Ah Cheng: The King of Trees

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(1984, 1985; tr. from the Chinese by Bonnie S. McDougall, 1990, 2010) 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.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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.

15 thoughts on “Ah Cheng: The King of Trees

  1. Birdy says:

    Great review! If you want to read more of Chinese literature I would suggest reading anything by Yiyun Li… She is fantastic!

  2. Trevor says:

    I am somewhat familiar with Yiyun Li, Birdy. I have liked everything I’ve read from her, but I haven’t really sought out her longer works. I’ll have to!

    You bring up an interesting conundrum for me. When you suggested Yiyun Li, my first thought was, “But she’s Chinese-American, and she writes in English.” Still, she spend the first twenty or so years of her life in China, so what she says should be as valid as anything Ah Cheng says, though of course these novellas take place in a time and place completely unique to what Yiyun Li could produce since they are a product of the Cultural Revolution and were written in the early 1980s. Also, Yiyun Li’s work is going to have the flavor of immigration and American culture in it, which is fantastic but not quite the same to me.

    Or perhaps I’m creating boundaries that shouldn’t be there.

    Either way, thanks for the good wors and I’ll certainly be looking forward to more Yiyun Li. Her short story for the New Yorker should be appearing in the next few weeks, in fact :)

  3. Isabel says:

    Everyone in these stories seem to be happy to be reeducated. I guess that it was better to accept their fate and not fight it. I’ve read that it was difficult for some university educated comrades to adjust to the life in the country. But, if everyone is young, like the narrators, you wouldn’t know what you are missing.

    Great review, Trevor.

  4. Birdy says:

    Yes, perhaps a pure authenticity is lacking in novels written by the Chinese-Americans. Of course, they are nevertheless wonderful as you said. But you did bring up a good point. Now I am curious to find out about books that are translated from Chinese, and which are as authentic as can be! I just did a check and turns out all the Chinese authors I have read are all an American or British mix. Even one of my favorite writers – Xinran. The closest author who comes to being really Chinese is perhaps Xiaolu Guo :) Well, thanks for the insightful reply Trevor!

  5. You have intrigued me with this one, Trevor, and I will be ordering it. As a student leftie in the 1960s, I know that I liked Mao quite a bit more than most people did — and did read a fair bit about aspects of the Cultural Revolution that American authors to this day overlook. The excerpts that you quote seem faithful both to the false picture that I got in the 1960s and the equally false picture that contemporary America has of China. Which suggests to me that this is an important book.

  6. Shelley says:

    “Trees can’t run away.” As someone who writes about a near-treeless land, that struck me as so sad!

  7. Lisa Hill says:

    I like the sound of this too…thanks for introducing me to a new author:)

  8. Stewart says:

    If you fancy some Chinese fiction of a realist bent, then the short stories if Lu Xun should be a stopping point. Contemporary Chinese authors include Bi Feiyu, Ma Jian, Yan Lianke, and Gai Xingjian, the latter being China’s first and only Nobel laureate, now living in exile in France.

  9. Stewart says:

    Gao Xingjian, that should be. As usual, iPhone thinks it knows best.

  10. Nicola says:

    Enjoyed your review. I love Jung Chang’s Wild Swans which of course is not fiction and I’m a huge fan of Amy Tan although, again, Chinese-American fiction. I only wish Amy Tan were more prolific.

  11. Trevor says:

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. I’ve been quite busy this week and haven’t had a chance to respond.

    But . . . Stewart, I know Lu Xun. My wife introduced me to “Diary of a Mad Man” a while back. Is he really of a realist bent? I have read only that short story, though we have an entire collection. I’ll have to dig it out! The other names, except for Xingjian, are unfamiliar to me — I think.

    Nicola, I believe I’ve heard of Wild Swans, but I don’t know where. And I’ve read some Amy Tan, though I’m afraid I haven’t read too much. I liked The Joy Luck Club, but not enough to get me to read much more than a few pages of her other novels. Perhaps I should get over whatever impediment I have and give her another try!

    And, Kevin, I am anxious to see what someone with more knowledge will make of these stories. My bet is that they are worlds better, so I look forward to your report!

  12. Hi Trevor,

    Interesting stuff.

    The sending of intellectuals to the countryside was frequently brutal, and many went unwillingly. Is that dealt with? This was a horrific time in Chinese politics, a lot of people died.

    In terms of Chinese fiction, Eileen Chang’s short stories are marvellous and both well written and accessible (by and large). I cover one collection over at mine and have the other (there’s two translated). She’s most famous now for Lust, Caution, which later formed the basis of a film.

    Wild Swans I wouldn’t recommend. It’s three (true) stories, the author’s grandmother’s story which is very interesting. The author’s mother’s story which is fairly interesting. The author’s story, in which we learn that she is brilliant and beautiful and generally wonderful. I choked on that bit. It smacked of extraordinary vanity. The author spent several hundred pages writing about how unique and amazing she was, but without offering much by way of evidence. I wasn’t surprised when she turned out to be effectively a one-book author.

    Other stuff to possibly look out for includes I Love Dollars which I have but haven’t read yet, and on the classics side The Story of the Stone. Monkey is a lot of fun too on the more mythical end.

    Oh, on this period there’s a great movie called Shanghai Dreams. It’s about the next generation, the children of the intellectuals who’ve grown up in provincial towns hearing their parents wistful tales of the city and being socially different to the peasant children they grow up among. It’s bleak, very bleak, but very good.

  13. Couple of things I forgot.

    Another absolute classic is Outlaws of the Water Margins. Mind the translation though. I understand there’s a good American one which is highly vernacular, that would appeal as it’s a long work and quite repetitive. I suspect a slangy American translation would get closer to its spirit than a more respectful treatment would and it would also probably make it a more entertaining read.

    Like a lot of very old works, I don’t think it was ever actually intended to be read as we read novels today.

    The other thing that struck me is that a lot of contemporary Chinese fiction I’ve seen is fairly brash. It grapples with issues of sudden prosperity, social change and the rising middle class. Obviously not all of it, but it’s a trend I’ve noticed. I find that quite interesting, and the picture you get is very different to those novels which root themselves more in the history and philosophies of China as this one sounds like it does.

  14. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comments, Max, and sorry I haven’t been responsive this week. I’ll be back!

  15. AstridMo says:

    If you want to look into the role of Daoism in Chess King I recommend reading Huters, T.: “Speaking of Many Things: Food, Kings, and the National Tradition in Ah Cheng’s The Chess King”; Kam, L.: “The Short Stories of Ah Cheng: Daoism, Confucianism and Life” and Yue, G.: “Surviving in ‘The Chess King’: Toward a Post-Revolutionary Nation-Narration”.

    I’m also working on a paper on the subject: 564-594.http://writingchina.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/the-way-to-eat-food-and-daoism/.

    As for recommending contemporary writers Can Xue ?? is one of my favourites!

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