Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Chinese Novel of Back-Country Reform

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Chinese Novel of Back-Country Reform

Article excerpt

THE prize-winning novel "Turbulence" may disappoint connoisseurs of the most avante-garde Chinese literature, but not readers looking for a better understanding of modern China.

The newly translated work by mainland Chinese writer Jia Pingwa offers Western readers a rare, richly detailed, and insightful account of life in a Chinese village during the tumultuous decade of post-Mao reforms.

With earthy language and bawdy humor, Jia convincingly describes the enduring values that dominate the peasant psyche and social relations in China's countryside.

The novel is set in a village nestled into cliffs along a river near Shangzhou, Shaanxi Province, where Jia grew up as the son of peasant farmers. A leading figure in the Chinese "seeking roots" literary movement of the mid-1980s, Jia returns home to look for clues to China's future.

What he finds is far from the placid countryside and contented peasantry of Beijing's propaganda. It is a world in the midst of upheaval, as dark and unpredictable as the river that swirls through the book's pages.

The market-oriented economic reforms put in place by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 allow villagers to revive a lucrative, if perilous, river commerce. But the benefits of reform are quickly co-opted by corrupt officials backed by powerful patriarchal clans that continue to abuse and exploit the peasants.

The local officials are lying, philandering, greedy men who treat villagers as servants. They falsify confessions, alter documents, torture people, and even commit murder to "save face" and protect their power. Jia remains on safe ground by limiting his criticism to relatively low levels of the Communist Party, yet the implication is there of a system rife with malfeasance.

Two characters representing new forces unleashed by reform - a conscientious journalist named Golden Dog and his buddy, the upstart businessman Lei Dakong - try to bring down the rival clans by playing one off the other.

Yet these individual campaigns prove futile. Ultimately, the power of village autocrats depends on the deeply ingrained fatalism and superstition of Chinese peasants, Jia suggests. …

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