It had been slightly more than 14 hours since my stomach had its last morsel of food. Compared to those numerous stomachs that for months become a perfect stranger to the concept of food, a mere 14 hours seems negligible. Yet, my stomach was growling in agony. Call me silly or juvenile! It was then that I had decided to confirm my skepticism over Youqing’s words. The cup of rice that lay in a comatose position couple minutes ago, was now ferociously gulping the simmering salted water. The rice appeared to be hungrier than me. The sweetness of the cooked rice audaciously prevailed in its steamy saltiness and its celebratory gongs resounded in my mouth. Youqing’s divine happiness found a way into my kitchen as the steamy rice porridge swirled into the cooking pot. Never had I thought that simple rice porridge could be blissful; never had I tasted such sweetness in a bowl of cooked rice gruel. As I savoured the warm porridge with a couple of pickled lemons and cucumbers, I gazed at the crawling red ant that was frantically finding its way out of from the starchy rice circle that I had drawn on the granite counter. Surrounded by the glutinous fluid the ant was searching for a way out to live. A stream of memories of Fugui flooded my mind and I wondered how humans find the gist of survival through their darkest despair and how my belly did became alive again through the fragrance of a simple fare. What is it that makes a person jammed in a hell hole redefine the laws of death? What is it that gives enormous courage to the hands that releases the stubborn knot fasten around the neck gifting joy to the crushed facial veins? Where does destiny and retribution stand in the assessment of life that exhales through the power of simplicity? What is the true gift of life?
“When the chicken grew up it turned into a goose, the goose in turn grew into a lamb and the lamb became an ox…….”
With every clandestine sound of the dice rolled in the clutch of the palms, with every card slapped on the table and with every moan of a whore being fucked, the ox became a lamb and the lamb a goose and then all that was left was a scrawny chicken pecking the remnants of the once glorious Xu family ancestry. As Changgen’s sturdy back became a daily travelling chesterfield for Fugui, the merciless elements of the House of Qing gulped the lustrous 100 mu of fertile land. The flourishing ox had given way to an impoverished chicken. The chronicle of livelihood that spans from the 1940s to the late 1970s and beyond, illustrates a man’s poignant journey from the zenith of affluent arrogance to the lowly plains of impecunious humility. For the prodigal son of the Xu family, one of the most crucial life lessons saw its roots grow deep into poverty and China’s political mayhem. Fugui trekked an unseemly rock-strewn path that was carved by Fugui’s gluttony, recklessness and later by his humility and admiration for life. The flight from an ox to a chicken was far easier than from a chicken to an ox. The treacherous path on which the chicken walked had its moments of a cheerfully smooth road where the goose had turned into the lamb, but as fate would have it the lambs were slaughtered to feed the ravenous life. Nonetheless, it was the lowly chicken that bestowed Fugui with the factual essence of life and gratification. If it is the subsistence along with the chicken that makes a person realize his hollow superciliousness and value life even more , only to be grateful for an ox later in life, then it is worth every cluck. Fugui’s affectionate mother would always say, “As long as you are happy in work, there is nothing to be ashamed of poverty.” Jiazhen gladly agrees too. But, in a world where the chicken is trampled without even a cackling sound by the gigantic ox, where does happiness thrive. Even though happiness blooms in the five fen candies Fugui gifted his only son, it vanishes the moment the lambs adorn the cooking pots of the communal dining hall. If poverty is nothing to be ashamed about, why does it then bring ignominy to the one that holds it? Why does the melodic resonance of money become a burden on one’s back and remain long-lasting yearning of the trembling ears who once adored it heartily? Why only the moneyed do legitimatize ambitious dreams? Why is the virtuousness of poverty snatched by the pitiless rich? Why did the colossal Chinese political oxen trample the lowly rural folks? Why is it that ordinary folks were afraid to be ambitious? What made Fugui think that he could honour his ancestors when he was nobody but a big-headed buffoon, taking his privileges for granted? What made Fugui a decent man who righteously honoured his ancestors?
“This time”, I said to myself, “I’ve got to keep on living.”
Fugui knew he had to keep on living. Jiazhen told him so too and so did the disappearing lives that encircled Fugui. Fengxia’s beautiful smile and Youquin’s naivety gave Fugui the potency to keep on living. To live when bounded by the unfathomable torrents of death is a dreadful irony. Yu Hua’s socialist realism novel which draws some of its inspiration ( Yu Hua’s own words) from the American folk song “Old Black Joe , is filled with sardonic incongruities. The rural folk of China; the poor peasants who faithfully marched alongside, initially with Chiang Kai-shek and then later with Chairman Mao were betrayed by the very own in whom they their well being was dependable. When the Nationalists commanded to bring the cannon, the poor walked onto the war front, when the Liberation Army walked into class warfare, farming lands were snatched, when the political leaders said smelting iron was profitable, pots from every kitchen seized and when officials asked for blood, every ounce was drained from the frail body. The Cultural Revolution became a playground of vengeance, hatred laced with bloodshed that played on the boundaries of human frailty. When the government asked the people to snatch, they snatched and when asked to donate, they gave till the final breath of their lives. The government officials and leaders were allowed to harbour sky soaring aspirations, whereas the ones for whom these political ambitions were employed were chastised for having dreams. In the dreams of Communism the common folk found credence and letting common folk to dream is what the Communist feared the most. Isn’t it paradoxical in the most cold-blooded manner? The Chinese government in their quest to redeem the lost glory of their country had become vindictive master puppeteers pulling the strings of the poor rural folk as per as their egoistic fancy. Yu Hua narrows his swelling satire to ironies brimming through lives surviving in the Xu family household, wheeling the fundamental nature of the novel. Jiazhen’s new found happiness in her impoverished life that was lost in her elite survival. Fugui cherishing a peaceful sleep at the end of his exhaustive and assiduous days is a far cry from his insomniac gambling and whoring days. Long-Er whose insatiability for a landowner class escalated in the House of Qing, dug its own grave. The whistle that the ‘team leader’ blew so fervently assigning the governmental tasks to the villagers became the frightful messenger of death. A fare of steamy hot buns was more formidable to the vacant belly than two violent bullets. The simple, coarse grain of rice became prized crystals shinning in the pot of boiling water. The brazen skin that has once had taken pleasure in the softness of silk was repelled by the “snot-like” fabric. Fate had become the biggest irony of all and Fugui its foremost angst-ridden victim.
Analogous to his other novelChronicle of a Blood Merchant, Yu Hua exemplifies the significance of a strong familial infrastructure. In the course of Fugui’s lifetime, family became his prime custody and most valued wealth. It was in the continuation of the modest family of four that both Fugui and Jiazhen found elation. Fugui’s metamorphism from a callous patriarch to being a respectable, loving and conscientious father is noteworthy. Jiazhen is the quintessential enduring and sympathetic woman who is not only a devoted mother but an honourable wife who stayed with Fugui through the thick and thin. Yu Hua deeply focuses on the vulnerability of a father-son relationship that prospers through the chaotic tides of time. A family is forever traced through its ancestral roots and the subsequent kismet or calamity finds a way to trickle down in the residual future generations. This is the very reason due to which I find great fondness in Yu Hua’s brilliant works. Every county, every street, every home is crammed with incalculable stories. Every personal version chronicled through powerfully diversified voices. Yu Hua releases these claustrophobic narratives of ordinary folk who are never able to find a worthy listening ear. Although average folks do not comprehend the nitty-gritty of egocentric political games yet they regrettably are the sole debt bearers of the pandemonium. Even so, these very people strongly establish their diligence and dignity in the midst of a thunderous societal revolution and virtuously wrestle the adversities while bleeding through the shards of their fate. Yu Hua lets the characters speak for themselves as they disentangle the psychological insights from their compactly meshed run of the mill personages.
“Fugui is a good ox. Of course he gets lazy sometimes, but even people drag their feet from time to time— how can you expect an animal not to?….. I know when to make him work and when to let him rest. If I’m tires then I know he must be tired too……”
Yu Hua creates a surreal bridge between man and beast. It is amusing to comprehend the heart of a man who once had meted animalistic treatment towards humans, now identifies with the suffering and anguish of an animal. The life of an ox becomes an imprinted metaphor for the human conditions prevailing during the era of China’s political evolution. The oxen that strived throughout their tedious lives to the point of extreme exhaustion only to be slaughtered in their twilight years resembles the quandary of numerous lives that were slaughtered throughout the Chinese socio-political landscapes. The beloved lambs found no other compassionate owner than the young Youqing. In this “coming-of- age” tale, where ripeness of life does not come through the numerical gradations of age, but through convoluted experiences and endeavours of survival; Yu Hua illustrates how vacillating providence and indecorous state of affairs bestow animalistic treatment on the living exposing the core of human shortcomings.
It is said that Yu Hua spent most of his childhood roaming in the hospital corridors (his father was a doctor and Yu Hua himself is a trained dentist), thus once again (similar to Chronicle of Blood Merchant) the hospital becomes a symbol of death and anguish, where the difference between animal and human is scrubbed away by shoddy and narcissistic medical conduct.
“The dead all want to keep on living. Here you are alive and kicking, you can’t die……….. Your life is given to you by your parents. If you don’t want to live, you have to ask them first.”
The anonymous young traveller who patiently listened to Fugui among the breezy green fields recognized the zeal Fugui had for his life. Fugui could remember his past as clear as the water that ran through the fields. Never once did his aging memory falter as he recounted the excruciating steps of his living. Fugui loved his life, come what may. Like the crops he faithfully cultivated on his five mu field; he cultivated an undying love for life, even from its treacherous terrains. Living is the true gift of life. Even the dead desire to keep on living. The love for one’s life, the love for one’s family is what loosens the knot suffocating the neck. Staying alive and go on living isn’t easy. Because, no matter how lucky a person is, the moment he decided he wants to die, there is nothing that can keep him alive. When a child is born with its very first cry, when the first rice sapling is born from its muddy womb; life is celebrated. The parents who hold the child, the farmer who takes pride in the first rice sapling; both of them seek life and not death. Then, Fugui is accurate when he says that when one wants to end life, one should ask for the parents’ permission. For they have gifted the essence of life. And, when one’s parents have been long dead, it is more the reason to be alive; to keep on living. To live is heroic. To love life is the true gift of living. Fugui was heroic and so were the members of the Xu family and the citizens of China who went on living with solemnity and vehemence throughout the tormented course of their country’s historical labyrinth and, the numerous people who keep on living through dastardly circumstances. It is here that I paused with the spoon clanking on to the now empty bowl exhibiting the dried traces of relished rice porridge. The ant is tired now and looking at that industrious insect I mocked at my pettiness. When numerous Fuguis of the world could have the courage to find love for life, why do I sometimes deter from finding that bravery. All my empty stomach needed was a mere spoonful of the warm porridge to keep it from falling into gloomy sickness. All Fugui needed was to view splashes of death escaping his fate to gain the audacity to live. All Jiazhen needed was to be with her family every day to keep on living. All that was needed was the eternal love for life. I knew the ant would come back to bite me one day, but at that moment I was glad to see it run into the sunlight as I wiped away its starchy grave.
**[ The Xu family – actors playing the said roles in the namesake movie]