Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Yu Hua’s “Victory” (tr. from the Chinese by Allan Barr) was originally published in the August 26, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.


“Victory,” by Yu Hua, begins with an appealing story telling style: several mysteries are presented to the reader — a young woman discovers among her husband’s belongings a key wrapped in a succession of three envelopes; that same husband calls only to say he has “arrived”; and the woman herself, Lin Hong, hearing footsteps in the staircase outside her apartment door, has a sense of “great damage” about to be done to her.

Someone she thought was close to her had kept a secret from her . . . and this secret had been concealed by time, concealed by time she had imagined to be happy.

After a search, the young woman discovers that the key opens a desk drawer at her husband’s office: there she discovers an envelope with photographs of another woman, that woman’s letters to Lin Hong’s husband, and a telephone number.

Yu Hua kept me interested in the story; as he remarks to Deborah Treisman in Page-Turner, “There is . . . a battle of wills at the heart of this story.” He goes on: “To say that they are in love with each other would not be as apt as to say simply that they are engaged in living. It’s when crisis erupts that they realize they love each other.” The elements of their fight kept me glued to the page: her over-thinking her every move and his complete withdrawal. The story feels real, and yet part of the art of the story is the way the speaker, using what Yu Hua calls a “plain style,” keeps his distance. I really enjoyed it and recommend it.

At the same time, behind the plain style, there is something akin to allegory built into the story. Yu Hua has said: “There are a few writers I really like . . . Shakespeare, Dickens . . . I really like nineteenth century writers . . . Hawthorne . . . and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best” (from a  wide ranging interview in 2003 with Michael Standaert for the MCLC Resource Center — click here to read?).

Hawthorne enjoyed allegory, and I think this story bears up well as a classic allegory. I think the allegorical function is what makes it so artful — that it is first and foremost a compellingly mysterious and entertaining story, but at the same time, the story reverberates with numerous possible allusions to political life in China.

In a useful review that appeared in the New Republic (click here), Perry Link discusses the way Yu Hua addresses politics in his writing, especially as it appears in the 2011 novel China in Ten Words. Link proposes that, despite the recent shift in China to what appears to us to be capitalism, “Mao is still present in two ways: first, there are continuities, most notably in the authoritarian structure of Communist Party rule; and second, although there have been major rebounds from Mao, the rebounds themselves are structured by what they rebound from — and again Mao’s ghost persists.”

Link quotes Yu Hua as saying, “[It’s] like being on a swing; the higher you soar on one side, the higher you rise on another.” Despite the swings, though, “there are striking similarities between things that happened then and things that are happening now.”

The New Yorker has gone out of its way to place a strange image of an adult on a swing on the cover of the Yu Hua issue, echoing Yu Hua’s image of the swing as capturing the way Maoist thought stays alive in China.

In this story, the husband is tempted by the ideal of a beautiful woman in a red dress. Red could have any number of meanings, but it could suggest the way in which China keeps the memory of Mao alive, despite the terrible suffering China endured under his rule, could represent a swing which China may be having right now with a resurgence of Maoist talk.

In a Wall Street Journal article just this week (click here), Jeremy Page writes that on a recent trip Chinese President Xi Jinping invoked Mao’s memory in a variety of ways, echoing a political movement in China that Page calls “Maoist revivalism.” Page cites several public appearances in which Mr. Xi glorified Mao and one in which he pointedly ignored the suffering of the people under his rule. At one appearance, Mr. Xi said, “[O]ur red nation will never change color.”

The Wall Street Journal article suggests: “It isn’t just Mr. Xi’s rhetoric that has taken on a Maoist tinge in recent months. He has borrowed from Mao’s tactical playbook, launching a “rectification” campaign to purify the Communist Party, while tightening limits on discussion of ideas such as democracy, rule of law and enforcement of the constitution.”

Obviously, The Wall Street Journal has a conservative view of the world, but the article reveals a swing taking place right now in the political life of China’s leaders. To read Yu Hua, I think it is important to be aware of at least some of the politics that impel his writing, but that, of course, is a huge, challenging canvas.

“Victory” reads easily as an allegory. A somewhat dictatorial husband who holds all the power in a marriage finds that his marriage lacks life. He is drawn to a mysterious young woman in a red dress, exchanging chaste meetings and flirtatious letters. But it is the wife who in the end has the passion that can counter the husband’s dreams of perfection. Here it is the wife who stands in for the people of the nation, while the woman in the red dress represents, perhaps, the emptiness of Maoist idealism. One wonders if Yu Hua is suggesting that the people of China must find a way bring their social contract to life, as if for now, life as a Chinese citizen is settling for “just living.”

But to return to the story telling — Yu Hua sticks the landing as he concludes his tale. Yes, the husband’s “boundless” silence is dispelled by his wife’s passionate kiss. “Her ardor entered his body through his mouth, spreading and expanding boundlessly.” But in fact, we are not sure, and Yu himself tells Treisman we should not be sure, who won the victory in this marriage. But what is sure is that the marriage has finally come to life.

Allegorically speaking, I think Yu is suggesting that the marriage of China’s people and her leaders has not yet come to life. Think of Li Hong: “Her husband’s boundless silence left her at a loss.” There is a paralysis of progress in their little apartment — until the real live wife confronts the dream-girl in the red dress in person.

But what about the importance of “the key”? That’s where we began and that’s where we should end. The essence of Yu Hua’s art appears to be his ability to compress cultural and psychological complexity into vivid image and plainly presented narrative. To discuss his work, one has to dig a little. I hope some others will contribute some further discussion on what the key to “Victory” appears to be to them.

Note: A particular challenge appears to me to be reading Chinese literature in translation. The pet name Qingqing must have particular set of connotations to the Chinese reader, among which may be “highly placed minister or official.” But that is just a guess. I really think one cannot read Chinese literature in translation without some translator’s commentary on key problems the piece presents, and in “Victory” Qingqing must be a central one. I hope someone who reads Chinese will post some additional information.

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By |2013-08-20T11:54:05-04:00August 19th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yu Hua|11 Comments


  1. cheeseeating August 19, 2013 at 10:18 am

    It doesn’t work…

  2. Roger August 21, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Betsy, I found your comments interesting — much more so than the story. The story seemed to have too many implausibilities. The husband’s leaving the key in the drawer inside three envelopes seemed implausible because if anything he drew more attention to the key by doing this. More likely, he would keep the key on his person while traveling, unless he wants to get caught, which he presumably did not.

    Similarly, the couple’s unwillingness to communicate with one another and his refusal to apologize struck me as not credible. Who acts this way, really? And the wife seems not to question, even in her thoughts, his claim to have not gone beyond kissing in his get-togethers with Qingqing. But how could she not have doubts about that claim, at the very least?

    The story may indeed be intended as an allegory as you suggest, but even as an allegory, a satisfying story should, in my view, still operate plausibly at the surface level. Otherwise, the characters are cutouts, going through motions to indicate some secondary meaning. I’m not sure whether this one is allegorical, but I found the lack of surface plausibility to be a disappointment….

  3. Betsy August 21, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    Roger, I think it’s so interesting you find the story implausible while I found it – well – completely possible! I put the couple’s youth as part of the reason it’s possible, not to mention that couples are as various as weeds.

    About their using silence as a weapon – people do actually do this! It’s deplorable, and it’s hopefully a phase, because it doesn’t work. But silence is enraging, and that’s part of the reason anyone uses silence to communicate. It feels so right to enrage your opposite and let him or her do the dirty work of exploding! Then you, the silent one, can be quite supercilious and in the right. I agree that this is a dreadful episode, and that these people are not very attractive. But again, I’m hoping it’s a phase.

    I think Yu Hua actually speaks to this in his interview with Treisman – that they have barely had a marriage until this crisis occurs. Whether they will ever manage a marriage remains to be seen.

    As to the plausibility of the husband leaving his “key” to be found – well, I think when people have an affair, they’re hoping to be found out – hoping their partner will wake up to what is missing in the partnership. The key may stand for passion, it may stand for the ideal, it may stand for deep communication –

    And as to her willingness to believe him that the affair has not been consummated – well, people believe what they need to believe. At the same time, people sometimes have an affair of the mind – and sometimes that affair fo the mind is as much a betrayal as an affair of the body. What interests me is that the wife decides to fight for him.

    Apparently, this eroticism in the last scene is a new phase in their marriage. Hopefully, it’s followed by a new kind of communication as well.

    As for my initial post – I found everything I learned really interesting but found it difficult to get all my connections in and maintain some clarity and lightness of being. If I were to be honest about what I strive for.

    My initial reaction to Mo Yan was – Wow. But my reaction to this story by Yu Hua is that I really want to read China in Ten Words. .But – readers are as various as weeds! I stand by my preference, but was glad to hear from you, nonetheless.

    Maybe it was the woman in a red dress. I really loved that. Maybe it was she who clinched the deal. The fact is, red is not only the color of the nation of China, but it is the color of weddings. So maybe the wife saw the woman in the red dress as waiting in the wings for the divorce to go through. But she’s also the symbol for Maoist philosophy, I think. At least in this story.

  4. Betsy August 22, 2013 at 6:54 am

    One of the photographs of Qingqing that Li Han has in his desk is of her in a bathing suit. That was where I began thinking it is Mao and his perfectionist mindset that the husband is long for. .

    And regarding that strange cover art, I notice that the (red) swing is hung from what looks like a monolithic, huge, ancient spooky tree. The swing appears to be highlighted, but the human is tiny. A chorus of two birds is looking on. Of course, the cover also functions as a comment on the end of summer. Still, it also feels like a comment on Yu Hua.

  5. Birdbrain August 22, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Humans and metaphor ……when IS ia cigar just a cigar?

  6. Trevor August 23, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Not very often when reading The New Yorker.

  7. Betsy August 25, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Metaphor’s my cuppa tea. It’s like the story is the skeleton, the pacing is the muscle, the tone is the voice (obviously), the point of view is the mind, and the metaphor is the heartbeat.

    By the way, Trevor, did you see the great cartoon by Edward Steed in this issue?

    4 scruffy little people are sitting around with “laptops” that look like the tablets of the ten commandments . The caption reads: “Well, I really enjoyed it, and it definitely made me want to read more by this author.”

    It made me laugh out loud. I definitely want to read more by this cartoonist. If he’s going to make me laugh out loud.

  8. Julie August 27, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Hi Betsy, I love Edward Steed’s extremely witty cartoons. I believe he just started getting them published in the NYer earlier this year. You can see the collection here:

    (sorry if that didn’t show up as a link; I don’t know how to do that)

    By the way, I don’t work for Conde Nast. I just went looking for more of Steed’s work and stumbled upon that page.

    Oh, and fascinating conversation about the Yu Hua story. As someone else mentioned above, I enjoyed the discussion more than the actual story!

  9. Ken September 8, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I liked how what started off a bit quotidian and familiar slowly became more interesting and unpredictable and built to an incredible, erotic climax–a great scene of passion and exhibitionism/humiliation of the vanquished Qing Qing. This sentence quoted by Betsy–“Someone she thought was close to her had kept a secret from her . . . and this secret had been concealed by time, concealed by time she had imagined to be happy”–is something I didn’t ponder on first read because I too was in suspense and definitely reading it fast because I was curious as to what would happen, but wow, that’s quite a sentence. I’m not so sure about all the metaphorical levels of Mao and China etc. in her interpretation but even without these it’s a great story of pride and the attempt to vanquish one who has destroyed one’s pride.

  10. Joachim October 20, 2013 at 2:06 am

    I am a linguist and translator of Japanese literature in East Asia, with some knowledge of Chinese. I have not looked at the original, but Qinqqing’s name is most probably written ??, i.e. pure-pure (first tone-first tone)…I take the story at face-value, without any allegorical implications. It says a lot about the power, both traditional and modern, of East Asian women, contradicting, albeit unintentionally, the Western stereotype of the meek and obedient “Oriental” wife. Lin Hong’s relentlessness and Li Hanlin’s weakness seem all to plausible to anyone who lives in this part of the world.

  11. Betsy October 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Welcome, Joachim. Thanks for your comments. Hope to see you here again.

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