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The Road Home, by Ai Wei

translated by Alice Xin Liu

Penguin Specials, 2019

Publisher's Blurb

Jiefang is a boy who has a peculiar fascination with gunpowder and is gifted with a nose that can find it from miles away. Trouble follows when his father paints a picture of a war hero bomber below the portrait of Chairman Mao and is quickly labelled a Counter-Revolutionary. Despite his loyal devotion to the Party, his father is taken away and Jiefang faces bullying from a clique of classmates. As the feud between them escalates, Jiefang’s unexpected discovery of a bomb leads him to continue exploring his unusual affinity for gunpowder, and what it means to truly be a ‘hero.’

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Yue Xin, 22/3/21

The Road Home is a bizarre novella that can be finished in few hours, ideal for people who have a long commute. But the bizarrerie is not hard to understand, if you know something of Chinese history in the mid-20th Century. To consolidate the authority of Chairman Mao Zedong and to radically clean up the remnants of capitalist and traditional elements, China endured a 10-year-long socio-political purge movement from 1966 to 1976. The author Ai Wei, considered as one of the prominent ’60s authors of China, is good at writing about political topics such as the Cultural Revolution and class struggle.

The main protagonist Jiefang is a teenage boy who has a fascination with gunpowder and bombs. His life has witnessed a dramatic change after his dad is incarcerated as a political prisoner. The atmosphere of violence permeates the society where teachers in school teach their students about different modes of Soviet weapons and children are obsessed with finding hidden bullets. When Jiefang confronts conflicts with schoolmates, he also always addresses them with a fist fight. Later, you will find that this love of violence doesn’t come from nowhere, as the moral impetus behind such class struggles is interpreted as a deed of patriotism. Every participant of the system, on the one hand, is subject to its terror, but on the other hand, is also contributing to intensifying the terror and persecution.

Being influenced by this atmosphere of violence-worship, Jiefang’s determination and his life goals become really clear after his father was unfortunately portrayed as a “counter-revolutionary” simply for painting a picture of war hero Dong Cunrui bombing a Kuomintang bunker under the portrait of the great leader, Chairman Mao. It is only through becoming a war hero himself, Jiefang thinks, that he could finally wash away the stigma of his family being looked down on by the whole village. In the end, Jiefang lost one of his legs in an accidental explosion where he saved people’s lives. Despite being praised by the village head for being a hero, he never received the commendation ceremony that he had been promised. The reality that he always hides in the bomb shell in the forest nearby shows that his inner insecurity and anxiety is endless. Jiefang is an allegorical symbol of every traumatized human being during and after the Cultural Revolution.

In The Road Home, Ai Wei subtly reveals how people’s daily lives have been distortedly moralized, and how bizarre the whole society could suddenly become, under a certain set of political policies. Jiefang’s strong “hero complex” and “military spirit” were fully portrayed from an objective and humane perspective.

By following the narrator’s streamlined account of a teenage boy, Ai Wei didn’t treat this novella as a personal criticism about history, but rather as a great representation of the past and enlightenment for the future. Just as Ai Wei himself indicated in an interview: “Fiction is not making great discoveries or rewriting history; it is about the unspeakable complexity of human emotions and situations under the will of the times.” The history of revolution is the history of struggle, the cruelty of which cannot be imagined by people in peacetime. But it will remain an instruction for the future generations, always inspiring us not to forget the past and let it happen again.

Reviewed by Yue Xin

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda, 14/4/20

In 1966, The People's Republic of China would welcome ‘The Cultural Revolution’ a social movement proposed by then CCP chairman Mao Zedong, which aimed to propel the country into the modern age through progressive social incentives and advancements in technology. The movement would only last 10 years, however it would go on to have a lasting effect on the country and its people.

Ai Wei’s The Road Home seems to take place sometime during this tumultuous and violent period. The setting of the book was something that intrigued me as I was immediately fascinated by the representation of the reality which Ai Wei decided to depict. Wei’s use of war imagery helps in capturing the severity of war and the internal struggles of the community, Jiefang (the teenage protagonist) and of a China that is in the process of a cultural reset.

In the novel we are presented with a ‘community’ where neighbours spy on each other and report any suspicious behaviour such as diverging political ideologies to the government, creating an individualistic environment where families look out for their own interests. The inhabitants of the village are portrayed as being loyal to the CCP and its cause, therefore it is their duty as upstanding citizens to carry out punishment against those who they deem as going against the Party. Throughout the book we see that in the village inflicting violence upon those who are thought to be ‘anti-revolutionary’ is permitted and even socially encouraged. No-one questions or stands in to stop the violence, even when it is being directed at innocent children, whose only crime is being born into an affluent family, thus branding them as the children of the ‘four evil elements’. This branding of otherness is used as a justification to commit crimes of aggression with the villagers believing that they are purging the impure elements from society.

After his father is accused of being anti-revolutionary and a traitor to the communist cause, Jiefang realises that the only way to regain his family’s honour is by participating in the war and become a hero in his village: a place where war is portrayed as something to be proud of, it’s seen as enticing and appealing. However as the story unfolds we begin to understand that the admiration that Jiefang as well as the other teenage boys, have for war and violence is only surface level as they do not comprehend the severity of war nor the impact it has (both physically and psychologically) on people. In fact violence seems to be conflated as being part of nationalism, something righteous which is necessary in order to establish a new Chinese society thus warping the children’s views. The act of violence is accepted because the ideology behind it is seen as being morally correct.

Ai Wei does an amazing job in showcasing the normalisation of violence in this community where fights are seen as a spectacle, war heroes and injured men who fight and lay down their lives for their country are glorified as well as their wounded bodies. It is this glorification and admiration which leads the young Jiefang to eventually make the decisions which he does.

One thing that I found interesting was the narrator’s objective approach to all of the events. The narrator is positioned in the same boat as the readers, simply an observer, watching the events unfold but never offering their own opinion or passing judgement. Perhaps as outsiders it is difficult to understand and even more so empathise with the reality that these characters live in. We explore their reality even if we do not accept it, with their actions and behaviours seeming foreign and absurd to us. I felt uncomfortable yet I couldn’t stop reading and wanted to see how everything would end, as the story went on I even found myself becoming slightly desensitized to the violence and no longer shocked at the indifferent view the villagers had towards it.

The novel itself seems to be rooted in the struggle of power and reflects the viewpoint of the characters, where everything is black and white, you are either the ‘winner’ or the ‘loser’ ‘the obedient upright citizen’ or ‘the anti-revolutionary’. Ai Wei uses the novel as a sort of self-reflection through the allusion of historical events (The Cultural Revolution) and organisations (The Red Brigade).

I would say that The Road Home is an overall wonderful book which highlights the disconnect which some young people feel from their society and their attempts to fit in, find their place and be admired by their fellow villagers. The book seems to be critical of state ideologies and the dangers of blindly adhering to them, mocking how absurd the concepts of ‘heroism’ and ‘patriotism’ are when primarily rooted in violence and self sacrifice. This is a book which not only commemorates a dark period in China's history but also seeks to remind us of the danger of confusing violence with nationalism and bravery. It’s a definite must-read, as the themes and struggles presented still resonate in today’s modern society.

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda