The King of Trees by Ah Cheng (1984, 1985) translated from the Chinese by Bonnie S. McDougall (1990, 2010) New Directions (2010) 208 pp
I have next to no knowledge of Chinese literature. My knowledge of Chinese history, even fairly recent history, is negligible. So I approached The King of Trees with some real trepidation. Surely the cultural references would zip by my head. The back of the book says, “Never before had a fiction writer dealt with the Cultural Revolution in such Daoist-Confucian terms, discarding Mao-speak, and mixing both traditional and vernacular elements with an aesthetic that emphasized no the hardships and miseries of those years, but the joys of close, meaningful friendships.” I know what the Cultural Revolution was, I know what Daoism and Confucianism are, broadly, and I know who Mao was. But throw all of that in one sentence, along with aesthetics, and I’m afraid I’m in over my depth; in all honesty, surely I missed a lot of that subtext. However, what I didn’t miss was that second part of the quote, those “close, meaningful friendships.” I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to the characters, but here I was completely wrong. While all things political zipped passed my head, I was enraptured in the story of these characters, mostly men forming deep friendships with other men. Ah Cheng’s writing is so intimate, I was surprised at how touching it was, at how deeply I felt for the characters. This was probably my biggest surprise of the year, so far.
The King of Treesis a compilation of three novellas Ah Cheng wrote in the early 1980s: The King of Trees, The King of Chess, and The King of Children. When I finished The King of Trees, I didn’t quite want to move on. I felt the same way when I finished The King of Chess. And, not surprised this time, I felt the same after The King of Children. These a wonderful, sometimes aching (but always softly), stories.
The first novella in the collection is The King of Trees. At the beginning we see a tractor transporting our party of Educated Youth into a valley. During the Cultural Revolution, youth from the urban areas of China were sent to the countryside to live among the peasants, all in an effort to have the urban youth re-educated. These particular youth are in charge of cutting down a forest on a mountain side, all the while mingling with the peasants who have lived there for generations. One peasant, whose name is Knotty, has a special relationship to the area and to the trees. Here is an exchange between Knotty and the narrator.
“Have you been sent here to clear trees?”
“No,” I answered after thinking it over. “We’re here to be re-educated by the poor and lower-middle peasants, to build up and defend our country and to eliminate poverty and ignorance.”
“Then why cut down trees?”
“We’ll cut down useless trees and replace them with useful ones,” I replied. (We had been given a general idea of our work when we got here.) “Is felling easy?”
He lowered his head.
“Trees can’t run away.”
There is one particular tree that no one has, so far, cut down. Knotty has said that it will lead to death. It’s large enough that it would take days to cut it down, so that combined with general superstition have saved the tree. Still, the tree is blocking valuable light. Some of the Educated feel they need to educate the peasants: “In practical terms, old things must be destroyed.”
There are, obviously, several things going on here, and in my ignorance of the Cultural Revolution, I’m not going to say much about them. The best part of this story, for me, was the relationship between the narrator and Knotty and Knotty’s peasant family. As he narrates, our Educate Youth shows respect and compassion towards Knotty. We get the sense that the narrator has no desire to mess with this landscape.
The next story, The King of Chess, likewise has a lot to say about Chinese culture, in particular Daoism, but were it not for the excellent essay at the back of the book by the translator, much of this would have passed by me, though I was quick enough to feel that moments were important, even if I didn’t get their deeper significance. Again, what pulled me into this story was the relationship between the narrator and a rather pathetic young chess master named Wang Yisheng. They meet on a train that will take them out to their work camps. When the narrator enters a room on the train, Yisheng asks him if he would like to play chess. The narrator politely refuses. Later we learn that while Yisheng is waiting on the train for someone he can challenge to a chess match, his sister is outside trying to say goodbye to him. He knows this, but he doesn’t care. His life is chess.
Yisheng is certainly self-absorbed and arrogant, yet from the narrator’s eyes we start to see him differently. They develop a friendship, seemingly based on nothing, but we still feel the strength. One day Yisheng shows up at the narrator’s camp for a brief visit (he’s walked for over a day to get there), and he finally finds someone who wants to have a chess match. It’s fascinating to see how this conflict brings both the narrator and Yisheng to new realizations (which, I am told, stems from the Daoist concepts in the story).
Probably my favorite of the three was the final novella, The King of Children. The story begins with a transfer of one Educated Youth from one job to another:
By 1976, I had been working in the countryside for seven years. I had learned how to clear the land, burn off the undergrowth, dig holes, transplant seedlings, hoe the fields, turn the soil, sow grain, feed the pigs, make mud bricks, and cut grass. If I was a little slower than the others it was only because I wasn’t as strong. This didn’t bother me, though, as after all I was still earning my keep.
One January day, the local Party Secretary summoned me over to his place. Not knowing what it was about, I squatted at the threshold of his door, waiting for him to speak. He tossed over a cigarette, but I didn’t notice until it dropped on the floor. I quickly picked it up and looked up at him, grinning. He threw over some matches; I lit my cigarette and inhaled.
“Gold Sand River?” I asked.
He nodded, puffing at his water-pipe so that it burbled.
When he finished his smoke, he leaned the pipe against the wall, brushed the dust off his rough hands, blew his nose between his fingers, and asked, “Coping with our life here with the team?”
I looked up and nodded.
“You’re a bright guy,” he went on.
This alarmed me, and I wondered if he was being sarcastic. I turned his words over in my mind like a millstone, but as I hadn’t done anything wrong, I smiled: “Are you kidding? If it’s a job I can manage, give me the assignment and I’ll do my best.”
“You’re out of my hands now. The branch farm has transferred you to teach in the school. You are to report for work tomorrow . . .”
He (and everyone around him) are baffled by this assignment. They see it as a cushy job; the hard times are over.
When he arrives at his new post, he meets his supervisor Chen who says he will take him to his class:
I still wanted to argue but I saw the other teachers in the office were looking at me curiously. “What is there to be afraid of?” one of them said. “We’re not that brilliant either but we still teach, don’t we?”
At first the narrator finds some comfort in the job. He sets the children to copying passages and writing on the chalk board: “children were easier to look after than cattle.” One of the students is very dedicated and sets himself to the task with a focus that is never diverted. I like classroom / school novels. Usually they seem to be from the perspective of one of the students, though, and this novella gets us into the head of a teacher in a very interesting time and place, China in 1976. Mao dies that September.
Again, my primary pleasure in the novella was its depictions of relationships like the one between the narrator and the gifted student and the one between the gifted student and his father, whom the narrator knows from his old work.
Now, this work deserves far more scholarly criticism than I’ve given it here. While I’d like to be qualified to speak on its place in world literature due to its technique in speaking about China during the Cultural Revolution, I suppose it will have to suffice here to say that if you are looking for an exceptional read that will hopefully lead you to another place and time you’d like to learn more about, this is the book (not David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Indeed, I like that for me the primary focus of these novels was on the characters just getting by day to day and not on the political world around them. This made me care for them as people in a very difficult world.