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#goodchinesereads ~ Cao Wenxuan

"A Very Special Pigeon" by Cao Wenxuan (translated by Helen Wang)

Flash Reviews

Simona Siegel, 13/4/18

Cao Wenxuan's "A Very Special Pigeon" caught my attention as my grandfather used to have and race pigeons and my father always told me stories from his childhood about it. For most people pigeons are a dirty and unwelcome part of every big city, and one which they try to avoid. I can totally relate to this so that is why I started to read this story to maybe change my mind and see pigeons as special.

The life of children in rural areas of China has often been hard and one big struggle. In the past it was caused mainly by the political situation that influenced and broke many families as it was with Qiu Hu and his father-gambler. We meet two school children whose bonding element is pigeons. The poor boy has to take care of himself, as his mother has left and taken his sister, and so he can afford such special pigeons. On the other hand, the rich boy always boasts about his perfect pigeons. Fortunately, a poor boy took a chance and raised the most beautiful pigeon and life seemed great again. Even because of unfavourable circumstances in his life, he didn't give up on his dream. At the end, when he could avenge all the bad things that had happened to him, he instead showed his good-hearted character.

I enjoyed the way the story was written, or should I say, translated. It kept me attentive all the time, and even if I thought I knew the ending already at the beginning, the plot twisted in a nice and unexpected way. The story can be seen and understood from different perspectives. One can use it as an example of Chinese culture and mentality. On the other hand, even if it is a children's story, it contains a message for adults as well. Through his story, I think Cao wanted to tell us that you should work hard and believe in your dreams and, when a life gives you a chance, take it and make the most of it.

Joy Qiao, 18/9/17

As one of my daughter's favourite books, A Very Special Pigeon, also really attracted me. The life of children in rural areas, especially that in the 1970s or 80s, is something a city child nowadays in China can barely understand. The life and experiences of Xia Wang and Qiu Hu have therefore offered many city children in China a different view of the world. The pigeon is the bond connecting the two boys. For the pigeon, the two boys of different family backgrounds rival each other. Also because of it, they become close friends. Xia Wang's overnight misfortune gave him a closer bond with Qiu Hu, not only in terms of status but also emotionally. The two former rivals became close friends and felt much more sympathy for each other. This is akin to Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, though there is no real exchange of position or identity here. The twists and turns of the protagonists' fate captured my heart so much that I can't help reading straight through the book in one go, and then discussing it with my daughter.

Set in a village, the uniqueness of A Very Special Pigeon lies in the realism of the protagonists' tragic life, in the revelation of the true, the good and the beautiful at the heart of human beings. Xia Wang and Qiu Hu, and the pigeon, Feng, are all struggling to confront the adversity in front of them, with the help of each other.

Here much appreciation should also be given to Helen Wang, the translator. "Fidelity" is what she has contributed most to the original work. It is applied not only in the transmission of the literary significance on the macro-level, but also in the micro-linguistic levels from the paragraph arrangement, the word order, to the choice of each single word. That is, the paragraphs and word order in the English version are basically arranged similar to the original except for a few. As for the word choice, 'albeit' in the fifth paragraph of the first chapter is a case in point. The sentence reads like this: "But he hadn't simply picked his pigeons off the ground; his dozen or so pigeons had all been paid for, albeit for very small sums." 'Albeit', according to the dictionary explanation, is "used to add information that reduces the force or importance of what you have just said." Helen Wang's selection of this word perfectly reveals Qiu Hu's inferiority to Xia Wang, both in terms of his poor family, and of those worthless pigeons.

In sum, I think the literary value of the novels and the good translation together have made Cao a worthy winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Z.Z. Lehmberg, 6/9/17

My father raised pigeons when I was young, so I was attracted by the title of the story, "A Very Special Pigeon", right away. I wanted to know how special pigeons could be because in my mind, pigeons are sort of a nuisance bird. They make noise and fly around, pooping on whomever happens to walk below them.

Cao Wenxuan’s writing drew me into the tension between the two protagonists, Xiawang and Qiuhu, right away. I could see in my mind’s eye how the two boys bragged about their pigeons and how their classmates listened and sided with one boy or the other. The vivid description of the special pigeon’s flight and Qiuhu’s attachment to it was perhaps the best part of the story – I was right there chasing, capturing, and caring for Qiuhu’s new pigeon with him.

Though moving and endearing, the development of the relationship between the two boys was somewhat dissatisfying and surprising. It seems to me that more could have been done earlier to foreshadow the climax. Nevertheless, Cao Wenxuan’s "A Very Special Pigeon", is indeed special. It captures boyhood innocence and makes readers, at least this one, look at pigeons in a new light.

Tamara McCombe, 19/8/17

Audible gasps erupted from my lips as I read Cao Wenxuan’s "A Very Special Pigeon". Lyrical descriptions and tragic plot twists are often missing from contemporary children’s fiction which is why Cao’s fable of a young peasant boy whose prized pigeon is sold by his father to clear his gambling debts is akin to Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.
Cao gently sets the scene, dedicating most of the first chapter to Hardy-esque descriptions of the characters and their location. Two little boys living in the same village, Xiawang and Qiuhu, divided in status at birth are dissected to their human core by their common love of pigeons. The plot is whisked up when Xiawang finds himself in possession of a magnificent pigeon, Feng, the likes of which the villagers have only ever heard of, and finds himself the envy of children and adults alike. I found myself retelling the plot to my family as I journeyed through the adventure and was asked to reveal the outcome on reaching the end.

Like other quality, enduring children’s oeuvres, A Very Special Pigeon is comprised of multiple layers of meanings which reveal themselves as the reader matures and rereads the text. The moral of hard work and kindness of spirit winning over adversity and how wealth and privilege is easily swept away is blatant to all ages, yet only discernible as criticism of growing consumerism in today’s China by older readers.

My only regret is that subtle interpretations of the text are lost to those only able to read Helen Wang’s English translation of the short story, for example, the phonetic rather than literal translations of the protagonists’ names. Xiawang literally translated from Chinese to English is ‘Summer Hope’ whilst Feng in Chinese means ‘phoenix’. These names are intrinsic to completing the metaphorical circle of Xiawang and Feng to Xiawang’s departed mother and baby sister. No doubt the decision between literal, metaphorical and phonetical translations on Wang’s behalf was a conundrum and is not a criticism from the reviewer on the translator’s beautiful rendition.

A Very Special Pigeon’s poetic but devastating revelation of the cruelty dealt by life to children and the strength required to withstand it is another example of why Cao is the worthy winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award.