The Cultural Revolution was a particularly brutal period in Chinese history. In 1966, Chairman Mao unleashed a torrent of violence and ignorance that aimed to purge the country of revisionists, the bourgeois, the traditional and the capitalist.
The stories in Haystacks by Tie Ning take place in the 1980s, some year after the turmoil has ended but many of the characters are deeply scarred. In Evening Bells, a couple, recently retired bureaucrats, reflect on giving their children to peasants to raise. In Death Sentence, Mr Lin is released from prison but is damaged beyond repair. In Silvern Lane, a woman remembers how her cat was given a punishment beating for subversiveness.
I bought Haystacks on a visit to Chinatown. Guanghwa on Shaftesbury Avenue mostly sells books in Mandarin but has a few shelves of English language books. Haystacks has a particularly uninspiring cover and is rather pricey at £15.95. The inside cover quotes one “S. Toroptsev, a former Soviet critic”, who praises “simply plotted stories” and “delicately witty dialogue”, so I took a chance.
In my back-packing days, I visited book shops wherever I went, nosing around for local books in English. In Hong Kong, I bought a volume of short stories by Xi Xi. Two stories – A Girl Like Me and The Cold - were beautifully simple and touching and S. Toroptsev’s quote brought Xi Xi to mind.
Ah, Fragrant Snow could have sat happily in Xi Xi’s collection. When an evening train begins stopping for a minute at a remote village, it becomes a focus for Fragrant Snow and the other girls. This twelve page story is about tradition and modernity, hope and eating bitterness and though lightly sketched, Fragrant Snow rings true.
The characters are familiar but the settings alien; collectivised farms, municipal cultural bureaux, factory residences and other manifestations of the Chinese state. Tie Ning is the president of the China Writers Association and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, as establishment as you can get, though these stories were written early in her career.
Two novellas beef up the collection. The Red Shirt Without Buttons is an affecting story of two sisters. Anjing is an editor with a poetry magazine, her younger sister Anran is still at school. The Cultural Revolution casts a shadow, punctuating lives. Anjing remembers her childhood; “After that the “cultural revolution” started. After that the “Cultural Revolution” ended.”
Anran is gifted, guileless and argumentative and longs to be selected as ‘outstanding student’. Her chances are threatened by her untamed wit and sense of justice. Anjing toys with the idea of bribing Anran’s teacher, rewriting a poem the teacher has submitted and giving her a coveted ticket to a foreign film.
The ten stories have nine translators between them, which gives the collection an uneven feel. Worse than that, the book is liberally sprinkled with typographical errors. The Red Shirt Without Buttons is riddled with them.
Thankfully, the second novella, Haystacks, is less afflicted. It features a series of relationships between the peasants and students in the collectivised Duan village. The gruffly motherly peasant, Sesame’s Mum, calm and controlling Yang Qing who can eat bitterness almost as well as a peasant, passionate, desperate, Shen Xiaofeng and the vacillating Lu Yeming. The haystacks are a metaphor and also a location of lust, longing, remorse and regret. Fortunately, the use of language shines through the variable translations.