I read recently, two extraordinary books about China. One by the Chinese equivalent of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, unpublishable in his own country, Yan Lianke. Based in Beijing, many of his most controversial writings are banned in China. Four Books is among the banned novels. The other book is by the writer and journalist, Rob Schmitz, who has lived and worked in China for many years and is now based in Shanghai, his book is called Street of Eternal Happiness.
Four Books [for which I have no image because I left it on Orkney for others to read] is a strangely constructed novel, purporting to be sections from writings of various hands, collected and collated into a single bundle of papers. Set at the heart of the Cultural Revolution, several different people – one or two of whom are the authors possibly – are in the distant countryside “farming” and “smelting”. This disparate group are led by ‘The Child’, an androgynous youth who appears to be in charge and to whom all the others kowtow. The others include ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Intellectual’ and other similarly labelled characters, all of whom have been deemed to need re-education. The somewhat barren area they are congregated in is called the Re-Ed District and seems to have numerous separate and competing sections.
The competition element is crucial. The leaders, The Child and his/her ilk go to the next up in the hierarchy and report progress in their “village”. How many bushels of rice they can grow in such and such an area of ground, or how much iron they can smelt…the results are obvious. By exaggerating their yield they are forced to give more and more of their produce to those higher up in towns and cities; those actually producing the goods eventually starve.
Escape is virtually impossible, and hideously punished if caught. Information from outside the immediate compound is scarce and unreliable. Informing on your colleagues, however, is plentiful and a reliable source of “rewards”, generally extra food rations and thereby diminished in reliability.
The discovery of iron rich soil in the bank of the river led to mass smelting, and all metals were demanded to be smelted thus, leaving the compound short of tools and vessels for cooking and eating, and again competition meant a huge over-estimate of supply. Whole areas were de-forested to supply the fuel for the smelting, leaving nothing for shelter, building or fuel for cooking.
With the wisdom of hindsight, the results were entirely predictable. Intellectuals, writers, teachers, accountants and the like were not, and never would be, good farmers. The boastful claims for dubious rewards made by the “leaders” to leaders above them and on up and up the chain, meant that more and more got syphoned to the cities and factories and less and less was available to those in the countryside and a mass starvation followed, partly through a lack of foodstuffs and partly the wherewithal to cook it. They were reduced to eating grass and roots, and then…broke the final taboo.
Read, in translation, this was a very moving and articulate account of the whole process, written as from those undergoing the rigours.
The other book, Street of Eternal Happiness, is not entirely different. Rob Schmitz lives in a fairly modern high-rise that looks down on the street and at the back looks over a strangely under-developed area surrounded by a high wall.
As journalist, and a man with an appetite for discovery, Rob begins to talk to (and interview) the local inhabitants of the street. The flower seller who has left the countryside, brought up two sons and now has the problem of their education to deal with; the sandwich bar owner, who makes money producing accordions and whose bar is a side-line; the family who live behind the wall in one dilapidated house surrounded by desolation and a bundle of letters that lead him back in time to a situation similar to the ones described in Four Books.
Many of these city dwellers are not more than one generation away from the scars and wounds of the Cultural Revolution.
This is a dedicated, fascinating, funny and sometimes appalling story of the lives lived in a single street in one of the most diverse and interesting cities. The city’s own history, going right back to the arrival of Europeans, is marked out in the city plan and the waves of fortune and misfortune still appear in the very fabric of the buildings and in the tales of the people Rob speaks to about where they have come from. He clearly has an natural and rare aptitude for drawing out people’s innermost thoughts and feelings, aspirations and desperations.
For anyone visiting, this is a must read; for anyone with no intention of visiting, this is a must read because it is a window on China, a small window with wide implications for the world.
Is the Great Leap Forward, so violently promoted by Chairman Mao, going to prove more of a long jump which is just about to land?