Skip to main content

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 Wang Bing, 23/7/21

When I first started to read The Postman, Bi Yu was a stranger to me. I later found out that his spy novel The Rebel has received great attention due to its adaptation into a drama series. I did not expect this would also be a spy story. I picked this book simply because I was attracted to the profession of a postman. However, the beginning of the story, with the death of the catholic Xu Delin, reveals that this is not a story about a postman at all. (The mention of religion also gave me the mistaken impression that it was about something humanistic.)

Reading further, I was brought back to those times watching spy dramas with my parents on the television. The feeling at the end of each chapter is just like that at the end of an episode. We were often excited by the moments when the Chinese agents were facing a difficult situation that they could not escape from but in the end survived. Bi Yu is clearly an author who understands the effect of suspense in developing a story with the heavy use of visuals. The quick switches between scenes interrupt the flow of the reading but do instead provide suspense. Some readers may find this a bit annoying. As I mentioned, this is very similar to how spy drama works for a Chinese audience, and thus it does not cause many problems for me. (I was often told by my PhD supervisors that my writing was a bit like that! A different story of course...).

China has never been short of spy novels set during the Sino-Japanese war. It is not unusual to incorporate many details about the war in the narrative in order to create a patriotic tone. Instead, The Postman does not give much space for the war to develop. For those who are not familiar with the war and its meaning to the Chinese, there are pros and cons to this. The cons may be the lack of empathy about the toll which Sino-Japanese war took on the Chinese, from merely reading the translation. But on the other hand it is good not to let the war decide the quality of a story, and the consequence of wars are not there for anyone to bear.

On the contrary, I admire the translator Jesse Field and his precise understanding of the context. He has shown me exactly what happened and has used words successfully to show how the characters feel. When Zhongliang saw Su Lina for the first time, the tension between the two was vaguely referred to, but not yet clearly revealed.

‘Her hair was tousled and she wore a sleeveless chiffon nightdress. The two of them stood facing each other across the doorway, but didn’t say a word. Zhongliang handed her the letter. She accepted it with a glance, raised her eyes to look again at Zhongliang, then shut the door, light but final. Still, her expression had left a deep impression on him – languid, yet intense.’ (p. 17)

Despite the different cultural perspective, I thought I was reading the original rather than a translation. Or maybe both Bi Yu and Field are both just excellent script writers.

Nonetheless, the two main characters, Zhongliang and Su Lina, alongside many others, such as Xiufen, Mr Pan, Zhou San, and so on, are not only there for the development of a network of intelligence agents. The metaphor of a postman is clear enough, but everyone is an intelligence agent and wars are still taking place in different forms, even when the world seems peaceful. The very sketchy and elusive portrayal of warfare in this story actually pushes us to reflect more on its effects on the characters and the world. When Su Lina was trying to justify her identity as an intelligence agent to someone who used to work for her husband, she felt completely lost. She was denied and rejected by what she fought for. Similar things still happen in our time.

Sometimes I also felt lost within the story because it was not quite clear what the characters were trying to achieve apart, of course, from victory over the Japanese. But this may be how life should be and Bi Yu is reminding us that we are all only humans. We could share the same fate as Zhongliang, who became a postman and then an intelligence agent without fully understanding the whole situation. Or as Mr Pan, who died for his duty of protecting the country without having his own life. Or as Su Lina, whose identity and the desire for love have been lost in the war.

Despite this being a war story, I read it more about living than survival. Such a story is ideal for translation.

Reviewed by Wang Bing

Reviewed by Paul Woods, 25/5/21

This story is at the same time relatively short and surprisingly complex. This is a tale of spies and spying, set against the background of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II.

The story often moves quickly and the scenes change frequently, producing a sense of insecurity and menace, almost. The form of the text meshes with the subject matter in an entertaining way. I loved the character development, or rather intentional lack of such, because almost all the characters seem to be a little two-dimensional. It is quite difficult to understand the true allegiances and motivations of the people in the story, as almost all of them are not quite what they seem. The Postman’s father, Xu Delin, also a postman, is presented as a flawed Catholic, which we later learn is a (partial?) cover for his anti-Japanese spying and messaging activities. The Postman himself, Xu Zhongliang, is drawn into a life of intrigue by his father’s death, the activities of the older man’s associates, and the force majeure of the Japanese invasion and its consequences. Behind the scenes also lie complex ebbs and flows in the relationships between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, as well as personal and romantic interests.

The two female protagonists, the beautiful Su Lina and ruthless Xiufen, are both devoted to the cause and highly enigmatic. Zhongliang is in love with Su Lina for a long time and yet had to share his house and even his bed with Xiufen. Both women are fragmented characters, like images in a hall of mirrors; our understanding of them is limited and unreliable.

The book is a fascinating study of people and relationships under great pressure, as those motivated by patriotism and politics -- and the need to survive – strive for common interest and personal gain. Xu Zhongliang’s life is taken in directions totally alien to his own ambitions and dreams by circumstances beyond his control. This happens within his own circle and in the larger environment of a nation and city in turmoil. The sense of communal waste and personal suffering in this snapshot of life in wartime Shanghai somehow felt like a premonition of what was to come during the Cultural Revolution about a quarter of a century after the events of The Postman.

The translation of the book is good and it reads smoothly. As usual, it would help Chinese readers if the names of the characters could also be given in Chinese, perhaps when they are first introduced or in the introduction.

I read it twice, once for the fast-paced story and then again to write the review. Something about it gripped me; I’ll probably read it again soon.

Reviewed by Paul Woods

Reviewed by Riya Shah, 20/5/21

The changing tides of communication have made mail almost obsolete for our generation. In an age of instant mail and messaging, most of us have never written a letter or have even seen a letter arrive in our mail box. The technological revolution has changed the way we communicate but in olden times, letters were the only way of communication and khaki-clad postmen were the only messengers who came bearing letters about loved and lost ones.

“A single thin letter is a little slice of heaven”, said the Jing’an stationmaster to Zhongliang on the first day of his job as a postman. This seemingly simple job had taken the life of Zhongliang’s father, Xu Delin, who had died a gruesome death with “his testicles smashed and left dangling in his crotch like an unripe persimmon”. Taking his father’s job, Zhongliang abandoned all hope of making a splash out on the Bund and spent the tuition fees given by the mysterious Mr. Pan for a bicycle. From here on, his new duties as a postman take him on a journey filled with adventure, joys, hardships and heartbreaks.

Zhongliang gets to know that his father was not just a postman and that his late-night excursions to the church were neither because of his devotion to Catholicism nor due to an affair; instead it was because Xu Delin was a part of the anti- Japanese insurgency and couriered information for the Chinese intelligence network. Throughout the story, a foreshadowing tone hooks the reader to the plot as it flows seamlessly, yet becomes rigid at places where the author refuses to unveil the wider picture, thus creating a sense of mystery and intrigue.

Zhongliang comes across Su Lina, “her expression had left a deep impression on him – languid, yet intense.” Her job is to extract information from men in high positions in the military and government services. She gets deeply involved with the men she’s working with, owing to the intimate nature of her tasks. On the contrary, Xiufen, who is described as “a person with a tragic past” is extremely reserved and professional in her approach -- she even threatens to kill Zhongliang if he ever sells out the organization.

The relationship between Zhongliang and Su Lina is much more than a cliched romance. Su Lina fights tooth and nail for getting her work recognized, until exasperated, she asks, “Then what am I now?” Bi Yu skilfully portrays how women’s contribution is often ignored in dominant narratives. Zhongliang is proclaimed as the war hero, full of patriotism and devotion towards his country, whereas Su Lina’s identity is reduced to nothing more than “the lover of a KMT secret service agent and Japanese collaborator.”

As the story progresses, we see how the Japanese were slowly, steadily invading all spheres of life, from cracking down on the Chinese intelligence network to replacing the old stationmaster with Ito Kaneda, a Japanese. As the imperialists began to tighten their grip on the city of Shanghai, the resistance fueled up and eventually things start taking a bloody turn. Zhou San, Mr. Pan, Xiufen, Father Brown; all the people involved in the intelligence network either disappear or are killed in the struggle. Zhongliang flees with Su Lian to his mother’s village. After the country plunges into a civil war between the KMT and Communists, they return to Shanghai again and find that everything has changed. The confusion of those times is reflected when Zhongliang is told “nobody knows who the world belongs to anymore.” His journey takes a full circle from ‘Catfish’ to a postman after he re-joins the Jing’an post office, and then continues his life with Su Lina.

The story sprawled over 120 pages, and often gives the reader a feeling that the author is showing extreme restraint - the short, direct sentences, quick changing scenes, fast-paced setups, all add up to a realistic portrayal of espionage at that time. Not a single extra word is uttered by the characters and we have little to no information about their inner lives. The only time when we get a sneak peek of their inner lives is when Bi Yu invites the reader in. His writing feels guarded, just like the nature of spying; making it an enjoyable read brimming with intrigue and suspense.

Reviewed by Riya Shah

Reviewed by Max Mason, 26/3/21

The Postman by Bi Yu - a class-act in historical fiction. Is it genius or delusion to begin your short story with a rehearsal of Hamlet? Probably a touch of both. Very few writers in English would dare begin with a nod to the bard (Agatha Christie excluded) out of reverence or fear of inadequacy. Yet, for a Chinese audience, the plays seem to attract far less hero worship. The playwright Dennis Kelly put it best: “In English Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations, in Chinese it is a new play.”

From a distance, an allusion to Hamlet looks absurd. In a story about a Shanghai postman recruited to become a Guomindang spy, there’s no room for soliloquising. Yet, like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, echoes of the tragedy loom over The Postman like a haunting. I was simply left spellbound.

Bi Yu’s agent provocateur is Zhonglian - a disenfranchised postie who is left reeling from the brutal murder of his father. A whiff of Shakespeare is already in the air, but the point isn’t laboured; this is no bloody, revenge epic. Zhongliang’s pain does not motivate moral retribution, but a painful and necessary excavation of religion, culture and his past. Without pedalling an exclusively political reading, Bi Yu’s protagonist is a convenient emblem for a nascent Republic of China: examining the explosive horrors of the past in order to muddle together a better future. The piece not only looks backwards but inwards. Just as Zhongliang disturbs the surface of a dark, criminal underbelly, he is given bleak warnings of the world he’s about to join. Bi Yu’s anatomical images pull no punches: when Zhou San recruits him as a ‘special agent’ during a tense chess game, Zhongliang’s fixation on his eyes describe the empty ‘sockets of a skeleton’, a twisted, anti-Darwinian metaphor for human devolution. Here, in this underground crime demi-monde, humans are the animalised scavengers; more pre-man than postman. It was this psychological realism that compelled me most.

Aside from the viscerally depicted sacrifices made (prostitution and suicide pepper the text - consider yourself warned!), the emotional core of the Bi Yu’s writing is not as rotten. Zhonglian’s relationship with his lover Su Lina is delicately portrayed. She is no damsel, and he is no prince; their partnership is sparse, reticent, but ultimately truthful. He comes to her both as a world-weary victim of social upheaval, and as a vulnerable, fatherless child. Together, they are revolutionary comrades, doomed lovers and each others’ flesh and blood. As members of China’s new republican generation, the irony of China’s triumphal victory against Japanese imperialism - when set against the tortuous end to their marriage - will not be lost on any reader. Indeed, Bi Yu’s writing does not emboss any propagandist message of Chinese exceptionalism on us. Whilst Zhonglian’s side temporarily emerges as battle victor, they too will be overthrown by another iteration of a radical movement. Before the blood has dried, and in the course of one chapter, the People’s Liberation Army - the communist vanguard - begin their attack on Shanghai. Emphasis on the ‘their’. Within a decade, a variety of different political projects have begun to insinuate themselves in the cultural imagination; a disorientating climate of new polemicists and politicos. Within this loud, urban milieu, one small cog ticks quietly; the suspicious rumblings of one brave man. Even when enormous sacrifices are made for Chinese emancipation, he does so with a quiet introspection and nobility.

Along with Jesse Field’s evocative prose, making for smooth translation without copious footnotes, Bi Yu’s The Postman is a class-act in historical fiction. As the story closes with Zhongliang seeing his wife’s face through the flames, one feels as if Bi Yu is looking beyond the grandeur of Shakespearean tragedy. After all, what attracts us most to Zhongliang - the humble postal worker turned revolutionary - is that, unlike Hamlet, he has no audience to turn to.

Reviewed by Max Mason

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary, 27/3/20

Writing at a time of international crisis, it is humbling and inspiring to read of the much greater struggles of past generations. While under Covid19, we have had to sacrifice social gatherings with friends, in the Japanese-occupied Shanghai of Bi Yu’s The Postman, people form close bonds with friends and lovers, not knowing whether they will ever see them alive again. Still they carry on indomitably.

Early on, the central character, a postman’s son who aspires to loftier things, learns of the gruesome death of his father. The death is described in the same no-nonsense way the characters face their hardships: ‘Though there was no visible wound, the funeral masters who cleaned his body had found both his testicles smashed and left dangling in his crotch like an unripe persimmon.’

Zhongliang learns that his father was more than just a postman, but also a member of the anti-Japanese insurgency. Under the guidance of post office attendant Zhou San, Zhongliang comes to respect his father’s work, realizing that a letter can be ‘a little slice of heaven’.

Zhongliang is far from the urbane and worldly image of a spy, and neither he nor the people he encounters (members of what is sometimes known in the West as ‘the greatest generation’) are sentimentalized. When Zhou San takes a reluctant Zhongliang to a whorehouse, he dismisses his concerns. “You’re a whoremonger if we say you’re a whoremonger”, adding “sometimes you have to be on top of a woman to prove to yourself that you’re still alive”.

The women in Zhongliang’s life are as well-drawn as the men. His first sexual dalliance under Zhou San’s guidance is with the taciturn, tenacious, and ultimately heroic Xiufen. The eventual love of Zhongliang’s life is Su Lina who, like Zhongliang himself, grows old with as much stoicism and as little sentimentality as she had while young.

The supporting cast of characters is appropriately vivid, including the non-Chinese. The chauvinistic Japanese assume that only one of their own could have the courage to commit an honourable suicide, but Westerner Father Brown proves him wrong by jumping to his death ‘like a falling crucifix’.

With its God’s-eye-view it humanizes the Japanese occupiers with wit and cut-glass prose. There is this observation about intelligence officer Ito: “He’d been fired before for getting drunk and talking about losing the war. His commander had meted out the worst punishment a pessimist could get – he would remain on Chinese soil until the war was won.”

The shifting viewpoints also allow for one of the best death scenes I have ever read, as it steps into the shoes of a woman on a dangerous and desperate mission. With the mixture of humour, pathos, suspense, romance, and horrifying violence, it evokes just about every emotion a work of fiction can evoke – often at the same time.

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary

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