China's living stones tell their story

Stones of the Wall, Dai Houying. New York: St. Martin's Press. 307 pp. $15.95. THERE have been many descriptions of the Cultural Revolution and the exploits of the ``Gang of Four''; there have not been many penetrating portrayals of the campaign's impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese people. And it's most unusual to find a compelling piece of fiction by a Chinese writer, translated by a Briton, and published in the United States. What's more, ``Stones of the Wall'' can be enjoyed on several levels.

Perhaps nothing could say more about the ``revolution'' than a chronicle of what it has taken to recover from it. ``Stones'' is a novel about healing -- showing how ordinary Chinese in many walks of life have drawn lessons and strength from the hardships of their recent pasts. It's also an intelligent and moving love story.

The setting is the community of a major university in Shanghai. Each character tells his or her story, chapter by chapter. A whole spectrum of perspectives is portrayed -- those of parents, spouses, children, colleagues, leaders, subordinates, peasants, city-dwellers.

The path of He Jingfu's and Sun Yue's relationship, which has been beset with obstacles, is the focus of the book. Through intermittent flashbacks, the novel slowly reveals what the obstacles were and how they were dealt with. Besides the simpler, more universal problems that young lovers often face, the Cultural Revolution came between He and Sun. Politics -- labels, personalities, power struggles, attacks -- engulfed their lives, and wrong decisions were made. Through it all, Sun and He are searching -- Sun for something she can't quite articulate, ``something noble and pure,'' as she puts it; He for ``MAN'' and for the conditions that do not prevent him from being human.

It seems that part of what Sun seeks is He's love. For a long time, she resists the search. Of her resistance, He says ``To find out how deep our love is, it would have to be tested. It looks to me as if she is avoiding such tests.'' Because her search proves to be extremely difficult -- opening old wounds and demanding self-examination -- for a time Sun allows a kind of post-Cultural Revolution fatalism to bring a fog down over her consciousness. By doing this she doesn't have to think or face the challenge of unraveling past mistakes.

Although she often feels despair, Sun comes to know deep down that her search is a worthy one, and finally she allows He to play a part in her process of awakening and of overcoming fear. They and other characters show the reader that steeling oneself, remembering ``selectively,'' or simply forgetting, do not heal wounds, exorcise the Cultural Revolution, or prevent it from happening again.

He Jingfu is better able to articulate what he is looking for. In one of the novel's flashbacks, He describes one of his lowest points. At the age of 30, he was an outcast from the university community -- homeless, jobless, without identity papers, a vagabond traveling far away in northern China. While standing on the Great Wall looking at the stars, he was suddenly overcome by the fear that he would die having been nothing to anyone, silenced and unnoticed.

Then he remembered something his mother had taught him. ``She often used to show me the stars and say people were like them; each with his own place and his own power. Nobody needed to prop them up, they still hung in the sky; likewise, people could live on the earth without anybody's help or hindrance. Stars shine in the sky and dew sparkles on the ground: that is the philosophy I learned as a child.''

From then on, He tells us, ``I decided to carry on living and I've not thought about death since then. Life may not have been fair to me but I have to be fair to myself.''

That was the key to He's development into a wise man and a true friend. He does not slight his own motives or talents regardless of how they are maligned. And, though his work continues to be stymied by politics and he doesn't accomplish much outwardly throughout the story, he seems to convey that his contribution is not so much his job or his project as it is the way he thinks. This thinking sets the tone of the story.

Perhaps, through He Jingfu, the author has begun to answer a tough question: Will the Chinese people allow another Cultural Revolution to happen? It is a philosophical question because, through all her characters, the author suggests that the answer lies in what individual Chinese do with their pasts and presents. He Jingfu sets the standard: He does not allow himself be a pawn in events, but stands on his belief that he -- as an individual -- can help shape events.

He Jingfu sees the Great Wall as a metaphor for Chinese history and how it is made. He says: ``When you stand on the wall, it's almost as if you can hear someone whisper, `The Wall isn't finished. It'll never be finished. Every boy and girl in China must add one brick. Have you added yours?' When you hear it, you'll forget your own sorrows and shout, `I'll add a brick! I'll fire my heart and make a brick!' ''

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