Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2020

Dragon’s Gate, by Vivian Bi

As I said the other day with my virtual launch of Dragon’s Gate this story set during the Cultural Revolution in China, turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the times we are now living in.  The central character finds consolation in books, and reading as consolation is helping many people now too.

Vivian Bi was a small child when the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) began and her experience gives this novel impressive authenticity.  Many of us have heard stories of families suffering discrimination because of real or confected breaches of Mao’s determination to control thought in China: Vivian Bi experienced this herself because her father was denounced as a ‘Rightist’ (i.e. suspected of harbouring capitalist or traditional sympathies).

Dragon’s Gate is a coming-of-age novel in a unique context.  The central character is a Beijing teenager called Shi Ding, an enthusiastic participant in Mao’s call for young people to lead the denunciation of others even if they are family, friends or neighbours.  His interventions lead to some terrible consequences, including the very severe punishment of a nine-year-old boy and the suicide of his own father.  When this is followed by the suicide of Ruan Qiling, a university professor who was his father’s close friend and the only person who could explain this tragedy, Shi Ding is ordered to guard her house—where he discovers a cache of banned world classics, hidden from detection by his father’s ingenious carpentry.

The details of how the Cultural Revolution impacted on everyday life are astonishing.  Many of us have seen images of the drab uniformity of men wearing the blue Mao suits that were worn as a symbol of proletarian unity but I had not realised that this drabness extended to the family home.  Shi Ding’s father Shi Wangcai was a gifted tailor who made beautiful outfits for his wife, and magnificent tapestries and wall-hangings for the home.  But colour was condemned as one of the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas, and Shi Wangcai’s wife Lin Guiru is concerned that her husband is not in tune with the times.

Shi Wangcai had been a good husband.  He was the most skilful at work and the handiest in the home.  Apart from his mechanical inventions, he did exquisite work with wood and fabric, so their house was well equipped and decorated with beautiful things.  He was also a good cook who could create sumptuous banquets and turn radish skins or outer leaves of cabbage into delicacies.  His skills had brought honour, extra money and comfort to his family.

But lately, Lin Guiru felt there was something lacking in her husband.  While everyone else tried hard not to be left behind by the rapidly unfolding revolutionary situation, he had actually gone backwards.  In order to avoid the weekly political study sessions in the factory, Shi Wangcai had asked to be put on permanent night shift.  (p.21)

Shi Ding comes home one day to find that their Long March wall-hanging is no longer there:

The wall-hanging was the Shi family’s treasure.  Inspired by the musical The East is Red which recounted China’s history in the twentieth century…

 

…Shi Wangcai had spent weeks creating his masterpiece, a double bed-sized patchwork quilt.  He had skilfully sewn hundreds of red stars around the edges to give a three-dimensional effect. In the background were a towering snowy mountain, tall firs, sweeping grasslands and a flowing river.  In the foreground, Red Army troops, hailed by civilians, marched here and there.  Shi Wangcai had used different fabrics to create the colourful and stylish costumes of minorities. He had placed clouds, a rainbow and golden canaries above the human figures.  It was too beautiful to be used as a quilt so they had hung it in their living room.  (p.47)

Lin Guiru, thinking that kind of ostentatiousness was bourgeois, had dyed this exquisite quilt into the approved dingy blue…

Shi Ding’s path to redemption begins with reading Ruan Quiling’s collection of classics.  The universality of literature means that he can become a storyteller to people deprived of all arts except the approved ones, by applying universal themes such as justice and love in his retellings of great works.  Part One begins with The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s coming-of-age story of Julien Sorel, a rather priggish young man with analogous intellectual and social pretensions to Shi Ding’s. Part Two is titled Crime and Punishment, alluding to Dostoyevsky’s novel about the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of his character Raskolnikov.  Shi Ding is also racked with guilt, and as he spends his time in Ruan Qiling’s house, he devours her library, and begins to think for himself:

After Crime and Punishment and Red and Black, he had read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Scarlet Letterm Les Misérables, Pride and Prejudice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and many more.  He had immersed himself in a world far removed from his daily reality.  He could be in the French Revolution one day, at a high society ball the next; strolling though an English country lane or marching in a Siberian blizzard; escaping from Chateau d’If into the dark era, or wandering around a mysterious Thornfield.

Shi Ding had been a keen reader since a very early age.  A stream of modern fiction, the Communist Party stories, had been published before the Cultural Revolution and he had read them all.  He knew the party’s every struggle against the Japanese, the Kuomintang, the landlords and the right-wingers.  He understood well that the purpose of literature was to represent the lives, will and feelings of the proletariat and to promote the revolution.  This meant heroic themes, high standards regarding class, and clear distinctions between good and evil characters.

But Ruan Qiling’s books did not sit well with this understanding.  (p.125)

Part Three is titled Great ExpectationsDickens’ famous coming-of-age story which shows Pip’s betrayal of his origins but also love and rejection, and the triumph of good over evil.  In this part Shi Ding travels to remote parts of China, telling stories to entertain others while attempting to bring justice not only to those he has wronged but also to those wronged by corruption and greed.

But since Dragon’s Gate is not a fairy-tale, Shi Ding also has to find a way to reconcile his emerging estrangement from the society he lives in.  The Cultural Revolution lasted for ten long years, and although Part Four is titled The Count of Monte Cristo there is no real escape from Mao’s tightly controlled world.

Except into the world of books.

PS The title is based on a Sichuan idiom for telling a story: “scaffolding the dragon’s gate”.

PPS The book includes helpful maps of the Beijing district where Shi Ding lives, plus diagrams of his residential district and the layout of the principal houses.  There’s also a map of China showing the remote places to which Shi Ding travels.

Image credit: Mao Suit: by User:chrislb – Erstellt nach Image:Chiangs and Stilwell.jpg, Image:Mao1949.jpg, Image:Mao.jpg und Eduard Kögel: Der Maoanzug. In: archplus 168. Februar, 2004, Ausgabe 168, archplus Verlag GmbH, S. 24–25, ISSN 0587-3452, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=947505

Author: Vivian Bi
Title: Dragon’s Gate
Cover design by Gittus Graphics, illustrations by John Huang and Michelle Zhang
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2020
ISBN: 9781925736328, pbk, 347 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond with free delivery in Australia: Dragon’s Gate, direct from Hybrid Publishers where you can buy it as an eBook, and good bookshops everywhere.  Remember, most bookshops are still in business and are offering various forms of home delivery.  See my post for Melbourne booksellers who need your support here.


Responses

  1. I really can imagine books being the only escape in a repressive regime. And friom what I’ve read about the Cultural Revolution, it was pretty grim…

    Like

    • I remember reading something, I’m not sure now which book, it was about a visit to a professor during the CR, which depicted the sense of overwhelming sadness of a highly intelligent man, denied any possibility of exercising his mind. No wonder there were so many suicides.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating. I’ve not read nearly enough about the Cultural Revolution, and the escape into books is an additional pull. I’ve lived an incredibly blessed life but I certainly read to escape and expand my experience.

    Like

    • BTW, it’s instructive to take a quick look at that video. It goes for over two hours, so no, I haven’t watched the whole thing.
      The first part is just text about how wonderful Mao is, and I soon tired of that and just left it playing in the background. Then (you can hear where it changes) it goes to scenes of thousands of people entering a mega-hall to watch the musical, and it struck me then how awestruck many of those people must have been to have gained entry to spaces previously restricted to the wealthy and powerful.
      And then there’s dancing. Apparently much of the dancing is derived from traditional folk dance and song. You can ignore all the adulation for Mao and still enjoy amazing scenes…
      In small doses, that is!

      Liked by 1 person


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