Many of you have already read Eileen Chang’s (张爱玲) The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth. I only came to them recently, an undergraduate degree in Chinese language and literature, notwithstanding. (I did read Love in a Fallen City!) Both The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth are political novels (and ostensibly anti-Communist); both are based on true stories; both suggest how the institutionalization of revolution not only changed traditional landscapes, but also the emotional worlds of Chinese farmers and intellectuals (there is a sense in that the early cadres had already been transformed), and; both show compassion for the helplessness of individuals unprepared for the level of violence that the regime’s various movements would incite and possibly require, which is implied throughout the novels. To fall into the colloquialisms of my youth: “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
I can’t say I enjoyed reading these books. The stories relentlessly follow violence to its logical ends and the symbolism bludgeons. Hungry but honest farmers die. Naive but earnest intellectuals learn the truth about realpolitik. Specifically, in The Rice-Sprout Song, a young family–a model farmer, Gold Root, his recently returned wife who had worked as a maid in Shanghai, Moon Sent and their daughter, Beckon–die because a local cadre needs to collect enough rice cakes and pork to send to the Chinese troops in Korea even though there is pervasive (and unacknowledged) hunger in the village. Indeed, the main work of the cadre is to convince farmers to continue to starve while their harvests are sent elsewhere. In Naked Earth, Liu Ch’uan and Su Nan fall in love, are separated, and each ends up sleeping with a promiscuous and savvy cadres who use their respective positions to take lovers. Liu Ch’uan is seduced by Ko Shan, who in turn introduces (the naive) Su Nan to Shen K’ai-fu, who trades political favors for sex. Liu Ch’uan and Su Nan’s betrayal of each other leads to guilt and regret, and death: a smarmy cadre impregnates Su Nan who dies trying to terminate the pregnancy. And then Ko Shan derives pleasure in telling Liu Ch’uan about it.
Yet the novels read like a strong and necessary tonic, especially in light of current events: not only here in Shenzhen where urban renewal strengthens the government’s hold on resources and thus also makes it easier to limit conversation about urbanization, but also in the United States where the celebration of racism and misogyny in Donald Trump’s campaign, the refusal to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, and the militarized response to Standing Rock Sioux’s righteous demand to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their territory reveal the vagaries that violently suture desire to world making. Indeed, Eileen Chang’s compassionate depiction of revolutionaries (admittedly less so in Naked Earth than in The Rice-Sprout Song) illuminates how violence is made; even the terrified cadre and misplaced writer of The Rice-Sprout Song have compelling back stories. These political battles are not black and white, with good and evil easily identified, they are simply (and thoroughly) tragic.