Yan Lianke, one of China’s most distinguished writerswhose works often push the envelope of his country’s censorship systemdelivers a humorous, daring, and riveting portrait of the trappings and consequences of greed and corruption at the heart of humanity.
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Heat, snow, and temporal infirmity
Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn't liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.
Winter returned overnight. Or perhaps it was more that summer disappeared in the blink of an eye — and since autumn had not yet arrived, winter instead came hurrying back. During that year's sweltering summer, time fell out of joint. It became insane, even downright mad. Overnight, everything degenerated into disorder and lawlessness. And then it began to snow.
Indeed, time itself fell ill. It went mad.
The wheat had already ripened, but the succulent wheat fragrance that had blanketed the land was dulled by this snowstorm. When the people of Liven had gone to sleep that evening they hadn't bothered to pull up their sheets, and had lain naked in bed idly cooling themselves with fans made from paper and cattail leaves. After midnight, however, a fierce wind began blowing and everyone frantically reached for their covers. Even wrapped in their sheets, the villagers felt as though the bitterly cold air was cutting straight to their bones, and immediately started rummaging for their winter quilts.
When the villagers opened their front door the next morning, the women exclaimed, "Oh, it's snowing! It's hot summer snow."
The men paused and sighed. "Damn, it's a hot blizzard. It's going to be another famine year."
The children cried out brightly as though it were New Year's Day: "It's snowing! ... It's snowing! ..."
The elms, poplars, mangroves, and pagoda trees were all blindingly white. In winter, it is merely the trees' trunks and branches that get covered in snow, but in summer their canopies are transformed into enormous white umbrellas. When the leaves are no longer able to support the weight of the snow, it cascades to the ground.
This hot snow came just after the wheat had ripened, and many sites throughout the Balou mountains were transformed into winter wonderlands. In one field after another, the wheat stalks were pinned cruelly to the ground by the snow, and while an occasional ear of wheat might be visible, the vast majority of the stalks were splayed out as though they had been blown over by a tempest. If you were to stand on the ridge above the fields, however, you would still be able to smell the scent of wheat, like incense that lingers long after a coffin has been carted away.
Look, the hot snow that fell in the middle of this sweltering summer transformed the entire land into a winter wonderland, leaving everything pristinely white.
Needless to say, for the village of Liven — nestled in a valley deep in the Balou mountains — this snowfall in the fifth month of the wuyin Year of the Tiger, 1998, constituted a veritable natural disaster.
1) To Liven. Dialect (used mostly in western Henan and eastern Henan's Balou mountains). The term means to experience "enjoyment, happiness, and passion," and also carries connotations of finding pleasure in discomfort, or making pleasure out of discomfort.
3) Hot snow. Dial. Refers to summer snow. People from this region usually call summer the "hot season," and refer to summer snow as "hot snow." They sometimes also speak of "hot flurries" and "hot blizzards." It is unusual for snow to fall in the summer, but upon consulting local gazetteers I discovered that there is generally at least one such snowfall every decade or so, and there have even been periods in which there was hot snow for several summers in a row.
5) Liven. Legend has it that the origins of the village can be traced back to the Great Shanxi Relocation near the beginning of the Ming dynasty, between the reigns of the Hongwu and Yongle emperors. Imperial regulations specified that in each household with four members, one person would be exempt from the relocation order; in households with six members, two would be exempt; and in those with nine members, three would be exempt. The elderly and disabled in each household stayed behind while the young and healthy were relocated, and during the resulting exodus wails of partings resounded across the land. The first wave of relocations was followed by vigorous protests, which led the Ming court to announce that those unwilling to cooperate should gather beneath a large pagoda tree in Shanxi's Hongdong county, while everyone else should return home and wait to be summoned. News of this announcement spread like wildfire through the region, and soon virtually the entire county was headed toward the tree. It is reported that there was one family in which the father was blind and the eldest son was a paraplegic, and in order to demonstrate his filial piety the family's youngest son used a cart to haul his father and elder brother to the pagoda tree, whereupon he himself returned home to await relocation. Three days later, however, Ming troops forcibly relocated the hundred thousand people who had gathered beneath the tree, while allowing those waiting at home to stay behind.
For the purposes of the migration, no distinction was made between the blind, the crippled, and the elderly, or even between women and children. Consequently, the old blind man with a crippled son had no choice but to trudge along with everyone else, his son strapped to his back. The sight of a crippled boy guiding his blind father, who was carrying his son with his own elderly legs, was absolutely heartrending. Each day, the procession would start at dawn and march until nightfall, gradually making its way from Shanxi's Hongdong county to the Balou mountain region in Henan province. The old man's legs became swollen and his feet bloody, while his son cried and repeatedly tried to kill himself. The others watched them in despair, and petitioned the officials to allow them to drop out of the procession and return home. Each official relayed this petition to his superior until it finally reached the minister of migration, Hu Dahai. Hu's response, however, was vicious: Whoever dares to release even a single person will be executed, and furthermore his entire family will be exiled to a distant province.
Everyone from Shandong to Shanxi to Henan knew about Hu Dahai. He was originally from Shandong, but near the end of the Yuan dynasty he fled famine and ended up in Shanxi. He was reputed to be ugly, but robust; straitlaced, but evil; unkempt, but heroic; outspoken, but narrow-minded; powerful, but lazy. The people held him in deep contempt, and when he went begging for alms everyone avoided him like the plague. Even if he showed up at people's homes while they were in a middle of a meal, they would refuse to let him in. He arrived in Hongdong one day hungry and thirsty, and saw an expensive tile and brick house. He extended his hand to ask for alms, but not only did the owner of the house refuse to give him any food, he taunted Hu by taking a freshly baked scallion pancake and using it to wipe his grandson's butt before feeding it to his dog.
As a result, Hu developed a deep and abiding hatred for the people of Hongdong. He subsequently made his way to the Balou mountain region in eastern Henan, and by the time he arrived he was famished, parched, and on the verge of collapse. He saw a thatched hut in a valley, and inside an old lady was preparing a simple meal of grain husks and bread made from wild weeds. Hu hesitated, but eventually decided not to ask her for anything. As he was about to leave, however, the old woman suddenly gestured for him to come in. She offered him a seat, gave him some water to wash his face, then cooked him a delicious meal. Afterward, Hu showered her with appreciation, but the old woman didn't utter a single word in return. It turned out that, in addition to being as thin as a rail, she was also deaf and mute. Hu decided that Balou's generosity was the precise inverse of Hongdong's depravity, and became determined to express his gratitude to the former while seeking vengeance against the latter.
Hu eventually stopped begging for alms and joined troops under the direction of the future Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. He bravely risked his life on the battlefield, cutting down his enemies like blades of grass, and in this way this former vagrant helped contribute to the establishment of the Ming dynasty. In the first year of the new dynasty, the new emperor surveyed the war-ravaged landscape, and cried out in anguish. The Central Plains region lay barren, its population decimated, with corpses piled high in mass graves.
One of the emperor's first projects, therefore, was to organize a series of mass relocations to help repopulate these barren regions, and he appointed Hu Dahai to serve as his minister of migration. Using Shanxi's densely populated Hongdong county as his base of operations, Hu proceeded to organize a mass migration from Shanxi to Henan. His primary target, however, was the family of the rich Hongdong man who had used a scallion pancake to wipe his grandson's butt and then fed it to his dog, and Hu insisted that everyone in the man's village — including even the blind and crippled — be forcibly relocated.
When Hu Dahai heard that the migration procession included an old blind man with his crippled son, not only was he unsympathetic; he was filled with vengeful rage. He refused to even consider allowing the two of them to drop out — leaving them with no choice but to continue trudging forward. When the procession was passing through Henan's Balou mountains several months later, the blind man and his son collapsed, and sympathizers again petitioned Hu Dahai to permit them to remain behind. Just as Hu was about to grab a knife to kill the petitioners, he happened to notice the same deaf-mute woman who had cooked him a meal when he had wandered into the Balou region. He immediately threw down his blade and knelt before her.
Under the woman's imploring gaze, Hu Dahai agreed to let the blind man and his crippled son stay behind. He left them with many taels of silver, and ordered a hundred soldiers to build them a house and help them cultivate several dozen mu of farmland, to be irrigated with water from the river. As Hu was about to leave, he told the deaf-mute woman, the blind father, and his crippled son:
The soil in this valley is rich, and the water abundant. I am leaving you with plenty of silver and grain, so that you may settle down to farm and to liven.
From that point on, this gorge came to be known as Liven Gorge. When word got out that a deaf-mute woman, a blind man, and a cripple had set up a household here and were enjoying a heavenly existence, disabled people from throughout the region began pouring in. The deaf-mute woman supplied them with land and silver, thereby permitting them to live comfortably, raise families, and establish a village. Although many of these villagers' descendants inherited similar physical handicaps, the deaf- mute woman continued to provide them with everything they needed. The village came to be known as Liven, and the old woman was recognized as the ancestral mother.
This is merely a legend, but it is a legend that has become common knowledge.
On the other hand, a Shuanghuai county gazetteer reports that although Liven has existed since the Ming dynasty, its recorded history dates back only to the previous century. It claims that Liven was not merely a location where disabled residents established a community, but a sacred revolutionary site where a soldier by the name of Mao Zhi from the Red Army's Fourth Regiment settled down to live.
In the fall of the bingzi year, 1936, General Zhang Guotao's Fourth Regiment separated from the rest of the Red Army, and consequently at the end of the Long March they didn't stop at Shaanxi with the rest of the army, but rather continued westward. Zhang was initially concerned that his injured troops would fall behind, but he subsequently began to fear that they would return to Yan'an and disclose his separation from the Red Army. He therefore ordered all of the injured troops to disband and return home. However, shortly after the soldiers tearfully bade farewell to the comrades with whom they had fought day and night, they were attacked by Nationalist forces and more than half of them were slaughtered, leaving the remainder with no choice but to remove their uniforms and continue toward their respective hometowns disguised as peasants.
This gazetteer reports that Mao Zhi was the youngest female soldier in the Red Army — noting that she was only eleven when she joined and fifteen when she left the Fourth Regiment. In the guihai year, 1923, when she was a year old, her father had been imprisoned and killed during Zhengzhou's Great Railroad Strike, at which time her mother took her to join the revolutionary forces. After her mother was killed during the Fifth Encirclement Campaign, Mao Zhi became a revolutionary orphan who knew that her hometown was somewhere in Henan province, but wasn't sure of the town or district. She subsequently joined the Fourth Regiment with her mother's comrades, and together they embarked on the Long March. As the troops were crossing the snow-covered mountains, Mao Zhi lost three toes to frostbite and broke her leg falling into a ravine, leaving her unable to walk without the aid of a crutch.
Most of Zhang Guotao's injured troops either died or simply disappeared after he ordered them to return home, but Mao Zhi managed to survive by hiding in an open grave. She subsequently lost contact with the army and had to resort to begging for alms. When she arrived at the Balou mountains and saw the disabled people living in Liven, she decided to stay with them. The gazetteer reports that while there was no record of Mao Zhi's having officially joined the Red Army, everyone in Liven — and throughout the entire county — regarded her as a bona fide revolutionary leader. Thanks to her, therefore, Balou came to have glory, Liven came to have direction, and the villagers, despite being physically disabled, were able to live happy and fulfilled lives in the new society.
When this local gazetteer was revised and published in the gengshen Year of the Monkey, 1980, the section on Mao Zhi reported that she and the other villagers were content. In this way, the village of Liven truly lived up to its name.
7) Site. Dial. Place, location. That site: That place, that location.CHAPTER 2
The villagers of Liven become busy again
Heavens! The snow fell continuously for seven days — seven long days that virtually killed off the sun.
These seven days of hot snow transformed summer into winter.
Once the snow finally began to taper off, some villagers tried to begin harvesting the wheat. Rather than using sickles, they lifted the wheat stalks out of the snow with their bare hands and snipped off the ears with scissors. They placed the wheat in a bag or basket, which they carried to the front of the field.
The first person to head into the fields that day was Jumei, leading three of her surtwin daughters — her three little nins. They spread out with their crates, bags, and wicker baskets like flowers in a field of grass — each reaching one hand into the deep snow to pull out the ears of wheat, and then snipping them off with a pair of scissors in the other hand.
All of the villagers, including those who were blind or crippled, followed Jumei's lead and went to harvest their own snow-covered wheat.
Everyone was very busy on this snow day.
The people gathering wheat were scattered like a herd of sheep through the white hills, and the clicking of their scissors echoed crisply across the snow-covered landscape.
Jumei's family plot was positioned against the wall of the gorge, abutting two adjacent plots and opening onto a path that led up to Balou's Spirit Mountain. Her several-ITLμITL-large plot was oddly shaped, but was basically a large square. Jumei's eldest daughter, Tonghua, was blind. She never went to work in the fields, and instead would sit in a corner of the courtyard for a while after each meal before eventually going back inside. She had never ventured beyond the entrance to the village, where the path up to the ridge began, and regardless of where she went, all she could see was an indistinct haze. At high noon, she could see a light pink sheet. She didn't actually know that what she was seeing was the color pink, and instead described it as being like running her hand through muddy water. In the end, however, what she saw was basically pink.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lenin's Kisses"
Copyright © 2004 Yan Lianke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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