The animal in man

Updated: 2011-03-04 07:59

By Liu Jun (China Daily)

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 The animal in man

Prolific writer Jia Pingwa continues his exploration of human nature in his latest work, Gulu. Provided to China Daily

A novel portrays the ways in which humans can be beastlier than any other creature. Liu Jun reports.

Wolves from several packs silently gather in a circle outside Gulu village. They are not there to dine on the pigs or cows, but rather howl at the night sky, which dances with snowflakes. They are mourning an old wolf that died of illness.

Slumbering villagers hear nothing - they are exhausted after a day of bloody battles among themselves.

Members of the Red Hammer Team and Red Broadsword Team, founded by villagers at the onset of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), have smashed the village's centuries-old kiln, blown up the sacred pine, left the farms in ruins and murdered their neighbors.

"While I was thinking about my new novel, I envisioned a village with beautiful mountains and rivers, where the animals - chickens, dogs, geese, ducks and even wolves - are kind to one another. But the humans aren't. They are either ill or fighting with one another. Humans cannot be compared with wolves," says Jia Pingwa, one of China's leading authors, whose new novel, Gulu (Ancient Kiln), hit shelves in January.

Winning worldwide acclaim with Ruined Capital (Feidu, 1993), which is available in French, Japanese and other languages, the prolific 59-year-old has reached a higher level in the new book that took him four years to accomplish.

As many critics have pointed out, Jia's work fills in a blank in literature. No previous work has provided such a microscopic view of the fates of ordinary farmers during the "cultural revolution".

Rather than pointing fingers at anyone over the nation's spiritual catastrophe, Jia seeks to reveal the gradual collapse of moral principles, as people in remote Gulu are swept up in, and away by, political movements.

Perhaps even more important is Jia's ability to look beyond human values and show the insignificance of mankind as it stands before Mother Nature.

The animal in man

Gou Niao Tai, a short teenage boy nicknamed after an inconspicuous mushroom, is the soul of the work, who also bears testimony to Jia's sad early life. Jia's father was banned from teaching and sent back to his hometown in rural Shaanxi province to become a farmer in 1967, plunging the whole family into a period of intense suffering.

As an infant, Gou Niao Tai was carried to the village by a flooded river. Chan Po (Granny Silkworm) saved him and became his surrogate grandmother. But Chan Po's husband is discovered to have left for Taiwan, which puts the family in the village's lowest social rung.

Despite his humble status, Gou Niao Tai remains untainted by greed and hatred, and helps those in need on either side of the battle. He is a symbol of kindness and hope in the darkest moments of human degradation.

Jia endows Gou Niao Tai with the gift of being able to communicate with animals and plants - the kindness of which contrasts with the evil of humans.

When a cat gives birth, all of the animals around the village rejoice and bring what little they have to offer congratulations.

In stark contrast, most villagers crave the flesh of an ailing cow, which is beaten to death after years of toiling in the fields.

As in his previous works, Jia lovingly records details of a rural life that is rapidly disappearing.

Chan Po, who is based on Jia's own mother, is a rural paper-cut artist. She is always busy cutting animals and insects out of used paper and dried leaves. She knows all about old folk customs, such as complicated funeral procedures and little-known herbal remedies.

Sadly, with rapid development, the smells, warmth and sounds of the rural life might survive only in writers' works.

The book features dozens of other striking characters. The village Party secretary, Zhu Dagui, perhaps, best shows how much the author has matured over the years.

In his early work Turbulence (Fuzao, 1987), translated by Howard Goldblatt and awarded the American Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1988, Jia set the ambitious and righteous young man Jingou against the powerful and selfish village leaders.

In his quest to explore new forms of writing, Jia goes further in examining human nature. Black-and-white questions are no longer his main concern.

In Qinqiang (2005), which won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Award in 2008, Jia maps the cobweb of rural relations and portrays village heads who seek all means to achieve prosperity.

In the latest novel, Zhu also stands out as he safeguards his dignity and cares for the village, even when he is stripped of his power and forced into hard labor in the village's ancient kiln.

Another character, Shan Ren (Kind Man), a former monk who tries to heal patients by preaching about ancient virtues, also evolves from similar roles in Jia's previous novels.

Shan Ren believes in the ancient Chinese wisdom that says gold, wood, water, fire and earth are the five elements of the universe. If a person falls ill, it's because he did something wrong, such as mistreating his parents or children, he says.

He advises one patient to kneel at the village entrance and criticize himself as harshly as possible in front of passers-by. The patient miraculously recovers.

"Everyone seems to criticize the 'cultural revolution', yet no one takes responsibility for anything," Jia says. "If people really followed Shan Ren's theories, the disasters wouldn't have happened."

Jia asked the designer to put the English word "China" on the front cover alongside the village's name, Gulu.

"China" refers to both the country and ceramics produced by the village, Jia says.

"By writing about the small Gulu village, I'm trying to chronicle this huge nation," Jia says.


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