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 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