Struggling to win Chinese hearts

What English-language novel has most influenced millions upon millions of Chinese teen-agers? ''Huckleberry Finn''? ''The Call of the Wild''? Possibly. Mark Twain and Jack London are very popular in China, as they are in the Soviet Union.

But somewhere high up on the list of best sellers over here is a novel called ''The Gadfly'' by E. L. Voynich. It is safe to say that few Americans or Britons have heard of either the book or its author. Yet E. L. Voynich was an Irishwoman whose novel was published in the United States in 1897.

Bertrand Russell has called it ''one of the most exciting novels I have read in the English language.''

I first heard of ''The Gadfly'' early in my stay in China. My wife and I had become acquainted with a young couple who lived in a single room not far from the Peking zoo. This was in 1979, when many Chinese were still quite leery of inviting foreigners to their homes. (Many still are.)

Fortunately, our friends lived in a fairly isolated block of buildings, without many people coming or going, especially at night. And so, that first winter in Peking, my wife and I would occasionally bundle ourselves up against the penetrating cold and sally forth by long-distance bus to our friend's home.

Their room was about nine feet by nine feet, most of it occupied by a large, Chinese-style board bed. A glass-door cupboard filled with books and a table which served both as desk and for meals took up the rest of the space. Kitchen, bathroom, and toilet were shared with several other families.

Our friends had been married about a year. Husband and wife worked in a small cultural institute, earning monthly wages of about $20 each.

''We skimp on other things so that we can buy books,'' said Weidong, the husband. ''Both of us are victims of the Cultural Revolution. Neither of us has had education beyond high school. We are hungry for knowledge.''

The Cultural Revolution - sparked by Mao Tse-tung with his appeal to youth, ''It is good to rebel'' - lasted 10 long years, from 1966 to 1976, and brought untold turmoil and suffering to China.

Mao began it because he was afraid the Communist Party and government were becoming too ossified, bureaucratized, and lacking in revolutionary fervor. But the youths he encouraged to rebel against their elders quickly split up into murderously quarreling factions, while unscrupulous leaders like Lin Biao and the so-called ''gang of four'' took advantage of these disputes to promote their own vaulting ambitions.

Swept up in the contagion of the Red Guard movement, Weidong joined the Army and went south, while his wife, Xiaolan, whom he had not yet met and who was then a schoolgirl of 16, went uncomplainingly to desolate northern Shanxi, near the old revolutionary capital of Yenan, to help open up a new farm. Here she learned, through backbreaking toil, that revolutionary enthusiasm and the repetition of quotations from Chairman Mao's little ''red book'' were not sufficient to grow good crops in poor soil.

The Cultural Revolution came to an end, and Weidong managed to get a coveted job in a cultural institute. Here he met Xiaolan. The two knew they were fortunate. Some of their high-school classmates were still working as day laborers, or factory hands, or were on military or state farms.

''My parents are of peasant background and fought as guerrillas to liberate China,'' said Weidong. ''They still worship Chairman Mao.''

But Weidong and Xiaolan had little faith left, they said, in a party which could make such terrible mistakes as the Communist Party had. They were for the reformist policies Deng Xiaoping and his associates were proposing. But they would really be convinced only after they had begun to see its fruits.

''We love China,'' Weidong went on. ''We know our motherland is backward and poor, but we do want to do our bit for China.

''It's not the bureaucratic state we love, it is our motherland. We would have no regrets about sacrificing ourselves for her. Like the gadfly, who gave his all to free Italy from the Austrians.''

Noticing the puzzled look on my face and that of my wife, Weidong said, ''Surely you know 'The Gadfly.' It's a famous English novel.''

We had to ask Weidong for the name of the author, but the Chinese transliteration he gave us, ''Fu-ni-qie,'' meant nothing to us. Only after borrowing a copy from another friend who was a middle-school teacher did we discover that ''The Gadfly'' had been written by Ethel Lilian Boole Voynich, the daughter of a mathematics professor in Cork, Ireland.

Voynich married a Polish scholar in the late 19th century and consorted with anti-czarist revolutionaries in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

''The Gadfly'' came to China by way of the Soviet Union, where it has been popular with generations of post-1917 teen-agers, and in fact, according to Sovietologist Harrison Salisbury, even before the October Revolution.

In the preface to a new American edition published in 1961, Mr. Salisbury called it ''one of those novels which, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, fuses drama (melodrama, if you will) and action with an idea, and so captures the imagination of a multitude of readers that it perceptibly affects the course of history . . . yet has for some reason been virtually forgotten in the land of its origin.''

The book's hero is Arthur, a gentle youth dreaming of freeing Italy from the Hapsburg yoke in the 1830s. A series of searing experiences transforms him into a sardonic, mocking gadfly - the most traumatic of which is being betrayed by a priest to whom, in all innocence, he had made a politically damaging confession.

Arthur, it turns out, is the natural son of a pious priest who later becomes a cardinal. The conflicting emotions of love and hate the gadfly feels for his father is one of the main themes of the novel. In the climactic scene, the gadfly, captured and about to be executed, is offered escape by the father he still desperately loves.

But Arthur will consent to flee only if the cardinal renounces his God and agrees to come with him.

''You have to choose between us,'' the gadfly insists. ''Would you offer me a share of your love - half for me, half for your fiend of a God? I will not take His leavings. If you are His, you are not mine.''

And again, Arthur pleads, ''Padre, come away with us! What have you to do with this dead world of priests and idols? . . . Padre, it is we that are life and youth; it is we that are the everlasting springtime; it is we that are the future!''

At the time Weidong and Xiaolan told us about ''The Gadfly,'' it was being serialized over the radio, and our friends invited us to be with them the night the climactic scene between father and son was to be broadcast.

It was a bitterly cold and windy night. Weidong and Xiaolan welcomed us with cups of steaming cocoa which Xiaolan had boiled on a hot plate in their room. Then Weidong ceremoniously switched on the radio, and for the space of half an hour we sat motionless while the scene was played out to its inevitable tragic end. When it was over, Weidong gave a long sigh, like air escaping from a balloon.

''Oh, to be strong like the gadfly,'' he said softly, ''even if you have to stand alone against the world!''

As we rode back to our hotel in the bus that night, I could not help reflecting on the influence that ''The Gadfly'' has exerted on millions of Chinese and Soviet teen-agers.

The image of the strong, lonely hero fighting injustice and oppression is in literature around the world. In China, particularly since the Cultural Revolution, young people have a tendency to identify the injustice and oppression to be battled with as coming from within their own bureaucratic or feudalistic society rather than with some faraway land. This is probably why ''The Gadfly'' was banned by the ''gang of four'' during the Cultural Revolution.

There is another aspect to the novel that deserves the thoughtful concern of those who call themselves Christians.

The author presents the Christian God as at best abstract and unreal, at worst an imposter and a sham. How does this picture condition the thinking of young Chinese or Russians about the nature of Christian love? Can Christians prove that their love is indeed adequate to meet the insistent demand of young people everywhere that it be tangible, graspable, and not merely beautiful words?

And so, as has so often happened with us in this country, what had started out as an excursion into the Chinese mind turned into a reflection on our own state of thinking - and being.

Next: Chinese intellectuals after the Cultural Revolution.

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