Feng Jicai’s volume of short stories is truly a remarkable work. It is one of the first publications by a writer in the People’s Republic of China in which the writer has allowed people to be people. The reader does not find the stereotypical characters of proletarian literature in Feng’s stories; instead, these tales are filled with believable characters living lives of quiet desperation. Though uneven in quality and development, Feng’s writing is infused with a light humor and gentle satire. This is extraordinarily candid writing for modern China, but one can still see the restraint of a writer in a totalitarian state.
In the Yan’an Forum of 1942, Mao set forth the guidelines for China’s revolutionary literature, and after the “liberation” of the Chinese Mainland in 1949, literature was carefully controlled. Mao declared that there were only two kinds of human nature—that of the proletarian and that of the bourgeoisie. The result was the virtual disappearance of literature for the next 30 years. All of the great modern Chinese writers—including Ba Jin, Shen Cungwen, and Cwo Moro—were silenced. From this silence have emerged a few courageous voices. Feng writes, “There are basic factors in nature that go beyond cultural differences, or class differences. While people exist in a social situation, they exist there in all the complexity of nature, which if we are to be realistic, we cannot minimize.”
Feng peoples his world with hapless victims of the society in which they live. In “The Mao Button,” we meet a foolish little man seeking status in a “classless” world by having the biggest Mao button of all. In “Chrysanthemums” an artist discovers the meaning of friendship and the grace of beauty only after the strong tides of Chinese politics have crushed his pride and driven him to the edge of despair. But the most gripping of the stories is “A Letter,” a realistic study of the anxiety and paranoia of a weak-willed historian who loses an indiscreet letter and is politically betrayed.
Despite dark pictures of lives in uncertainty and turmoil, Feng injects a subtle humor into his writing. His story “Numbskull” depicts an amusing encounter between a radio repairman in search of a bigger apartment and a wheeling-dealing black marketeer. Even the bleaker stories have glimpses of humor—a zealous informant reporting someone to the Party for gargling with hot water or an over-anxious lover hilariously misreading his correspondence.
It is essential to understand the precarious position from which Feng is writing. The literary climate in China has alternated back and forth: the pendulum swings between periods of relative creative freedom and periods of crushing brutality and ideological rigidity. China is currently allowing a measure of outspokenness, though significant restrictions remain. The tension is reflected in “Plum Blossoms in the Snow,” a story that implies that even though there was terrible suffering in the Cultural Revolution (now publicly criticized by government officials), things are all right now. A different perspective is found in the stories of Chen Jo-hsi, a writer who lived through the Cultural Revolution and escaped to the West to write about it. Her fiction makes it clear that the Cultural Revolution was consistent with the political system which produced it. Writing from within the system, Feng cannot make such a connection.
Feng does make a few oblique stabs at the system itself, though. In “A Letter,” he offers a daring description of an oppressive political officer: “People like him were bred by an abnormal society, and they in turn contributed to its malaise.” But then he blunts his point by adding, “In those years when work was not valued, his kind proliferated.” In another story, Feng satirizes the hypocrisy of a mayor who ceremonially sweeps the streets of his city, but again he fails to direct his criticism at the regime itself.
Some of the stories in this collection do lack substance and thematic force: “Winding Brook Way” treats the problem of pollution with predictable sentimentality, while “Nectar” and “A Street Sweeping Show” wander aimlessly about. However, the stronger stories glow with the talent of a developing writer, and the human qualities of the characters transcend the narrowly defined classes required of communist literature. Susan Wilf Chen’s translation is excellent, faithful to the tone of Feng’s writing. The reader can only hope that the political climate will allow this important Chinese writer to write more of the true experiences and feelings of his people.
[Chrysanthemums and Other Stories, by Feng Jicai (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $19.95]