The Postman, by Bi Yu

translated by Jesse Field

Penguin, 2019

Publisher’s Blurb

When in 1936 a brutally tortured body of a local postman is found outside of Shanghai’s St. Theresa’s church, the local constable brushes off the case. Zhongliang, however, comes to find out that his father’s death was no mistake. Giving up his studies, Zhongliang stumbles into a secret world where he is known as ‘Catfish’. His new postman duty takes him to the streets of Shanghai where he delivers coded letters to cryptic addresses, conspires against the invading Japanese forces, falls in love, and eventually gets completely absorbed by his own sense of righteousness.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 30/1/20

‘Penguin Specials’ is a curated series “Written by some of today’s most exciting and insightful writers, they are short enough to be read in a single sitting…They are concise, original and affordable.” The Postman by Bi Yu lived up to this claim. If I had been able to indulge in making my lunchtime pause longer then I would indeed have managed to whip through the book in one reading. Although engrossed, it actually took me two. My affection for the series is born from the fact that my mother used to send me single volumes for my commutes from Nanjing to Shanghai when I was acting as a fashion journalist. I have not entered into the series since that time, nearly ten years ago, so the coincidence that The Postman is set in Shanghai has even more personal poignance.

The first thing to strike me about Jesse Field’s English translation of The Postman is how the prose flows so naturally in English. Having tried my hand at Chinese-English translation myself, I can say that no matter how good your grasp of English, it is very hard to make Chinese prose sound like that of a native English speaker. Therefore The Postman is not only an accessible introduction to those newly inducing themselves into Chinese fiction on account of its length but also on its familiar literature style. The narrative is refreshingly swift in terms of its plot progression, lacking the highbrow Classical Chinese literature references which so often extend Chinese fiction.

For all its similarities to Western literature, readers are still spirited away to the Shanghai of yesteryear, the Shanghai of World War Two to be exact. References to the “traditional changshan long gown” and “shikumen courtyard” smoothly explain the exotic surroundings without lapsing into an academic exercise of translation with footnote explanations.

The evocative Shanghai depicted is a contrast to the city’s current appearance and the strong morals possessing the characters may seem alien to many. Above the individual sits one’s obligations to the family, and above one’s obligations to the family sits those to your country. There is no doubt that The Postman is a nostalgic cry of Chinese patriotism. It is the story of a son giving up his dream to be an English speaking office worker to instead honour his dad’s name as a postman, and as the truth slowly unravels, as a national hero fighting imperialism. Our protagonists offer a romantic message that even the seemingly humblest positions in society have much to offer their country: “‘He was a postman, yes…He was also a Chinese who didn’t want to die a slave to another country.’”

By recalling Shanghai’s past as the “Paris of the East” with references to cosmopolitan coffee shops, street names such as Rue Ratard and London plane trees, and championing the groups taking the protection of China into their own hands, the author offers readers an understanding of why China’s political international actions are taking the course they currently are. In today’s world when China appears to be boldly positioning itself economically and militarily on the international stage, we should remember that it has suffered under and been left to its own guile by many previous imperialist inhabitants. China is now making its own way knowing that it will never have a loyal friend, only those trying to profit from it. If you are interested in this period, foreign presence in China and the unique international relationships in the country’s cities, I highly recommend the terrifying work of non-fiction The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.

Bi Yu’s work is engrossing, and as Penguin hopes does indeed “fill a gap” in time and genre.

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe