke's work as simply records of the horrors of communism and, as Hilton puts it, the country's "moral degradation," go right ahead, but you're missing out on what makes them special. As C.T. Hsia would have preferred, Yan and Yu are going for something more universal.
The Cultural Revolution novel, or scenes of the Cultural Revolution that pop up in all these books—what do they really say about the Cultural Revolution? I'm not saying they need a "take" on it, but for all the talk of these major historical events in Chinese literature, I think the reader could be left wonder: Wait, why did this happen? You can take a hundred novels at random, written in Chinese since 1980 or so, and most of them will contain a scene of suffering or hardship during the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward or the civil war, and often, close to the end, there will be a scene of the protagonist—or their friends and family—suddenly getting rich, which means Reform and Opening has come. I’m thinking of Dong Xi’s Record of Regret because I translated it and I have a copy right beside me:
You know, nowadays there are a million things to do to kill time. We didn’t have TV, and of course we didn’t have the internet. The streets were pretty empty because there was nowhere to go: the tea houses had all been shut down, and there weren’t any coffee shops like there are now. You can forget about dance halls. And don’t even think about asking about saunas or massage joints. Basically, we went to school and we went to the struggle sessions, where they’d criticize class enemies or just common criminals. Sometimes our teachers would organize us to sing the Communist Party anthems that were popular back then. There wasn’t a lot going on. Even our school was a lot different from the schools kids go to now. We didn’t learn much, I’m saying.Eventually, our protagonist gets wealthy. “Things had changed,” he recounts. “It was the 1980s. Even old Wang Zhiqi at the factory had started buying his girls popsicles and lipstick.”
There was a Cultural Revolution and then everyone got wealthy and there is no need to explain further. And some of that is down to restrictions on political content, and maybe also a lack of understanding of what went on, even if you lived through it… Even Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong, a deadly serious book about the excesses of ultra-leftism and the importance and rightness of market reforms comes down to basically the power of the individual's profit motive. When Chinese writers talk about social problems, the problem is always one of human nature.
I think there are various reasons for the ideologically disconnected vibe of contemporary Chinese fiction, but perhaps I could throw out: an allergy to the idea that literature serve politics, a reaction against years of socialist realism, self-censorship, a general individualistic and elitist bent with writers born after the '70s and '80s...
Cao Zhenglu’s 曹征路 2011 novel, Democracy Classes《民主课》is an interesting aberration. (A Lesson on Democracy as the official translation has it—this is not an English edition, but the publisher must have liked the idea of putting a great big English title on it, but title translations on Chinese books are never something to stand by.) It's a reappraisal of the Cultural Revolution that focuses on the decadence, corruption, and ideological failures of the leadership, rather than the Red Guard and other grassroots activists, who are presented as fairly chill and bookish, or at least justified. It's no mystery why Cao was unable to find a Mainland publisher, and had to go to Taiwan to find anyone willing to talk to him! But, more importantly, the book is about a potential solution to political change in contemporary China, where the Party and new economy millionaires and billionaires are either colluding or locked in a struggle for power or both, and the vast majority of people are completely shut out of the political process. The protagonist of Democracy Classes is a young Red Guard named Xiao Ming:
Like all other practitioners of the Mao cult, Xiao Ming cites the quotations, shouts slogans, attacks the administration, and writes a diary. Yet in addition to reading Mao's texts, she also reads Marxist volumes, such as Engels' Gotha Program. Aspiring to emulate the Paris Commune, an exemplar of spontaneous mass social movements, she thinks deeply about issues of popular democracy and has constant discussions with her associates and friends, raising and trying to deal with questions of capitalism and socialism and the plight of the ordinary people.
It recalls the mass campaign that exhorted people to exercise their democratic rights to speak out and rebel, to critique and to protest, and to publicize their views... The class on democracy also reveals a thoughtful, educational process based on reading, studying, and discussing. A telling episode toward the end of the novel sums up this lesson. Reflecting on her experience in the Cultural Revolution as minzhu, Xiao Ming realized that minzhu literally means that people are masters of their own fate and should participate in the business of shaping their own affairs. Rather than being passively guided by the Little Red Book, political participation is one of the discursive practice: active study, discussion, and argument in seeking the truth. ... In a dialogue with a friend with rigid belief in Mao's words, Xiao Ming says that she had a revelation: any one of Mao's statements about the revolution can be contradicted by another. (This is from Ban Wang's chapter in Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History, "In the beginning is the word: popular democracy and Mao's Little Red Book.")Cao Zhenglu has much to say about what the Cultural Revolution really meant, saying explicitly that “those who castigate the Cultural Revolution have muddled reality, hidden the historical process, and misled the youth of today.” But it is a way to talk about modern problems:
After I experienced capitalism, and understood the political, economic, and cultural logic of capitalism, my feelings on this issue began to change. I began to reconsider mass struggle, a tactic that we had abandoned as something worthless. But this is the very thing that ordinary people often talk about: What would happen if another Cultural Revolution occurred? Democracy is something that the intellectual elite hunger for, but democracy is also something that the workers and peasants desire, however the content of the concept varies among the two groups. The elite want constitutionalism, in other words the rights of the minority to be heard. Workers and peasants desire equality, the right for the majority to be heard. In this way it is correct to understand the Cultural Revolution as “lessons in democracy.” There was no teacher in this class, we learned from each other, we liberated each other, and then chose which path we took. As to people that explain the Cultural Revolution as a power struggle and demonize China’s leaders ... their arguments are so weak they do not require a rebuttal. (This is from an interview of Cao Zhenglu conducted by Yan Hairong: Rethinking Is Not Demonizing: A Conversation with Cao Zhenglu About His Novel Lessons in Democracy.)
I like the label “New Left literature” 新左派文学 for what Cao Zhenglu was attempting.
Here, I have to insert some explanation of what the New Left was. And I'm going to loop back to the start of this essay—trying to figure out what the hell I was seeing, arriving in some godforsaken corner of China, a quarter century or so on from Reform and Opening, making friends with kids that grew up in workers' dormitories and now know that they won't amount to shit unless their parents can buy them an apartment. I had not received any heterodox opinions of Chinese economics and politics apart from the from Trotskyite pamphlets I read that called China a "deformed workers' state." I was hesitant to apply a Marxist lens to the situation, even though I was red enough to be reading Trotskyite pamphlets. My politics at the time were colored by an juvenile passion for critical theory, post-structuralism, Trotskyite shit, Žižek, etc. etc.
I was not yet aware of a Chinese New Left, which represents various tendencies but is said to be a "new" left because it rejects some or most aspects of existing leftist thought in China but is critical of liberal democracy, and it is influenced by global Marxists and critical theorists that didn’t fit neatly into Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. The New Left is mostly dead, but it's often now associated with neo-Maoists like, say, Fan Jinggang 范景刚 (I think talking about other online leftists spaces like Huayue and Maoflag was misleading, since neo-Maoists and the New Left should probably be seen as two different things), and perhaps Wang Hui's 汪晖 name still has some recognition, as does Ban Wang, who I have already referenced in this essay. Most New Left academics have jumped ship for foreign universities, retired, or keep their mouths shut.
But, more importantly, and returning to Cao Zhenglu, what what is—or what was—New Left literature? (And is it any more dead or alive than the New Left? No, it's dead, too.)
Here's Jie Lu, in the essay—"Constructing Agency: Challenges and Possibilities in Chinese New Left Literature"—that follows Xueping Zhong's in China and New Left Visions (I will make reference to this later):
He Yanhong, one of the leading advocates for New Left literature, believes that it already constitutes the Chinese literary mainstream of the twenty-first century, that it embodies New Left spirit and thinking. According to He, this spirit is a "fighting spirit" that Chinese intellectuals conjure to confront reality and their times. Most critics, including He Yanhong, find that New Left literature has returned to the realistic tradition of social engagement and social criticism. Others find a more radical tendency and link these writings with proletarian revolutionary literature. According to Liu Jiming, this tradition includes "left literature," "socialist literature," and "people’s literature" and focuses on social equality, as well as fighting against class exploitation and oppression. In linking New Left and proletarian revolutionary literature, such critics strategically place the New Left in binary opposition to other "nonrevolutionary" literary and intellectual trends. Thus New Left literature is critical not only of social ills but also of previous Chinese intellectual and literary developments.
Zhu Dongli asserts, "Our generation has been under the shadow of previous generations throughout the 1980s: criticizing Chinese history, rejecting modern Chinese revolution including the leftist tradition of anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism, questioning state, nation, collective identity, aspiring to western politics, economic mode, science, language, culture and academic thinking. The intellectual paradigm, values and aesthetics of the 1980s, to be frank, are, to quite some extent, shamelessly anti-people and colonized by the west." In commenting on Mo Yan’s, Yu Hua’s, and Yan Geling’s recent works ... Liu Jiming criticizes them as following the patterns of "scar literature" and defining the Chinese socialist practices achieved by several generations as "preposterously good-and-evil sentimental tragedy." These authors hope to demonstrate the surprising intellectual and imaginative poverty of Chinese writers and lack of independence of Chinese intellectuals. Kuang Xinnian sees a "philosophy of ignoble existence" promoted by the neorealist fiction of the 1990s as represented by Yu Hua, Liu Zhengyun, Chi Li, and Liu Heng. In their militant discourse, their total denial of all previous literary achievements, and their lack of dialogic thinking, they fail to contextualize past literary trends and to see important continuities and discontinuities between New Left literature and revolutionary literature of socialist and critical realisms, neorealism, and modernism. (My emphasis here.)Cao Zhenglu's work doesn't only report from the trenches but contains a theoretical statement on the "political, economic, and social problems created by privatization, marketization, developmentalism, and globalization" or a focus on social injustice, inequality, social stratification, exploitation, agricultural problems, the loss of state assets, the lack of political participation, the widening divide between the city and countryside, and environmental issues."
His Asking Heaven《问苍茫》(and this is also sometimes translated as Asking the Boundless, which perhaps comes closest, since it follows the translation of the Mao Zedong poem that the title is borrowed from: "Brooding over this immensity, / I ask, on this boundless land / Who rules over man's destiny?" "怅寥廓，问苍茫大地，谁主沉浮?" ) is a good example of what sets Cao apart. It’s a book that opens with rural girls offering their virginity to visiting labor recruiters to land a job in distant Shenzhen, where they are put to work in a Taiwanese-owned factory, but goes on to use the girls’ experiences in the PRD to dissect Chinese postsocialism. As Wanning Sun puts it (comparing it to I Am a Floating Flower):
[Asking Heaven] gives the reader a much larger, more complex, and multidimensional narrative of the political, social, and moral landscape, against the background of south China's industrialization and the attendant process of capital accumulation. The novel aims for more historical depth and engages with a wide range of questions including capital-labor relations in the postsocialist Chinese factory regime, the social and environmental costs of industrialization, the process of accumulation by dispossession, and the political-moral status of the Chinese workers, who in socialist times were hailed as the most progressive forces in society. (This is from Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media, and Cultural Practices, and, again, my emphasis.)I understand that the idea of New Left literature is revolting to most people, who are imagining something like an update of Great Changes in a Mountain Village《山乡巨变》but I want you to know Cao Zhenglu is better than that.
Cao Zhenglu's novella There《那儿》might be the most accessible—not too long, not too didactic—work. I was led to it by Xueping Zhong's "Internationale as Specter: Na’er, 'Subaltern Literature,' and Contemporary China’s 'Left Bank'" in China and New Left Visions: Political and Cultural Interventions (edited by Ban Wang and Jie Lu, 2012), and tracked down a copy on the website of a defunct neo-Maoist group. (Another definitely defunct Western leftist group once solicited translators to work on a crowdsourced rendering of it in English, but it seems like this effort came to nothing.)
There is the story of a disgraced union boss that fights to the end to save a state-owned factory. It sounds grim and it is, but it’s also funny and moving—and I’m always surprised when I remember Cao Zhenglu was already in his mid-fifties when it appeared in Dangdai《当代》in 2004, since Cao so perfectly captures the ironic, slacker tone of the narrator, which plays perfectly against a story of the collapse of an entire way of life.
There is no translation, unfortunately. So, that is what I'm going to do.
I want to say something about translating without permission from the author. I have asked authors and translators about this before. My conclusion was: it's probably not a big deal. Most of this stuff is circulating online in the original, already. Nobody is going to read this, anyways! But if pressed to justify it, I would say I try to follow these rules: make a sincere effort to secure permission, do an excerpt rather than the whole thing, translate work that is already more than a decade old, and try to focus on something that has a very, very slim chance of ever making it into translation in a more formal way, and offer some kind of explanation and apology. With Cao Zhenglu, I can say intellectual property is a bourgeois concept and I'm doing this for the people. But this translation is imperfect and never saw an editor (but a special thank you to Angus Stewart for rooting out typos), and is presented here to hopefully stoke the reader's interest in Cao Zhenglu and push them to hunt down some of his work in the original... I've taken a free hand with it and snipped out lengthy descriptions of industrial processes and made a few other cuts.
It started out simply enough.
It was around two in the morning. Du Yuemei, one of the sentries that patrolled under the neon lights of New Workers' Village was walking over to a public faucet, when a dog jumped at her out of nowhere. "Good Lord!" she yelped. The dog turned and looked at her, barked a couple times, then trotted off toward East Workers' Village. It didn't seem like much, but those two barks left Du Yuemei petrified with fear. She tried to stand up, then gave up and started crawling home. She didn't want anyone to see her. But the ground around the faucet was slick with ice and she couldn't manage to get her feet under her. She was forced to call for help. Lights went on in the rooms that overlooked the narrow road. A small crowd quickly formed around Du Yuemei. They helped her to her feet, a few of them grumbling that she'd pissed herself. "What are you doing out here in a skirt, anyways?" one of them asked. "You're gonna freeze to death."
Du Yuemei was one of the women in the neighborhood that appeared every morning at six or seven, pushing a cart with bags of bread and cakes and bottles of yogurt and tea. She wore a crisp white jacket and covered her face with a surgical mask. She'd go up and down the street, yelling, "I got hot milk tea! Hot milk tea here!" But when the sun went down, she changed into skimpy clothes, slapped on a layer of makeup, and reported for duty under the neon lights. When she saw a mark approaching, she'd call to them, "You want your hair washed? How about a massage?" It wasn't something she did everyday, just when she needed money. She had no choice. She couldn't afford not to.
A few of the neighbors carried Du Yuemei home and when they switched on the light in her room, they saw the mascara running down her heavily-rouged cheeks. They knew exactly what she had been doing out there under those neon lights. The men sighed and left but a few older women stayed behind. They wiped away her tears. She turned away from them and pounded on the bed, sobbing, "My little Gaigai is getting surgery the day after tomorrow. I've got to figure out how to pay for it. I don't have anybody else. I've got to..."
So, that's how it started. One small problem that grew into something bigger. But nobody realized that then.
Everyone called the New Workers' Village the New Workers' Village but it wasn't actually new. There was a strip of workers' dormitories that ran along the bottom of a hill, and the dormitories on the east side were called East Workers' Village and the dormitories on the west side were called West Workers' Village, so nobody was sure what to call the dormitories in the middle—they settled on New Workers' Village, though, for no particular reason. Most of the people that lived in the dormitories worked in a mining machinery factory. They all knew each other, pretty much, and the morning after Du Yuemei was found by the faucet, everyone was going around talking about what had happened and cursing the "goddamn vicious dog."
A place like that is bound to have its share of arguments and petty disputes. Nobody made much of them. Life doesn't get any better, right? At the end of the day, the only ones to blame were the bosses running the factory. By the late afternoon, everyone knew what had happened with the dog and Du Yuemei. One man in particular wanted to solve the problem for good. That was my uncle, who lived over in East Workers' Village. He was the chairman of the union, which wasn't doing much then, but he still counted as one of the bosses (all the other bosses had moved out of the dormitories long before, but he'd stuck around), and he knew that the guilty party lived in his own house—it was his daughter's dog, Rotti. He knew he had to act, before things got out of hand.
We'll never know what he was really thinking, but that night, while Yueyue was distracted by a Korean soap opera, he made his move. He waited until Yueyue was caught up in a particularly heartbreaking scene, then looped a rope around the dog's neck and stuffed him into a big plastic sack. He took the dog over to West Workers' Village and dropped him at the home of a guy named Ding, who had his own rig. He gave Ding orders to drive Rotti a hundred miles west and drop him off.
He spent the next few days after that night in a daze. He could stand in the doorway for hours at a time, staring glassy-eyed at the factory. If someone called him to come and eat, he'd go and eat a few mouthfuls, but if nobody called him, he'd just stay there, staring silently out the door. What was there to look at, anyways? Weeds and hunks of iron? Was he watching the sun go down? It pissed his wife off, that's for sure. She was sick of dealing with him.
Rotti was actually a really good dog. It wasn't fair to make him the scapegoat.
Yueyue came crying to me a couple times. "Why did he have to do that to our Rotti?" she sobbed.
She was my cousin. If she'd been born in a different time and place, she'd probably have wound up as a CEO, but she had grown up in a workers' dormitory and was lucky to run a shoestore on Jixian Road. She'd never done well at school, but when it came to business, she was sharp as hell. The Party liked to talk about developing advanced productive forces, and that's exactly what she was, for our family. But it didn't really matter how sharp she was or how many shoes she sold—she was just a girl and she had to defer to her father. All she could do was cry.
She'd had that dog since he was just a puppy. There were plenty of things that would forever be out of the reach of a girl like her, but maybe the dog was like a thumb placed on side of the karmic scale. He showed up out of nowhere one day, out in the road. As soon as he saw her, the dog wouldn't let her go. He chased after her, biting at her ankles. When she went inside, Rotti waited for her outside. He laid down right outside the front door and stared up at her. Yueyue gave him some water and some mantou. He went and bedded down in a shoe box. The dog grew bigger and more beautiful and her business flourished. How'd he get the name Rotti? Well, I suggested she call him Pavarotti. He was louder than any dogs in the neighborhood. He had pipes on him, just like the tenor. But she said she didn't want him to turn out looking like Pavarotti, so she shortened it to Rotti. Around the time he earned that name, some guy from a pet shop came around and tried to buy him. He offered a few thousand yuan, but Yueyue turned him down. He showed up back again a few days later and she told him to fuck off. The guy from the pet shop said: "This is a purebred German shepherd. It's a goddamn shame he's with people like you." Rotti started growling and barking at the pet shop owner. He chased him up the road and the guy ended up slipping as he rounded a corner. Rotti grew into canine adulthood and got a reputation around the neighborhood. He always looked like he was considering something profound. He had two light spots over his eyes, and they made him look even more serious. He was dignified. He was gentle as a lamb, too. He didn't go around barking at the other dogs in the neighborhood, but they all seemed to treat him with respect. He poured all his love into his master, young Yueyue. He didn't do anything without getting an order from her. If he spotted a morsel of food, he could ignore it until she said it was okay for him to eat, then he would stroll over slowly, take a few sniffs, eat what he wanted, then stroll back to her side. Jixian Road wasn't the nicest place in town, and even though Yueyue wasn't the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, she was tall and pale and dressed in the sort of way that made men think they could take liberties with her—until they saw the big dog crouched behind her. But what Rotti never expected was that he'd be tricked by Yueyue's father and tossed into a sack. As smart as Rotti was, he lacked the type of cunning which only men have.
It was also Rotti's bad luck that on the day of the incident at the public faucet, he had followed Yueyue to visit an old classmate. They went down by the lake, where there were a bunch of big houses. Rich people like dogs and Rotti had been spotted by a pretty little bitch with a nice coat. She stuck her ass in the air and waited, but Rotti stayed where he'd been told to stay. When Yueyue got back, they started walking back home, and Rotti followed her dutifully, but he couldn't help himself from glancing back at the female. He whimpered to his master a few times and finally she laughed and said: "I know what you're up to. Go ahead. Don't stay out too late." Rotti ran over to the female and they started going at it. He hadn't planned on spending as long as he did with the female, though. By the time he was done, it was already late. That's how he wound up coming upon Du Yuemei and scaring the piss out of her.
Really, though, it was my uncle that had gotten the scare of his life.
A few days after the dog went missing, the wind picked up and there was a bit of sleet. When the sun went down, a real storm rolled it, with heavy snow, the wind over the power lines roaring like a jet engine. The next morning, everything was calm and the snow had already melted. My uncle said: "Well, that's it." What the hell did he mean? I couldn't tell you. He could've been talking about the weather but maybe he wasn't talking about anything at all. He stood at the door for a while, and then he left.
Before leaving, he had spoken to my grandmother—his mother. "It's all melted," he said.
"Melted is good."
"It warmed up."
"Warmed up is good."
"Better for poor people when it's warm."
"Poor people is good."
"I want you to stay in bed, ma."
Now, what did he mean by that? It was hard to agree with him that the snow melting was a good thing. With snow on the ground, everything was clean and smooth and it always made me feel clean and pure. But once the snow was melted, the streets were back to normal: wrecked with potholes and pits, garbage everywhere, busted shoes and scattered newspaper, impossible to take a single step without getting covered in mud... And what was the relationship between wealth and weather? Even poor people can curl up with a quilt. If you don't even have a quilt, I don't even know if that counts as simply being poor.
My mother called a little while later to let me know that my uncle had run off, but I was right in the middle of something. I was over at the newspaper and we'd just gotten a fax about how to deal with reporting on emergency situations, when suddenly someone rushed in to tell us that a migrant worker had climbed up on a roof and was threatening to jump. The police had sealed off the area.
My attention was focused on the show up on the roof, so I wasn't really listening to my mother. A couple people had gathered down below and we're yelling up at the poor bastard: "Jump! Get it over with! Asakura jumped, why the fuck can't you?" The police showed up and started deploying an air cushion. A news van from the local TV channel raced up, a reporter jumped out, shrugged off her jacket, and started delivering a report into the camera. The wind suddenly picked up and flipped up the reporter's skirt, revealing a pair of bright red wool leggings. The guy up on the ledge lost his nerve and backed down. I figured he hadn't really wanted to die in the first place. If you want to die, you jump long before the cops show up. I found out later the guy was trying to get three months' worth of wages that his boss had held out on him. It was only seven hundred yuan—that's not exactly worth dying over, and I guess he ended up coming to the same conclusion. The whole thing kind of pissed me off, though. What a tease. That's what we called a "suicide show." We knew the guy was never going to jump in the first place, he was just teasing.
My mother was still yelling into phone. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. She was angry at me, too. "We're in the middle of a crisis and you're sitting there like a mute. Your uncle's always been good to you. What the hell is wrong with you? There wasn't anything going on with him. Why would he just run off? Why wouldn't he call?" She was going off like a Kalashnikov. It wasn't meant to be a give-and-take. I don't know why she was pissed off at me for going silent while the guy was about to jump. I couldn't have gotten a word in, anyways. The way I saw it, if my uncle was going to leave home, he didn't want anybody going after him, so of course he didn't let anyone know or get in touch with them. My uncle wasn't anything like that guy up on the ledge. He wasn't a performer.
I heard my aunt wailing in the background: "Now do you believe me? Now you can see it—the corruption in his soul." My aunt was completely illiterate but she had learned stuff like that from TV dramas. It was like one of those scenes where the wife discovers that her husband is cheating on her. Now, whether or not my uncle and Du Yuemei had some kind of relationship, it was hard to say. Back when my uncle and Du Yuemei were still young, things like that went on. That was a strange time, after all. But, anyways, if there was still something between them, Du Yuemei wouldn't have been out working under the neon lights. Nowadays, plenty of laid off women make a living turning tricks. There's nothing strange about that. What was strange was my uncle running away from home.
Several days went by with no sign of my uncle.
My mother spent every night on the phone with my aunt. She wanted to get to the bottom of what had been going on with him. But my aunt couldn't be shaken from her conviction. She thought she knew exactly what had happened: "It's because of Rotti! Rotti bit that fuckin' whore. He's in love with her!"
My mother lost it on her. "What the hell are you talking about? Don't go shooting your mouth off now."
Times had changed. Plenty of people had been laid off. Even if they hadn't been laid off themselves, they knew people that had been laid off, and they probably knew women that had to make a living under the neon lights. Calling someone a "whore"—it wasn't that it was taboo, but it seemed too cruel. You could hint at what someone did, call them a "lady," but just saying "whore" was way over the line. A "lady" was what they called the women that came from the countryside to work in the city, the actual professionals, who worked out of salons or bars. The women that worked under the neon weren't in the same league as those ladies. They had to pace back and forth until they got a customer, do the job, then change spots. Everyone could sympathize with them. If anyone called them "whores," people would just say: "You don't have a family to feed? You wouldn't do whatever it takes to put food on the table? You're telling me you'll never be down on your luck?"
So, nobody considered the women that worked under the neon lights bad people. They had no choice. Now, as for my uncle saying that he'd run away from home because he was secretly in love with Du Yuemei, that was completely unacceptable. My mother lost it everytime my aunt repeated it. My mother said: "You're out of line. After all Zhu Weiguo's done for you, for you to treat him like this—after all those years you've been together? What the hell is wrong with you? Instead of going out to look for him, you're sitting there talking this shit about him?" After that, my aunt didn't bring it up again. My aunt wasn't a bad person, after all. She was worried about her husband. She wasn't in her right mind.
As soon as my mother put down the phone, she burst into tears. "Something went wrong up in your uncle's head," she said. "There's something wrong and he didn't want to tell anyone. It must've gotten too heavy for him."
My father tried to calm her down. "Everyone's going through something these days. He'll figure it out." He suggested we bring my grandmother over to live with us, so my aunt would have one less thing to worry about. My mother calmed down a bit and said she'd go over there in the morning to get my grandmother. I was still trying to figure out what was going on with my uncle. Was it really because of that dog?
What I mean is, I felt like Rotti was getting the short end of the stick. But I guess that was a bit naive. I mean, if you asked my parents, if you asked my aunt, if you asked all the thousands of workers laid off from the mining machinery factory, they'd say, "What kind of people keep a dog in a place like this? Good people are going hungry and they're paying to feed a dog. And then they let it out so it can bite people?" That's how they'd see it. I knew my uncle had gotten Ding to drive Rotti out of the city to protect him. That dog would have ended up getting beaten to death, sooner or later. My aunt was angry at her husband, but she couldn't run her mouth outside of the family. Even Yueyue calmed down after a couple days. When everyone realized that my uncle had disappeared, they eventually forgot that they were angry at him. They knew that the only important thing was to get him home.
But where was he? We went and reported him missing, but nobody had any idea where he might've gone. One of the factory bosses came down to tell us: "Just wait, just wait..."
We never did end up bringing my grandmother home with us that day. She refused to leave her bed. She said: "The bed is good. Big Head told me, the bed is good." Big Head was what everyone had called my uncle as a kid. What Big Head said went. She would only listen to Big Head. My mother wore her tongue down to the root trying to convince her to go home with her. Her eyes were spraying water by the end of it. But it was all for nothing.
My grandmother said: "Good, good." She wouldn't leave her bed. When he tried to drag her out, she started wailing. She sounded like a hog being butchered.
My grandmother had dementia but it wasn't that serious. When you talked to her, she could follow what you were saying, but all she'd say back to you was: "Good, good." If you told her it was raining, she'd said: "Rain is good." If you told her it was time for dinner, she'd say: "Dinner's good." If you told her that your buddy was dead, she'd say, "Dead is good." Always the optimist. Sometimes she had moments of lucidity and she'd start singing: "In—ter—natio—no—le will be the..."
We tried correcting her. "It's na, not no."
She said: "No, it's good."
When she heard her son had disappeared, she said: "Good, good." When we asked her where he went, she said: "Where, it's good. Where he went, it's good."
My mother started crying. "Don't talk like that, ma. It's bad luck."
"Bad luck is good."
My mother went home heartbroken. My father tried to console her: "The old woman has telepathy. She's just going to sit on that bed and wait for her son to get back." He went through a couple examples of her past feats of extrasensory perception. My father believed in the scientific and the rational, but he knew it would help her get to sleep.
My mother wasn't really angry at my uncle, though—it was my grandmother. My grandmother spoiled her son. My grandfather died young and my mother's two elder sisters had gotten married soon after, so my mother had been forced to shoulder a heavy burden early. She had sacrificed herself for her family. When my uncle came back from working on a production brigade in the countryside and got married, she breathed a sigh of relief. Even after all my mother had done for the family, my grandmother was never very close to her. She liked my uncle. My mother still resented their relationship. Whatever my uncle said, my grandmother would say it was fine. My grandmother lived with my uncle in that house all these years, without even a toilet, but all she would say when my mother pointed it out was, "It's fine. It's good." My mother had cared for my grandmother for so long, but she knew that the love would never be returned. That was what made her angry. My uncle, though, she'd basically written him off. I knew all of this was deadly serious to my mother but to me it seemed so trivial.
I asked her once about her brother: "Was he a really cute kid or something? Does it all go back to that? Even if he turned out like this, maybe she still remembers him like that..."
"Not at all. Even when he was a kid, he was useless. He was always in trouble at home and it was even worse at school—when he actually went to school, since he was cutting class half the time. She's only treated him like this since she got sick!"
The strange thing to me was that even though my uncle had been a bad student, he had turned out be something of a mechanical genius. He had mastered every aspect of the production line at the factory and he could fix anything. He blamed it on the teachers. He told me: "They figured they were slacking off, if they weren't knocking me over the head with something. My ears would always be red from your grandma dragging me around by them. Your mother looked after me, though. She'd rub them for me."
When he was a kid, my uncle liked to watch the men working forges. When the bellows started going and the flames started shooting out of the mouth of the furnace, he'd get chills, and it'd be like his soul had shot out of his mouth. By the time he got sent down to the countryside to work, he'd learned how to temper a blade and gotten pretty good at the basics of working metal. That was one reason his time on the production brigade had gone so smoothly. Everyone was looking for him to fix the blades on their tools.
He was fifteen when he got sent down and nineteen when he got back to the city. He'd been brought back by his father's work unit. He figured he would end up like his father, working his whole life at the mining machinery factory, but nobody had expected him to make a name for himself. It all started with a foreign cruise ship that had moored somewhere south of Shanghai. There was a gigantic mortis and tenon joint that needed to be jammed together, but there was no room to swing a sledgehammer. Even if someone could have gotten in there to work, the joint had to be driven into place in one go.
My uncle managed to get the joint together. The engineer on the ship, a German with a great big beard, started hugging and kissing him, dragging him to get his picture taken. He was saying stuff, like, how my uncle could make a name for himself if he went back to Germany with him. The engineer admitted he had written off all of the suggestions from the Chinese side, since he couldn't imagine there was anyone in the entire country that could solve the problem with the joint. A bunch of reporters showed up after that and blasted out headlines about how my uncle was "thinking of the Motherland while looking out across the globe."
It just so happened that right at the time he was down there to fix the joint, some students from an art school were also there painting the scenery. When they heard about the heroics of my uncle, they immediately got him to pose. He was posed shirtless in front of a furnace. The students all marveled at his physique. A few of the girls in the class went up, rubbed his back, and got so worked up they just about slid off their chairs. The students produced a portrait in oil, which they called Backbone. It's still hanging in the provincial museum.
That was back in the eighties, though. I don't know, strictly speaking, what the taste of the time was, but I've seen a copy, and I bet you couldn't even give the original away, now. But I've seen him at the furnace in a similar pose and I can see what they had in mind. He's tall, pale from all his years in the factory, with the body of a much younger man, covered in angular clumps of muscle. When he was swinging his hammer, it was like all the muscles in his upper body were dancing together. It reminded me of a bunch of mice, all dancing in rows. That was when he was still happy, though. Nothing like these days.
That year, he received an award as one of the province's model workers.
From what I've heard, my uncle had a couple options at that time. But he was never a particularly sharp guy—he could master anything technical but wheeling and dealing was beyond him. He didn't have much of a way with words, and he didn't like talking, anyways. He could never manage to master the art of sucking up. Despite all that, nobody could make much of an argument against promoting him to a leadership position. Everyone that had joined the work unit at the same time as him had already been promoted, and he was a model worker, too.
My uncle told me a couple times: "If I hadn't become a cocksucking cadre, everything'd be fine. I had the skill to make a living. I could've done it anywhere. I'd never have to beg for a meal, no matter what happened." His promotion seems to have haunted him.
I asked him: "Why don't you just leave, then? I heard Shanghai is dying for people like you. You could be making a few thousand a month, easy. What are you sticking around here for?"
He stared back at me for a long time, blinking, then said: "If I leave, I'm leaving everyone here behind. What'll they do without me?" He seemed to fall into a daze, as if he was running through all of the options in his head. I knew he wasn't. There was nothing going on inside his head. For him, the problem wasn't really that he'd become a cadre or that he didn't think he had the skills to make it outside the factory, but that there was something unresolved, deep down inside of him. He was too stubborn to let it go.
My uncle was twenty-eight before he started seriously looking for a wife. That should give you a good idea of how things turned out. At the time, he should've had his pick of any woman in the factory, and my mother had set him up with four or five, but he could never make it happen. It's easy enough to see why: he didn't like to talk. Not only that, but instead of just keeping his mouth shut, he had a bad habit of grunting and humphing at things people said. None of the women he was set up with could stand it.
Even when he was already in his late-twenties, my uncle preferred to hang out with me. He'd come over every Sunday to play. My mother used to hate it. She'd say to him: "Why don't you find yourself a nice girl to spend your time with? What are you doing, wasting your time playing with a little kid?" But that was exatly what he wanted to do. We went fishing, climbed up in trees to steal eggs... Whatever we felt like doing, we'd do.
I was a scared little kid, and my uncle used to tease me by sneaking out and jerking my pants down. I'd hide my little dick and start yelling at him, just like my mother did: "I'll tell grandma what you did, you fucking prick!" He'd give me a thumbs up and tell me to go ahead and tell her. It was only when he got married that we stopped spending so much time together. The only woman he ever felt comfortable enough with to get some chit-chat going was his seventeen-year-old apprentice, Du Yuemei. The reason was simple: he never saw her as a woman. He'd say whatever he wanted around her, even slap her on the ass, just like one of the boys. He used to have a habit when he didn't know what to say of giving you a slap on the cheek. Du Yuemei was more than willing to take those slaps. He might not have seen her as a woman, but she definitely saw him as a man. He used to hate eating vegetables, but that was about all you could get with the meal tickets the workers were given. He'd sort through with his chopsticks, saying, "Fuck vegetables. It's all fucking vegetables." But he used to love her pickles, so she'd always bring them, so he could have them with his meals. She'd sometimes bring him braised pork, too. And once they were done eating, she'd take his bowl for him and everything. If that wasn't proof enough, there was also another incident with a transfer. Since my uncle was a cadre, he wasn't expected to train apprentices, but he didn't want to sit around the office. That was how he got Du Yuemei as an apprentice in the first place. But then one day, the director of the factory went looking for my uncle and found him with Du Yuemei, grinding a crochet hook (there was a fad for crocheting around then, and it was a big deal to have a good hook). The director insisted that Du Yuemei find another master to apprentice under. My uncle was unexpectedly compliant. He thought he was in the wrong. Du Yuemei didn't say anything, but for the next couple days, she came into work with her eyes swollen from crying.
Before all that, there wasn't anybody happier than Du Yuemei in the whole factory. She'd go around singing, smiling... She was even secretary of her workshop's Youth League branch.
That didn't last long, though. If it had, maybe things would have gone different. When my mother started hinting that she suspected my uncle might have a thing for his young apprentice, he responded: "Bull-fucking-shit!" My mother and the rest of the family decided it wasn't meant to be. She was too young to get married, anyways. By the time she was of age, my uncle would already be thirty. It was impossible, everyone decided. It always sounded to me as if it was far from impossible. It seemed like the only issue was my uncle's inability to make things clear with Du Yuemei. There was something between them, there was no doubt about that, even if he couldn't admit it. He probably should have taken the risk, since he was already twenty-eight.
That year, though, there was a dramatic turn of events. It all started with a joke.
When men and women work together, there is bound to be something between them that goes beyond simple workplace camaraderie. It doesn't matter what position they are, either. It's even easier with people that work in factories, since they tend to be more direct—and they're more creative, too. It wasn't unusual for that kind of thing to happen at the mining machinery factory. I heard a story once about a guy that was known for taking liberties with the women there. He fell asleep after lunch one day and one of the women undid his belt and put a bunch of grease down the front of his pants. It was no big deal. Most people there were already married, anyways. A similar thing happened to my uncle. Workers in the factory could sleep wherever there was room to sleep, with just an old newspaper for a pillow. He'd fallen asleep after lunch and a worker from the warehouse had gone looking for him, since she needed him to sign off on something. "You're looking for Mr. Zhu?" someone said. "He's having a little nap. Give Sleeping Beauty a little kiss and wake him up!"
"Mr. Zhu is going to sleep forever unless you give him a kiss!" another worker said and everyone laughed.
The woman from the warehouse went up to my uncle, and was about to wake him up, but then she froze. My uncle had stripped down to an undershirt. When she got a look at his muscular arms and thick chest, she forgot all about getting him to sign off on the acquisition form.
She had a strange expression on her face, but a few of the women caught what was going on, whispered between themselves, and gave her a shove toward my uncle, then took her hand and put it on his thigh. He woke up to a whole crowd of people clustered around him. "He's fuckin' rock hard," someone shouted.
"Goddamn, I didn't think he could even get a boner." A few workers high-fived each other. Everyone was laughing so hard they were about to get sick. They thought this was the best prank they'd pulled so far.
But the woman from the warehouse didn't think it was very funny. She started crying. "You're all perverts," she shouted. My uncle was stunned. He didn't even want to raise his head to look at her. Not long after that, though, he decided to ask her out, and not long after that, he asked her to marry him. That's how she became my aunt.
My mother was against it (she thought the woman was a bit ugly). She kept telling my uncle that it wasn't too late to change his mind. My uncle said: "You know what happened. I can't change my mind now."
"What are you talking about?" my mother said. "They were just playing a joke on you."
"You know what happened," my uncle repeated.
It was a strange time. The way my uncle thought, his erection was tantamount to a solemn commitment. He had a responsibility to the woman from the warehouse. If he hadn't asked her out, he'd be just as much a pervert as his co-workers who had thought up the prank.
I've talked about this with Yueyue before. Life is unpredictable. Things happen almost randomly. If it wasn't for that prank, Yueyue wouldn't even have been born—or maybe she would have been born to Du Yuemei, if those two had gotten together, and she'd be a great beauty, and the whole story would have to be rewritten.
But Yueyue didn't see it that way. "Give your head a shake," she told me. "If I didn't look like this, I wouldn't have opened that shoe store. I could have gone to work in a sauna or something. I'd be making real money."
Late one night, my uncle called me. He said: "I'm back."
My mother ripped the phone out of my hand. She held back for a minute but then swore into the phone: "Where the fuck were you?"
"I went to the city," my uncle said.
"You couldn't call? You had us worried to death."
He tried to explain. It had something to do with a fight with Yueyue's mother, but the real reason was that he'd gone to see a former cadre to make a complaint.
My uncle put a carton of cigarettes on the table in front of me and called for Yueyue to make tea. When she'd served the cups of tea, he waved her out. "Listen," he said to me, very seriously, "I need you to help me prepare some materials."
I looked down at the tea and cigarettes and said: "Is all this for me? It's really not necessary..."
"Of course it is!"
Behind my uncle, Yueyue made a face. I pretended not to notice.
By "prepare some materials," my uncle meant that he wanted me to help him write something. In the factory, all the documents are called "materials." He knew I liked to write stories but he must have also known I didn't have much experience with technical documents. I guess the way he figured it, if you could write a short story, you could figure out how to write something else, too. I liked to think of myself as a decent writer, and I'd started going to some literary salons. I knew I'd have some success eventually, even if I hadn't done much yet. I knew a guy at the newspaper who'd made a name for himself writing fiction. He went by the pen name Ximen Qing's Big Brother. He was a master at writing dreary shit. I'd heard a story about him, that he'd gone to the bank to cash a check from a publisher and he'd wiped out the teller's hold drawer of cash. That story got passed around for a long time, between the rest of us who only dreamed about becoming writers. I knew I could do it, too. There was no doubt in my mind that I'd make some real money writing stories someday, too. I knew from my uncle's tone how important these materials were, and I knew that the fact that he was entrusting me with them should mean something.
"Now, I want you to know," he said, "if there's any trouble that comes out of this, it's all on me. I'll keep you out of it. You're the family intellectual."
It turned out to be something pretty simple. He wanted to report to whoever was in charge of these things that the state of the factory had gone downhill, explain to them the current situation for the workers, and offer his own analysis of the situation. The way I saw it, it was a waste of time. The leaders, I was sure, were already completely aware of what was going on at the factory. Were any of the state-owned companies around there in a better state than the mine machinery factory? Were any workers doing anything but scraping by? They must already know that the men had gone to pedal rickshaws and the women had gone to sell their bodies. They definitely already knew about all the people that had jumped ship early and gone to get jobs in the private sector. Those people were doing great. They'd gotten a nice headstart and had made the best of it. Pity the people that had decided to stick around. There wasn't enough work for all of them. Even if they did decide to make the leap, they'd be at the end of a long, long line. You could come up with a million dollar idea tomorrow and you'd still be too damn late. Did my uncle think the leaders didn't realize that?
I suppose my uncle thought they didn't yet realize because he insisted on writing a report for them. He said: "It's not that like that at all. I don't know what's going on at other factories, but I know exactly what happened here. I watched them, every step of the way, while they destroyed it. We're in the fight of our lives and I'm going to see this through to the very end!" His eyes glowed with righteous rage.
I knew there was no talking out him out of it. I decided I might as well play along.
My uncle told me that on his trip to the city he had been looking for the first director of the factory. Before taking over the factory, the old man had been at Yan'an, making munitions. After leaving the mining equipment factory, he'd been sent to a home for retired cadres. "It was a pain in the ass to find him," my uncle said. The old man had taken my uncle to talk to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Office and the Federation of Trade Unions. They had both agreed to help out. But if things didn't work out with the province, he vowed to take it all the way to the top.
After he explained what he was doing, he took me with him to the factory. He said: "I want you to see our factory. That's the only way I can get the story straight."
I was very familiar with the factory. I knew all the equipment, every little corner. I had spent half of my childhood there. It had once been a happy place for me, but it had become empty and desolate. It was in the middle of that industrial wreck that my uncle began to tell me the story of the factory and why things had turned out the way they had. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing, but my uncle was sweating. He unbuttoned his sweater and steam rose from his bare chest. It felt like a hallucination. The few lights in the factory projected his monstrous shadow onto the bare walls.
I'll try to summarize what he told me: The factory had started life as a munitions plant in the Northeast, but had been moved to Southern Jiangsu in the fifties to make equipment for mines in the area. It was considered a key state enterprise. By the end of the seventies, the amount of machinery it was producing put it at the top of the heap of factories in the province. It employed three thousand workers and five hundred engineerings and technical cadres. As my uncle had it, the factory could turn out pretty much any piece of machinery except jets. When the dual-track price system was introduced in the early eighties, there was a request put in by the director to spin off a separate operation from the factory, which would manufacture fridges (back then, we didn't have Haier or Meiling or any of those brands), but the provincial authorities declined. So, fine, the factory would keep serving the mines... Now, through that time, there were various schemes to bring in some extra revenue, but the leaders wanted the factory to maintain its mission. By the nineties, the market had already been carved up. The years of primitive accumulation had ended. That's when the workers were told it might be a good idea to jump ship. "Go out to sea" was the euphemism of the time, which meant leave your steady job at a state-owned company try to make a living in the free market. Now, what if you couldn't swim? Well, the leaders said, you'll learn fast enough once you get dumped into the drink. Now, by the end of the nineties, the factory was still chugging along. They were turning out all kinds of heavy equipment, like combines and tractors, and the quality was still decent. There were too many workers for the amount the factory was bringing in but there was still a decent market for agricultural implements, which should have held out for a while. Now, that wasn't an ideal situation for the provincial leadership, who were just waiting for the factory to fail. They wanted to speed up the process, so they switched out the director and the top cadres. When the factory still managed to make do, the government sent them a gang of cadres known for corruption. They figured that would be the end of it.
I started laughing. "There's no way that's what they did," I said. "You think they'd do let it go to shit on purpose?"
"I saw it with my own two eyes. I couldn't figure out what they were doing, at first. I thought it was just some kind of 'industrial restructing' or 'growing pains,' like they were saying. But now I know that all of it was intentional."
"But why? If you want to accuse someone of a crime, you've got to figure out a motive."
My uncle went silent for a long time, then said: "They wanted to make some money. Just think, if the factory is dead, if all this equipment is dormant, how do they turn it into cash? Now, it's not that easy. But I've got the materials to prove it. When you see the numbers, you'll understand. I know what happened."
My uncle was willing to admit that he had helped the process along. He told me about an incident that had happened a few years back, where the workers at the factory had been forced to buy jobs. Basically, you had to come up with three thousand yuan or you'd be laid off. That had been the last batch of corrupt cadres who had come up with that scheme. The workers had gone to him, since he was the head of the union and had been there a long time. He had the people's trust. They wanted my uncle to help them organize against management. The money had been skimmed off the top by the corrupt cadres. Some of them ended up in jail but most of them got transferred somewhere else. My uncle was left to face his co-workers.
When another band of corrupt cadres showed up, the provincial government had introduced to managment a Hong Kong businessman and pressed them to sign a contract with him. The investor from Hong Kong would buy out the factory, turn it into a private firm, and he would've had an obligation to compensate the workers he didn't re-hire. In order to do this, though, the factory needed the workers to hold a congress and vote for the proposal. The leadership went to my uncle and told him to deal with the workers and make sure they approved the sale. The way my uncle saw it, the man from Hong Kong was going to look after them. The workers had been through enough already, so if he was willing to put up the money, why not take it? The sale was approved by the workers, but shortly after the deal went through, the local government found out that the company they thought they had been dealing with—a Hong Kong firm valued at a few hundred million U.S. dollars—was in fact simply the Hong Kong-based front for a company operating out of our own province, which was worth about thirty million yuan. Even more shocking, the company was being run by a former financial director of the mine machinery factory. The capital they had claimed they were going to put up for the purchase was what they estimated the factory itself was worth—meaning, they had put up nothing. It was a robbery.
My uncle said: "But I'm worried about what we can do right now to hold on to the factory. That's why I need your help to write these materials. I need to convince someone... I need you to write something that goes right to the heart of what happened. I don't want to bore someone with numbers. Can't too long, either." My uncle didn't have any problem explaining the situation, but he when he put pen to paper, it just wouldn't come out. "I can't write it," he said. "I never bothered to learn any of that stuff."
"I promise to do what I can," I told him, "but I don't think you're seeing the situation clearly. What do you think writing a report is going to do? Do you think anybody cares? Do the factory workers even care anymore?"
The kind of person my uncle was, once he set his mind on something, there was no shaking him off it. But the way I saw it, passionate as he was, it was all a bit ridiculous. The workers at the factory had always been taught to take it as their own. It was their house, their co-workers were their family. But my uncle had to be the last person that believed in all that. Who was going to thank him for saving the factory? I didn't tell him what I was thinking. He probably would've beat me to death for saying it.
I asked him: "What exactly is the current situation?"
"They're deadlocked. I didn't sign off on it. They need my signature to go ahead with it, since I represent the workers."
"So, what are they gonna do? If you don't sign it, what're they gonna do? They can't go ahead with anything, legally."
My uncle shook his head and said: "You're too young. Who gives a fuck what's legal? They'll take it to the courts—they've got all the judges in their pocket, anyways. For now, though, they don't want to take it that far. Might make them look bad. They'd be happier if I just signed. You know how they are, sending over women, promising me a villa..."
I couldn't help but smile at the idea of my uncle being bribed. "Did they really send over women?" I asked.
He nodded. "They sure did."
"And you didn't partake?"
"You could get something for yourself out of all this..."
He stared back at me.
"I just mean, since it's all in your hands now... I can see what it means to you, but aren't there any kind of selfish motives here?"
My uncle thought for a moment and then said: "I still don't get it."
"All this high and mighty shit about the worker, I just don't believe it!"
"So, you think I want to become the director of the factory?"
"It's too late for that. The factory is bankrupt. That wouldn't be enough for you to go to war. But, let me ask you, why did you send Rotti away? There must be something there, right?"
"You little bastard. What do you want? You want me to say it was all for Du Yuemei? Is that it? Even if I told you I was in love with her, what the fuck would it mean?"
He had confirmed my suspicion: this was all for Du Yuemei. He must have gone to see her. He must have known what had become of her, how she was selling herself under the neon lights. He was doing all of this for her. My aunt had figured it out before anyone else.