Chinese Small Town Literature Part 1

Hey guys!

The third blog about my summer research progress on comparative study of 20th century American and Chinese small town literature is on Chinese literature, finally!

My research focused on three books: 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Frog, and Big Breast and Wide Hips, and Gu Hua’s A Small town called Hibiscus. During the last two weeks of my research, I first read their original Chinese versions, and then afterwards, compared them to the English translations.

A Small town called Hibiscus is set in a mountain town in south Hunan Province in the 1960-1970s. It details how the political ups and downs have impacted the families in this small town, especially during the tumultuous ten-year cultural revolution from 1966-1976.

One distinct feature of rural China before the reform in 1978 is poverty, which is seldom seen in American small towns. In A Small town called Hibiscus, in order to get more rice, the “class enemies” have to perform a “devil’s dance”, which is described like this: “His bowl in one hand, his chopsticks in the other, he waved them this way and that, half crouching with his knees apart as he pranced forward, yelling in time with his movements: ‘Black-hearted devils want more! Black-hearted devils want more…’” However, such disgraceful dance is nothing compared to what happened in Mo Yan’s Big breasts and Wide Hips.

In the spring of 1960, when the countryside was littered with the corpse of famine victims, people started to scour the earth for vegetation to quell their hunger. “Everyone was limited to an ounce and a half or grain daily, minus the amount skimmed off the top by the storekeeper, the manager of the dining hall, and other important individuals. What remained was enough for a bowl of porridge so thin they could see their reflection in it.” In such a special circumstance, when a woman is so undernourished that her breasts lie flat on her chest and her periods stop coming, self-respect and chastity cease to exist. In the famine of 1960, a dining hall worker called Pockface Zhang traded food for sex with nearly every female rightist at the farm. Qiao Qisha, a girl who was raised in a Russian aristocratic family and a graduate from medical school, the youngest, most beautiful and most obstinate woman among the rightists, died because of overeating bean cakes. She also traded her body for extra food with Pockface Zhang, but sadly, her digesting system was not be able to handle all the extra food after such a long time of starvation, so she died. As Mo Yan said, “the bean cake had wrought havoc on the system of people who had gone hungry for too long.”

Another distinct characteristic of rural China in the 20th century is its extreme preference for sons to daughter in a patriarchal culture. A wife will always be bullied by her husband, mother-in-law and father-in-law unless she gives birth to a baby boy. In Big breasts and Wide Hips, Mother Shangguan Lu’s first seven children were all girls, and as a result, she was physically and verbally abused by her husband’s whole family, until Jintong, her ninth child and the only boy was born. Because of this prejudice, it was extremely difficult to enforce the “One Child Policy” and such difficulty is is explicitly depicted in Mo Yan’s Frog.

In the novel Frog, the Aunt Gugu is a respected midwife in her rural community and a faithful Communist. After the draconian new family planning policy issued, she throws herself zealously into enforcing it by any means necessary, and becomes the living incarnation of a reviled social policy at odds with deeply rooted social values. In order to have a son, those women whose first child is a girl would try every means to get pregnant, and then hide in a cave or basement for several months, until giving birth. And to fight back such defiant acts, Gugu threatens them that if they refuse to have the abortion, she would let the tractor pull down their house and their neighbor’s houses on all sides. Afterwards, the abortion is still needed to be performed and they have to recompense their neighbors’ losses as well.

In general, before the Reform in 1980s, Chinese’s rural population is significantly more conservative than city dwellers, and its living standard is much lower. However, people in those closed and remote communities are no less affected by the political and social changes brought out in big cities, and their family dynamics are very similar.