It is not often a Chinese novel gets translated into English; and in this case the book’s title seems to make the point – the novel is simply named English.
Set in the grim days of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Gang’s semi-autobiographical tale is hard to put down.
Like the Kite Runner, it is a story of a young boy coming of age – and doing so in a difficult and tumultuous era.
Narrated in a calm, lyrical style, English is a must read for anyone interested in modern China. You may have read histories which touch on the Cultural Revolution. But this book dramatises the period with a vividness that eludes many other accounts, and depicts the curious balance of mundanity, terror and hypocrisy which made the Cultural Revolution such a disturbing experience.
For example, after hitting her child, a mother explains to the school teacher: “You’ve got to treat children the same as you treat political reactionaries. If you don’t beat them, they won’t capitulate. Dust doesn’t sweep itself.”
The last phrase is a quote from Chairman Mao, the man who instigated the Cultural Revolution, and who looms large throughout the novel. Mao never appears in person but he is always present. When someone writes the slogan ‘Down with Chairman Mao’ on the school wall, a frenzied investigation seeks out the culprit. The principal announces: “Today every class in the school is going to take a little test. Each student will receive a sheet of paper, and he’ll write ‘Down with’ on one side and ‘Chairman Mao’ on the other. Pay attention now. Write ‘Down with’ on the front and ‘Chairman Mao’ on the back. You must not write all of the words on the same side of the paper. Anyone who does is a counterrevolutionary.”
English is set in the 1970s – a decade in which China was turned upside down – and when even the most basic items began to be considered luxuries.
The protagonist and narrator, Love Liu is the son of two ‘intellectuals’. Both are architects, and both live in fear of being purged. Their behaviour becomes marked by ruthless pragmatism; the father goes away to construct a hydrogen bomb facility, and the mother stays behind to design an air-raid shelter.
Liu’s strongest bond is with Second Prize Wang, his English language teacher. Wang is a cultivated man cursed to live at the wrong time. As he observes towards the end of the book: “People should have ideals, just like a room should have windows.”
Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution was less a time for ideals than for survival. And by the end of the novel, few have avoided the scars of the experience.
That includes the novelist. As Wang points out in English’s Afterword: “Violence pervaded my childhood. When I was in elementary school, struggle meetings were held against our teachers. With the lights turned off, we six year-olds would rush up to the front of the classroom to kick our teachers in the guts as hard as we could.”
But after Mao dies, so too does the Cultural Revolution. The protagonists of the novel begins to recite less ideological poetry and diktat. Instead they quote a line from the English poet Shelley: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
In this case, spring is Deng Xiaoping.
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