A Young Revolutionary

Over a century ago, the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing dynasty, saw its downfall following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911–1912. This effectively ended over four millennia of dynastic rule; Imperial China has met its end. What ensued, however, was a power struggle as different parties tried to wrestle control of the once powerful state. The Republic of China (ROC) was established by the Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party). The establishment of the republic, however, did not stymie the political unrests that were taking place all over the country. Slowly emerging as the Kuomintang’s primary adversary was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The communist insurgency was a threat to the young republic as early as 1927, which also saw the commencement of the Chinese Civil War. With the CCP mustering might and influence, it was just a matter of time and opportunity before it can seize control of the nation.

The opportunity came after the republic was weakened by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), a theater of the Second World War. During the war, the CCP was consolidating its power and influence. When the Chinese Civil War resumed after it was disrupted by the Second World War, the Kuomintang and the CCP were in a tug-of-war as both parties earned several symbolic victories. In 1949, after over two decades of unrest and after several decisive victories, the CCP was finally able to seize control of the nation. Chiang-Kai Shek, then leader of the KMT, retreated to Taiwan. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The rest, they say is history.

The early years of the People’s Republic of China saw both remarkable and radical changes that shaped the landscape of the country. It was these changes in the landscape that Yuan-Tsung Chen captured in her first novel, The Dragon’s Village. Published in 1982, the novel was set in the years immediately before and following the resounding victory of the CCP. The novel opened in 1949 in Shanghai, a stronghold of the Nationalists. As the war approaches its final stretch, Shanghai was under siege, with the threat of the CCP becoming more ominous as the days passed. With the CCP’s looming victory, the city’s denizens, particularly the rich and affluent, found themselves caught in a quandary: should they switch their loyalty to the victors or should they retreat together with the Nationalists?

“What you are doing is something unprecedented in China and the world. Three hundred million peasants, one-sixth of the world’s population, must liberate themselves from thirty centuries of feudal landlord domination. Smashing the landlords’ economic power means smashing their political power. Only that can make secure the power of the people.”

~ Yuan-Tsung Chen, The Dragon’s Village

For Guan Ling-ling, the novel’s heroine was oblivious to what was happening in her surrounding. Barely a teenager when the Civil War resumed, growing up with her affluent relatives left her untouched by the realities beyond the realms of Shanghai. Her attitude soon changed when she had an unexpected encounter with one of her former classmates. Driven by her convictions, Ling-ling’s classmate turned into a Communist but went incognito as Shanghai remained infested by Nationalists. Ling-ling, naturally amiable, offered to protect her. But the more she stayed with her classmate, the more that Ling-ling was absorbed into her friend’s convictions. When her uncle and aunt decided to leave for Hong Kong, Ling-ling chose to stay and join the young activists albeit having no discernible or deep understanding of what this entailed.

Ling-ling joined a theater troupe comprised of members who were radicalized by the new movement. The group was part of an elaborate plan to send young revolutionaries to the provinces to act as mouthpieces for the government’s reforms. Now a cadre, Ling-ling, and her troupe traveled to the village they were assigned to, Longxiang, the titular Dragon’s Village, in the province of Gansu in northwestern China. While Ling-ling expected festivities and a grand welcome, what greeted them instead was a less than hospitable welcome. The village was remote and isolated from the crutches of the rest of the world. Its denizens experienced debilitating poverty and were dreadfully ignorant and generally paranoid.

Despite her new environment being a shock to her system, Ling-ling remained steadfast and stayed true to what she had vowed to accomplish. She gathered the perplexed community and indoctrinated them with the wonders of the revolution and how it was going to benefit them. Along with the new government came a slew of reforms. Among these reforms was the land reform which was extensively dealt with in the novel. This land reform effectively abolished the feudal system which existed for centuries and was a great contributor to the glaring dichotomy between the peasants and the privileged. Private lands were expropriated from wealthy landlords and were subjected to redistribution to the farmers. This was among the many promises of the new Chinese government.

The intentions of the land reform, at least on the surface, seemed pure. What everyone failed to see was the lack of a systematic approach to its implementation. There was a lack of foresight on the CCP’s part that led to a widespread pandemonium, with Longxiang a microcosm. The cracks in the plan manifested as soon as the cadres reached the village. Apart from a lack of a well-functioning system, the young revolutionaries sent to the countryside lacked formal training in handling different situations that may arise from the implementation of land reform. The CCP simply expected that the landlords will just hand over their lands without resistance. They expected everything to run smoothly and that educated young minds would be able to complete their tasks. They rarely do, as Ling-ling and her fellow cadres would experience.

“Sometimes when I take these poems out and recite them to myself, I feel like an actor playing in an empty theater. Without lights. Without an audience. With neither applause nor hisses, surrounded by emptiness that responds to nothing I say or think. When people are constantly telling me to write this or that I feel my brain drying up. If this goes on, one fine day, it will be as dried up as the orange peel wives use to make herb medicine.”

~ Yuan-Tsung Chen, The Dragon’s Village

Through Ling-ling, Chen vividly captured the experiences of a young educated person while trying to integrate herself into the countryside. We see in her the plights of finding one’s self outside one’s comfort zone. Nevertheless, Ling-ling persevered in completing her task assigned task. In community gatherings, she taught the denizens about politics and the different reforms taking place all over the country. She taught them about their basic rights, even teaching them how to counter the feudal system. Not only did she contend against apprehensive denizens but she also had to confront a culture that saw very little to no change in centuries: “If the girl lived and gave birth to a child, according to village tradition, she would be left alone on a sheep pen or beside a latrine when it was time to deliver. She would be in labor without a soul to help her. If she knew the meaning of shame after the baby was born she would kill both the child and herself. Only that grim ritual would atone for the sin of being a woman.”

An integral part of the indoctrination of the villagers also included the introduction of women’s rights. The Chinese countryside was highly patriarchal. In the villages, as can be gleaned from the previous quote, women were raised to be subservient to their male counterparts. The weight of any sin was laid down on the women. The treatment of women in rural China was appalling: “Women were almost condescendingly awarded the role of helpmate, or were condemned to pine at home and wait for their hero to come back and share their glory.” There was an unhealthy premium placed on having a son. Daughters were murdered for the simple reason that they were not sons. Sisters and wives, meanwhile, were sold to pay for food or settle debts. Arranged and forced marriages were ubiquitous. The dichotomies in the perception and the treatment of the two genders were also palpable in the cities. Women and young girls had to constantly prove themselves capable of introducing changes to political and social order; Ling-ling had to contend with this reality while at school.

Contrasting the destitution that permeated rural China were glimpses into the prosperous merchants and their families in Shanghai shortly before the Communist Party rose to power. The comforts of semi-westernized city living were detached from the horrors that persist in the countryside. The novel also captured the shift in power dynamics that took place. With the peasants now educated about their rights, some were emboldened. Their newfound voice translated into a call for bloodlust. The abused have now become the perpetrators of abuse. The landlords had their houses pillaged while watching their daughters and wives raped. They were left defenseless against crazed denizens. They had no recourse but to watch and bear the humiliation. The state, meanwhile, tried to stymie the pandemonium but it was all for naught. Justice was left in the hands of the angry mob.

Chen populated her novel with a diverse set of characters, each one examined through Chen’s unflinching gaze. While one expects a monochromatic representation of the village and the cadres, we read about characters from different walks of life. In the city, we meet characters who are materialistic. We also read about characters who have been radicalized by the new ideals but some of these cadres started to resent the task they were set to do once they were in the village. Among the peasants are hardworking and conscientious members of the community. However, there were also farmers who were lazy and scheming. The landlords, meanwhile, were not always the villains they were perceived to be. Some had a capacity for empathizing with the underprivileged. Some landlords also had their own plights. One’s social standing also played a crucial role in determining the fate of one’s family. There was a portion where the differences between landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were described.

“This is what I was afraid of – that some young poor peasants, excited by their newly acquired power, might have raped the girl. We might believe that this was part of their new privilege, just as the landlord has had the right to buy a poor peasant girl like a slave, even to rent her from a desperate huband, or simply to tkae her by force. Why shouldn’t these privileges worj the other way , now that the rest of socicety was turned upside down?”

~ Yuan-Tsung Chen, The Dragon’s Village

Ling-ling, despite the handful of interesting characters surrounding her, still loomed large in the story. It was her own coming-of-age story. She got to experience firsthand how it is to live in the countryside. She experienced starvation and yet she went on with her task without complaining. Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for her. But Ling-ling was no mere figment of the author’s imagination. She was also Chen’s conduit; the novel was a fictional account of the author’s experiences as a part of the earlier revolutionary government. The Great Leap Forward program, of which the land reform program was part, eventually failed, leading Chen to write about her own experiences but with the Revolutionary Government censoring writers, Chen was forced to hide her writings. When she and her family were able to immigrate to the United States, she used these notes as a reference for her first novel, The Dragon’s Village.

The Dragon’s Village, however, was not without its flaws. Ling-ling was a vessel upon which the readers get to observe the conditions during the earlier years of the PRC. However, her own psychological landscape was not fully captured. Not even her motivations for joining the movement were elucidated. She was observed at arm’s length albeit the story being her own. Given that the story transpired for about a year to two years of the author’s life, it still failed to provide answers to important questions. We never get to know if the peasants were able to improve their lives. Were they better off when the lands they used to till were redistributed to them? Did life improve in the countryside?

Despite its flaws, The Dragon’s Village is a historically and culturally necessary book. It captured an important but rarely discussed part of history. We read about a young woman’s coming-of-age in the early years of the People’s Republic of China. We also read about the glaring dichotomies that existed between the urban bourgeoisie and the rural peasants. We read about a village steeped in tradition and on the cusp of embracing modernization. The women played a central role in the story. The cultural touchstones, including the politics that existed within the village itself, provided different textures and layers to the story. Parts-historical fiction, parts-coming-of-age story, and parts memoir, The Dragon’s Village provided an intimate, albeit incomplete picture of the early years of the PRC.

Rating

65%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Admittedly, my reading venture Chinese literature is quite limited, contrary to what I expected. I am cognizant that it boasts one of the most extensive and influential parts of the world of literature. Imagine my surprise when I realized that my reading journey in this part of the literary world is actually limited. With this in mind, I have been obtaining more works by Chinese writers recently. One of these books was Yuan-Tsung Chen’s The Dragon’s Village, a book which I also made part of my March 2022 International Women’s Month Reading Month. The first thing that piqued my interest in the book was its premise and its title. Its subtitle purported it to be some sort of a memoir but fictionalized. Sure enough, Chen transported me to the early years of Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China. Through her conduit, we read about a teenager on the cusp of young adulthood who was indoctrinated with the CCP’s propaganda. It was through her lenses that we see the disparities that existed, and continued to exist, between the rich and the poor. While I appreciated Chen’s goal, I somehow felt that the story was cut short, abruptly; the ending fell flat. There were also crucial questions that were left unanswered. It never came full circle. Nevertheless, Chen provided an intimate glimpse into the early years of the CCP.

Book Specs

Author: Yuan-Tsung Chen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1981
Number of Pages: 285
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

Shanghai, 1949: It was a tumultuous moment in Chinese history, when changes wrought by the Communist victory were beginning to sweep the land. Seventeen-year-old Guan Ling-ling, idealistic and headstrong, renounces her life of middle-class privilege to join a revolutionary theater group that will bring reforms to the countryside. A city-bred schoolgirl, Ling-ling suddenly finds herself in a world so far from her own experience that she can barely understand the lives she has been sent to change. From the moment she enters tiny Longxiang (“The Dragon Village”) – a dusty hamlet in one of China’s most remote and impoverished areas – an unrelenting floor of events engulfs her: plots and counterplots, acts of violence, midnight raids, even glimmers of first love. Author Yuan-Tsung Chen was a land-reform worker in Gansu Province in the 1950s. Her vivid autobiographical novel gives us history with a human face – a true insider’s view of a revolution that has long been wrapped in mystery and propaganda.

About the Author

Yuan-Tsung Chen was born in 1932 in Shanghai, China. She was raised in a wealthy household and received a Western-style education at a missionary school for girls there. During the Sino-Japanese War, she moved to Chongqing, but eventually returned to Shanghai. In 1949, the Communist party took over the country, and the People’s Republic of China was established. Several Chinese Chen opted to stay because of her idealistic belief in the revolutionary cause.

In the autumn of 1950, when she was just 18 years old, Chen acquired her first job at the Central Film Bureau in Beijing. However, she did not last long in her job. Meanwhile, the Communist Party leadership started a program that sent young people living in the cities to the countryside to participate in what would be known as the agrarian revolution. After leaving her job at the Film Bureau, Chen joined a group of cadres carrying through the agrarian revolution in Gansu province in northwestern China. As a young cadre, she worked on land reform, enduring extreme hardships, such as starvation, during Mao Zedong’s failed industrial and agrarian initiative known as the Great Leap Forward. During this period, Chen wrote and read as much as possible. However, it was because of this that she suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The regime persecuted writers, artists, and intellectuals, considering them counter-revolutionaries.

In 1972, Chen and her husband Jack Chen, an artist and writer, and their son, managed to immigrate to the United States. From the collection of writings she made and hid while still in China, she decided to publish her story. In 1980, this fictionalized account of her life as a young cadre was published as The Dragon’s Village: An Autobiographical Novel of Revolutionary China. In 2008, she published her second book, Return to the Middle Kingdom: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and the Birth of Modern China. Her latest book, The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court, was published in 2022. Chen also taught at Cornell University and once researched a catalog of Chinese films at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco.

Chen currently lives with her husband in El Cerrito, California.