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Bronze and Sunflower, by Cao Wenxuan

Translated by Helen Wang (Walker Books 2015)

Publisher's blurb

When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands – the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze’s family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Will the city girl be able to stay in this place where she has finally found happiness?

School Bookclub Reviews

Reviewed by Martina Quinzo, y10, Gumley House School, Middlesex, 30/6/20

Bronze and Sunflower is a beautifully simple book, illustrating only the relationship between a mute boy (Bronze) and his adoptive sister (Sunflower) , and the hardships coming from living in rural China in the sixties and seventies. While the book was probably intended for a younger audience, it was no less enjoyable for me, and by no means any less informative about a life completely different to my own.

With the book having been translated into English, there are still simple Chinese words in the story, such as some basic but fundamental phrases and characters. These foundations in the language are educational for readers, whether they study Mandarin or know absolutely nothing about the language.

Most people like books with characters they can relate to, but actually, as our lives are so different I find it somewhat difficult to properly relate to these characters. While this can be seen as a negative aspect of the book, it actually makes the book more intriguing, and leaves me wanting to read more to find out how the story develops. Actually, as a whole, the story itself is quite simplistic, but the emotion pouring out from the pages really tugs at the heartstrings, and the familial love described radiates hope and joy like a beacon, no matter how dire the situations the family finds themselves in are.

While Bronze and Sunflower themselves are obviously the main characters of the story, there are some other characters as well as them who go through some kind of character development between the beginning and end of the novel. The story takes place over roughly a six or seven year period of time, and although it doesn't leave much room about the finer details of their lives, you can see the obvious yet gradual development. Whether it be from Sunflower, Bronze or even Gayu whose family is the richest in the village, these developments make the story seem more realistic, which is exactly what I think the author was trying to achieve. Maturity and understanding are all part of a young child growing up, especially over such a long time period.

What Bronze and Sunflower has that a lot of books for younger readers don't have is the lack of fear to write bluntly about death and suffering, if only to show us how hard life was there. A lot of books for children and young teenagers are afraid to mention violence, but Cao Wenxuan has introduced those in his book, maybe not so much to frighten young readers as to inform and teach them that there are people in the world who do suffer, and possibly teach them to be more empathetic.

I would recommend Bronze and Sunflower to just about anyone, because I think that it is important to have an understanding of a rural life which is a complete polar opposite to the industrialised world that we are familiar with, to teach them empathy and knowledge they may not have bothered with had they not read this book. I would rate this book a nine out of ten, because of the sensitive issues that it doesn't gloss over, as I think all books and just people in general should be like that.

Reviewed by Benjamin Rubenstein, Y8, Christ's College Finchley, 6/2/19

‘Bronze and Sunflower’ was a very interesting book that explores the lives of a family in a small Chinese village called Damaidi, as well as the difference between the city and Damaidi. We follow the adventures of a girl called Sunflower, whose father drowns at the start, and how she adjusts to life in the village as well as the family dynamic changing when Sunflower arrives.

I liked that every time that the family survived or got through a problem the story carries on throwing more at them to show that you cannot stop and give up and that life will never just be easy. The book also uses amazing description and really makes you imagine vividly the experiences that the characters go through.

Overall the book introduces interesting side plots, an explored and well told story as well as having a fast-paced yet easy to understand storyline. I would definitely recommend this book and would rate it 9/10.

Video Review from St Gregory's Y7 bookclub

Reviewed by Yee Lin Lau, Y11, Chobham Academy, 9/5/18

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Review by Yee Lin Lau – Chobham Academy

Cao Wenxuan’s enchanting story of two friends, Bronze and Sunflower. Set in the wetlands of northern Jiangsu province during the 1960s and 70s. The story illustrates the tragic, yet beautiful, childhood of the two friends. Sunflower, a young girl who has recently moved from the countryside alongside her father with the Cadre schools, and Bronze a mute who lives in the rural town of Damaidi. The story touches mature topics such as China’s Cultural Revolution, poverty and loss. While also stepping into a tale of love, hope, innocence and friendship.

Cao Wenxuan opens by detailing the lives and differences between the May Seventh Cadre School and Damaidi. The Cadre School, home to city people who were artists, writers, office workers and so on. Sent to perform physical labour as part of China’s revolution. The author highlights the separation between the two communities through statements like Your ducks swam over to the Cadre School and Your buffalo ate the Cadre School’s crops. The educated people of the Cadre School are presented as the Eighth Wonder of the World, as the villagers try to learn their behaviours and methods, which to them seemed like magic. The overall tone of the countryside is beautifully depicted which adds an element of interest to the reader intriguing them.

Sunflower is introduced as a quiet, gentle little girl. Due to her being so young, she spends the majority of her days gazing, possibly inventing new ideas or inventions but probably simply enjoying the countryside’s beauty and aura. Her father, a painter from the city, who has little to no time to spend with his child as he is occupied and enchanted by the beauty of sunflowers. The two have already faced the tragedy of loss through the death of Sunflower’s mother. Bronze is a youthful boy from Damaidi. He is part of the poverty-stricken family that had lost nearly everything except for themselves and their buffalo to a wild fire that lay waste to the village, and ever since he has lost his voice. Yet he is still the life of his family especially to Nainai.

Sunflower ends up being accepted by Bronze’s family after her baba is consumed by sunflowers. The family struggle to send both the children into education due to financial struggles. But this is only one of the many struggles that the family have to face. Minor antagonists such as Gayu and the neighbouring village boys show the inner challenges in the village area. Supporting characters such as the Buffalo and Nainai help the duo overcome struggles and continue to support them throughout the story. The close-knit family and society of Damadi makes the feel of the community to be friendly and overly affectionate for each other.

Wang, the translator, has done a great job with introducing Cao Wenxuan’s story to a new audience. As most have most likely never heard of the agricultural revolution in the 60s and 70s and possible nothing about the struggles of the farmers or the Cadre Schools. It’s a realistic eye-opener to readers about struggles many have had to go through. The wordsmith also uses the lives of Sunflower and Bronze take the reader on an emotional story in order to add to the harsh conditions but to also add a joyful tune to the story. With such a long story it seems difficult to incorporate several stages of Sunflower’s life in just one book. Some parts feel rushed, but Cao is still able to illustrate them to the reader and Wang is able to help convey his message. Overall the book is well written, and is definitely worth reading in order to understand the modern history of a forgotten China. The timeless journey is one to venture onwards with, and you can absorb yourself into their simplistic yet magical world.


Reviews from Y3 pupils at St Antony's RC Primary, Woodford Green, 27/4/18

Video review from St Gregory's School, Y10, Bath, June 2016

Jenny, Y10, from Saint Gregory's, Bath, April 2017 

Last year I had the joy of being part of my school’s reading China book club. We read three books from China and they were all brilliant. The books we read were Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi and Revolution is not a dinner party by Ying Compestine.

The books themselves were very interesting however one of the first things we noticed was the covers. The cover of the book can tell you a lot about the story but both the covers of Jackel and Wolf and Bronze and Sunflower were very minimalistic and seemed almost as if they were aimed at young children. This is a great contrast to the stories within them which were quite mature and often covered difficult subjects such as poverty, or the wild animal instincts of a jackal. Revolution is not a dinner party contrasted to this with a somewhat chaotic cover which showed fairly well the chaos the main character feels about her.

The book I can most easily compare to an English one is Jackal and Wolf which reminded me in many ways of the book Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo. Both books are told from the point of views of animals and at some point show their relationship with humans. However Jackal and Wolf was brilliant in the fact that it avoided humanizing the animals as much as possible which struck me as something apart from most English stories which tell you the character is an animal such as a rabbit but then proceed to describe that character as a human; cooking, cleaning, and doing chores. A key difference I found between the books we read from China and other, similar, ones from England is the Chinese ones had a perspective much closer to that of real life. Injuries causing hunger and poor health instead of a happy reunion and a new life.

Bronze and Sunflower was a good book to read first as it showed you a lot about what life is like in rural China, the good and the bad, in a way seldom shown by a non-fiction book which is through the eyes of someone experiencing these things. One of the most interesting parts for me was when a plague of locusts destroyed the village because often when these types of things are written about the consequences of that does not come into focus. The way in which the story is told is very much in the manner of a young child telling you things yet not really understanding what is going on.

Revolution is not a dinner party was different to the first two in the fact that it was written from the authors own experiences, this meant that little details you don’t usually find in a story such as the joy of a simple meal or the love of one’s family were expressed in accurate and heartfelt ways that represented reality instead of some idyllic fantasy.

I plan to continue reading more books from China and hope to encourage more to do the same as no matter what the topic they are always interesting to read.

(This review was also published in our special edition of Stand Magazine (March-May 2017), on Chinese Journeys)