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- Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, by Yu Hua
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, by Yu Hua
Translated by Andrew Jones
Anchor Books, 2003
From the acclaimed author of Brothers and China in Ten Words: here is Yu Hua’s unflinching portrait of life under Chairman Mao. A cart-pusher in a silk mill, Xu Sanguan augments his meager salary with regular visits to the local blood chief. His visits become lethally frequent as he struggles to provide for his wife and three sons at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Shattered to discover that his favorite son was actually born of a liaison between his wife and a neighbor, he suffers his greatest indignity, while his wife is publicly scorned as a prostitute. Although the poverty and betrayals of Mao’s regime have drained him, Xu Sanguan ultimately finds strength in the blood ties of his family. With rare emotional intensity, grippingly raw descriptions of place and time, and clear-eyed compassion, Yu Hua gives us a stunning tapestry of human life in the grave particulars of one man’s days.
Reading Chinese School Bookclub Reviews
Reviewed by Rojin Zahaki, Y11, Godolphin and Latymer School, London, 19/7/20
“But selling your blood is like selling your ancestors. Xu Sanguan, you’ve sold your ancestors!”- Chronicle of a Blood Merchant; Yu Hua, Chapter 12; Page 85
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is an acclaimed and highly influential novel revolving around the life of Xu Sanguan, a cart-pusher in a silk mill, who occasionally sells his blood to make ends meet in late 1940s- early 1980s China. The novel follows Xu Sanguan from when he was a young man in the late 1940s through to the early 1980’s, which was a turbulent time both in Xu Sanguan’s life and in China politically and socially.
What I initially expected to be a novel serving as criticism or comment on the socio-political situation in China at the time is instead a piece of literature filled with multifaceted statements, which allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. The narrator remains largely impassive throughout the novel acting as a messenger delivering their observation to the consumer of the novel. There is nothing selective about the areas of life in China Yu Hua chooses to present through his translator; he simply delivers the blunt harsh reality. Nothing more and nothing less. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant went from the communal unity found in the rural areas of China to the despondence and resignation rippling throughout the country at the height of the cultural revolution highlighting each and every contrast between the two and the suffering all those living there endured. Despite the lack of an obvious critical narrative, however, I have a feeling that the conclusion the reader draws from his writing is synonymous with Yu Hua’s own views. This was an aspect about Yu Hua’s style that I found particularly engrossing.
“Xu Sanguan stared back at Yile without so much as blinking. After what seemed like a long while, tears spilled from his eyes, and he said to Xu Yulan, “Who says Yile isn’t my son?” – Page 179
One of the most poignant aspects of the novel were the father-son relationships, particularly the relationship between Yile and Xu Sanguan. After finding out that his first born son was born of an interaction between his wife and her ex-lover, He Xiaoyong, Xu Sanguan went on a journey of self-discovery and in this journey he considered the importance of face and family. Face is, in fact, one of the most prevalent themes of the book. Yu Hua gives us an insight into this area of China’s culture and reveals its societal importance, his initial narrative of the matter being reminiscent of the Chinese idiom “men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.” Xu Sanguan, having been humiliated at various points in the story, fought to keep his last shred of face intact, however came to realise how much that was costing him, namely the son that he was costing himself. And thus ensued the start of Xu Sanguan fighting not for face, but for his son, Yile, whom in the face of his reluctance and
refusal he had built an unavoidable bond with.The parallels in the progression of their relationship, where Xu Sanguan takes Yile and buys him noodles after having refused spending any of his blood money on Yile mere chapters before, was another technique Yu Hua utilised to present the triumph of family over face and something that reality resonated with me.
The novel is cyclical in a sense. Starting and ending with Xu Sanguan’s journey to visit the blood chief. Blood selling, in a way, remains one of the few constants throughout the story. As the social dynamic shifts and as Xu Sanguan himself evolves, the practice of selling blood remains a perpetual factor of his livelihood. By the end of the novel, blood selling had become so ingrained into Xu Sanguan’s identity that it had become a part of him. And it was then that I realised how much of an impact a novel about a self-proclaimed cuckold and his lamenting wife had on me. Much like blood selling had become a part of Xu Sanguan, Yu Hua’s novel seemed to have made itself a comfortable home in my mind, occasionally rearing its head to make me spend another afternoon marvelling at Yu Hua’s mastery or researching into the blood selling practices in China. Simply put, if you haven’t read this novel, you are doing yourself an injustice.
Reviewed by Asmita Sharma, Y11, Gumley House School, Middlesex, 18/6/20
This novel tells the marvellous story of a man named Xu Sanguan who works in a silk factory pushing carts full of silk cocoons for women to spin. Xu Sanguan finds out from his fourth uncle that he could earn a lot of money by selling his blood at a hospital. He is fascinated with this and the idea of having a wife to spend his earnings on. With that idea in mind, Sanguan sets out to find a suitable wife and he finds Xu Yulan. They have three children together, however things take a wild turn and Sanguan finds out more about his wife’s past and the difficulty of providing for a family, leading him to visit the hospital too often, putting his life at risk.
This novel is written by Yu Hua, and is translated by Andrew F.Jones. It was published in 1995, and in 2003 it was published in English by Anchor Books & Random House of Canada Limited.
Throughout the novel, there have been many emotionally touching moments which are heart-wrenching and sometimes unbelievable. While reading moments like these, my sympathy has always remained with Xu Sanguan who presents himself as a very genuine and warm man and someone who only wants the best for people and this is why he is one of my favourite characters. Sanguan represents someone who we as readers may be able to empathise with and has a very good heart when it comes to the safety of others, even if they aren’t his own family. He Xiaoyong on the other hand, is someone who I dislike because of how cold-hearted he is towards others, even if it means someone with his own blood. He never thinks about the consequences of his actions and his selfishness is what makes him for me one of the worst characters in the novel.
My favourite part of the novel was when the famine had struck because it felt very vivid and it gave me an understanding of what it would have been like to live through something as horrifying as this and an insight into how people fought to survive where food was very scarce. It also made me realise how fortunate I am for the basic necessities I have which Sanguan and the others did not have access to.
The descriptions throughout this novel were extremely well written, realistic and created very detailed visual images in my mind. They helped me to not only understand the environment more, but also make it feel as though I was present and experiencing everything the characters were. The descriptions contained countless numbers of skilled techniques like powerful metaphorical phrases which were used to portray detailed scenes. They were also translated very well by Andrew F.Jones.
Even though I valued Xu Sanguan, there was a time where I felt quite angered by his actions. He did the exact mistake his wife Xu Yulan did in the past, yet because Yulan was a woman, she was looked down upon. Society only ever thought of Yulan’s actions as wrong even though it wasn’t entirely her fault. She was then punished for it, whereas Sanguan was not and this portrays the real discrimination between genders that existed. Similarly, He Xiaoyong, who did the same, was never punished for his actions simply because he was male.
Overall, I really liked reading this novel and it helped me understand what life was like before and during the Cultural Revolution. I would definitely recommend this book to people who love books filled with drama and books that are set in historical periods where they may be able to learn new things about the way people lived in the past. I would highly recommend it to teenagers and adults because the content is sometimes inappropriate and difficult for children to understand. I would also recommend books like Red Sorghum by Mo Yan and To Live by Yu Hua as they are very similar in genre to Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. I would give this novel a 9/10 because I enjoyed it very much, and it helped me to reflect on how I live and how times have changed.
Reviewed by Max Mason, Y13, Bede's Senior School, East Sussex, 9/6/20
Bold, vital and electric, Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant charts a tale through years of economic upheaval, family sacrifices, and gut-wrenching social reform, recounting the days of Xu Sanguan as he augments his meagre salary, selling his blood to make his way. As he watches his three sons Yile, Erle and Sanle grow old, Sanguan hopes that his children can live a better life than his grandfather, who begins the novel jabbering the empty platitudes of old, Confucian customs: marry well, keep face and ‘play by the rules’. Sanguan grows just as his father did – but the nation around him sees the young displace the old, the contemporary attack social convention. Politically, these are turbulent times: Mao’s Cultural Revolution encourages public indictments of “old” ways, with a new wave of young, politically conscious revolutionaries told to denounce their elders. Sanguan – a victim of this vitriol – has been gutted by this political reform, and perhaps, now world-worn and embittered, he looks in the mirror at a rapidly modernising China and can’t see his own reflection.
Even whilst culturally footnoted, however, he displays beautiful moments of compassion. As his wife is denounced as a prostitute in Mao’s infamous Anti-Rightists campaign on a busy street corner, he stands boldly and unapologetically by her side. Sanguan resists being converted into a statistic, or told to chase the new, entrepreneurial class, but instead shows the reader his currency, his novelty, when the world refuses to see it.
Sanguan goes through life, fights his daily battles with various adversities without knowing the first thing about Communism, Socialism or Capitalism. He only wishes to provide for his family and survive, remaining largely clueless about the political upheavals in his own country or their significance in the greater scheme of things. Forget politics, he only identifies with the English letter ‘O’ as a circle which denotes his blood group. Such is the extent of his guileless ignorance.
He can only know what being in the throes of starvation feels like and what it is like to be in perpetual need of one thing or another. Concepts like subversion, revolution, agitation or questioning the legitimacy of a regime or higher authority are alien to him.
And yet innocuous as his existence is, ripples of political disturbances outside the realm of his comprehension bring turbulence into his own minuscule sphere of existence. He suffers and we suffer along with him.
Like Sanguan, the novel is not so interested in being an active, political indictment. In fact, it enters a more genre-diverse climate: shifting in style from Chaucerian magnitude to exacting melodrama. There’s even a touch of a morality play here. Attentive as always to the theatrical opportunities that such a tale offers up, Yu has staged his story as a kind of traditional Chinese opera that townsfolk like Xu Sanguan would heartily enjoy. Scandal, tension, emotion and domestic tragedy is performed to us on the front doorstep. Undeniably, the novel’s themes – sustenance, suffering and the sacrifices of blood – are nothing if not elemental and operatic.
Jones’ translation perfectly captures the colloquial concision and bawdy humour of Yu’s language; veering often into the sharp cadence of a city comedy. The rural dialects and idioms are not placated by the English – and gladly so. The fact we are often alienated from the untranslatable, the idiomatic, allows us to fully appreciate the cultural and historical divide between us, as readers, and the world the novel is set in. A rather effective, and surprisingly coincidental, area of translation is the name of the protagonist. In English, Sanguan’s name seems to connect its linguistic roots to the word ‘sanguine’ and its cognates, which relate to blood and bloodline. Jones’ translation seems to, quite elegantly, gain a fresh intensity and a new dimension in English.
It cannot be said that Chronicle of a Blood Merchant showcases instances of ostentatious wordsmithery or lucid erudition. Instead, Yu Hua often resorts to crude metaphors to bring to life the rustic simplicity of the backdrop against which the story unfolds. But what catapults this into the league of great literature is its endearing honesty and its attempt at remaining true to the spirit of an age and a nation caught in a painful phase of transformation. When he is finally told he can Sanguan can no longer sell his blood, the exchange is rife with underlying implications – his steady depletion of vitality symbolizes the silent misery of a generation.
And yet, this book stresses not so much on an anti-communist rhetoric as much as it directs its energies at narrating a tale of blood ties and a family’s quest for survival in the face of all imaginable hardships – a family which couldn’t care less about Mao and his regime. Because to the Xu Sanguans of China, all meaning in life lies embedded in a crock full of bug-free rice, fried pork livers and gulping down a few shots of cheap yellow wine.
Reviewed by Freddie Tuson,Y13, Bede's Senior School, East Sussex, 9/6/20
Yu Hua’s generational tale of a man striving for a dignified and comfortable life transcends its Chinese context, exploring global themes of family, filial respect and love.
For a country with a population of over a billion, it is strange that the stories that emerge from China are so often about an elite collection of emperors, warriors and heroes. It is this typical focus on the higher echelons of society that make Yu Hua’s bildungsromanesque tale of seeming everyman Xu Sanguan’s journey through life ever more intriguing and powerful. Yu takes us into the streets of China, the bedrooms, kitchens and gardens of these ostensibly everyday people. While his tale may lack the epic scale of a traditional Chinese legend, its descriptions of people’s tenacity to live a dignified and comfortable life in times of incredible hardship elevate it past those grand fables.
In his 1995 novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, translated into English in 2003 by Andrew F. Jones, Yu Hua, tells the story of Xu Sanguan, a silk factory worker who sells his blood in an attempt to improve the lives of his family as they make their way through the tumultuous early decades of the PRC. Yu not only emotionally magnifies the seemingly normal lives of Xu Sanguan and his family, but also, in line with the ‘Cynical Realism’ movement of 1990s China, utilises frequent and savage black humour to explore the seismic socio-political events of this period of China’s history.
It is this uncommon focus on the emotional stories present in the seemingly impenetrable mass of China’s general population that make this novel so important, especially for Western readers. In language that at first appears plain, almost beige, Yu steadily stitches a colourful tapestry of everyday life in China across the early decades of the PRC. The initially bland linguistic choices gradually combining and compounding into an incredibly revealing and moving depiction of Xu Sanguan’s journey.
While Yu Hua’s novel is unmistakably Chinese, bringing to light the intriguing quirks and initially unclear facets of Chinese society, it is his ingenious structuring of his novel, giving it an almost mythical aura, that elevates it from a singular tale of Xu Sanguan’s journey, to a more universal exploration of ideas of family, filial respect and love.
In times where global togetherness is so vital, it is Yu’s stark linguistic style, complimented by the novel’s unmistakably warm heart that truly communicates the global similarity of life’s struggle. While the novel is clearly within a Chinese context, with political events carefully guiding the narrative along its course, these potentially explosive partisan events fade into the background of Yu’s novel, as he focuses more on the molten emotion at the centre of his ever-developing characters.
It is this preference for emotion over historical specifics that instates this novel as a rare achievement in literature. Yu ensures that the character of Xu Sanguan is not tied completely to the Chinese context, meaning he reflects not just a generation, but the soul of the people. A profound depiction of the noble and inspiring soul, not of heroes and legends, but of a seemingly insignificant member of China’s vast population. For many readers, it’s not a familiar portrayal – this is a China and a character less often depicted in fiction. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a world of powerful emotional substance, a world in which it is worth being immersed.
★★★★☆ – by Freddie Tuson