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A Chinese Novel of Back-Country Reform

By Ann Scott TysonAnn Scott Tyson is the Monitor's Beijing correspondent. / January 15, 1992



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.

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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. The gossiping villagers of Crossroads Township explain away misfortune as the work of vengeful ghosts, inauspicious astrology, bad geomancy, and other supernatural forces. This collective superstition diverts public anger from the authorities.

For instance, a sturdy peasant named Fuyun is killed after officials force him to go hunting to provide bear paw, a Chinese delicacy, for the table of a visiting military dignitary.

"But talk soon began to circulate in Crossroads Township that Fuyun and the others had gone hunting on a 'mourning day,' so that one of the hunters was fated to die, no matter what," the author writes. "As the idea spread, many residents turned their hard feelings from the Tian clan and toward fate."

A Confucian deference to the village hierarchy also pervades the peasants' attitudes. Most villagers willingly repress even intense feelings of hate or disgust to avoid offending those in power. Mortal enemies offer each other tea. This apparent servility often stems from a desire to manipulate. Even the most upright man in the book, Golden Dog, shrewdly fawns over the local party secretary in what might strike Western readers as a serious compromise of his integrity.

Jia cannot hide his nostalgia for an idealized vision of traditional peasant life as simple, homey, and unpretentious. The heroine, Water Girl, fond of cooking paper-thin noodles and sewing red stomach-warmers for her men, approaches the ancient paragon of the pure, self-sacrificing, and virtuous woman.

Yet Jia envisions no return to tradition. Instead, he concludes that only by shaking off ignorance and poverty can peasants break the pattern of oppression.

Despite its epic qualities, the 500-page work is neither the most stylistically innovative nor politically outspoken of recent Chinese novels, mainland critics say.

Published in China in 1987, "Turbulence" was selected to win a United States-sponsored literary award, the Pegasus Prize for Literature, in 1988 by the Chinese Writers' Association, a professional group controlled by the Communist Party.