Mao’s Town
by Xie Hong
Whyte Tracks Publishing

There can never be enough novels dealing with the horrors of the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. The subjects have been covered in fine non-fiction books, such as Frank Dikötter’s People’s Trilogy (2010-2016) and Tombstone (2012), by Yang Jisheng. But while these include individual stories, they approach the events from a largely broad angle, and do not maintain specific perspectives on the tragedies.

Fiction allows for individual narratives. It can also serve as a kind of exorcism, a coming to terms with memories that have long been suppressed.

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Mao’s Town, by Xie Hong, is therefore warmly welcomed. The book examines these two cataclysmic periods through the eyes of a boy, narrator Baoguo. Growing up in a small town in an unnamed part of China in the 1950s and 60s, he sees – and to a lesser extent takes part in – the events as they unfold.

Xie artfully paces the horror as it moves from an unsettling trickle of minor events to a relentless series of catastrophes. Baoguo’s puppy is taken by authorities. A thief is stoned to death. Paranoia spreads about spies and counter-revolutionaries.

Baoguo’s neighbours, Ahn and Jing, born in Indonesia and relatively educated, come under suspicion. Ahn is suspended from his teaching job and sent for “re-education”. Then there’s the madness of the Great Leap Forward, when people eat in canteens, kitchen utensils are taken for steel production, and the land is stripped of trees to feed smelting furnaces.

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Recriminations intensify as crops fail and food stocks fall short. (The collective nature of communism is forgot­ten when a Party official orders the area to fend for itself.)

Baoguo’s uncle, a farmer, visits and begs for rice, confessing he lied about his harvest. His subsequent visits grow more desperate. Steel made in backyard furnaces proves useless, but authorities place the blame for this on saboteurs.

Meanwhile, Ahn and Jing receive barbaric punishments during increasingly dreadful public events, held in the name of the people but in the cause of newly empowered petty tyrants. 

These events are all seen through Baoguo’s uncompre­hending but observant eyes and described in his child’s voice. He often asks his parents to explain what is going on, but they refuse; there cannot be any discussion of taboo topics. This creates a sense of foreboding that builds throughout.

Mao’s Town is structured in 33 short chapters, composed of slight paragraphs and elementary sentences. This tech­nique can be effective in its simplicity, but Xie sometimes stumbles in its application. The main problem is with telling the story from the perspective of a child.

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The portrait Xie paints of Ahn and Jing is rather thin, for instance (Baoguo, like most children, is more interested in what people can give him rather than the people themselves). This is a structural deficiency, because the impact of the climactic final chapters will depend on the reader’s feelings for the couple. It’s easy to be revolted by the treatment they receive, but the book struggles to generate the powerful emotions it would like.

The bad guys, primarily Baoguo’s nemesis, Fatty, similarly lack psychological depth: Fatty is a sneak and a snitch, but we don’t find out much more about him. Were we to learn about an unhappy life at home, for example, or how his fear of standing out is due to a childhood trauma, the novel’s characterisation would be so much the richer.

Other problems are more basic: Xie is to be applauded for writing in English, but an editor should have picked up on his occasional errors. And Xie’s handling of dialogue often reads like a translation.

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None of these issues fundamentally undermines the novel, but many readers will be hoping for more.

Xie does, however, use imagery in subtle, pleasing ways. There’s nothing too artful about the contrast between Jing’s colourful tailoring and the drab fatigues that people had to wear during this period, perhaps, but the cloth­ing comes to symbolise more than just colour in a time of starvation. And with the town unnamed, there’s a suggestion that the story is somehow archetypal, an exempli­fi­cation of the horror and terror that struck nationwide.

Xie’s imagery extends beyond basic symbolism. Children attempt to recreate The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary drama performed in the town square. The youngsters enjoy the world of make-believe and dressing up, especially in the home of Jing, who is a skilled tailor. But when they try to perform the play, the necessary staging proves problematic: 

Being the only boy, I had to take the two opposing male parts of the heroic party representative Mr Hong Changqing and the evil landlord Nan Batian. This presented difficulties … Somehow I had to flip-flop between the two in an instant. As the landlord, I had to stick moustaches on my face; but a moment later, as Mr Hong, I had to tear them off again.

This takes on greater significance when, immediately after the play, Jing returns home and describes what has been happening to Ahn, who has been assigned to the Cadre School for re-education: “They’re turning him into a farmer!”

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While transfiguration is a common theme in children’s stories and fairy tales (from The Selfish Giant to Shrek), the violent absurdity of the authorities attempting to “re-educate” the skilled and educated into proletarians is self-evident. 

The narrative turns increasingly dark and Xie places Mao Zedong behind every cruel and nonsensical edict, from the gathering of kitchen tools to turn into steel, to the mass killing of sparrows and the summoning of the Red Guards, including Baoguo’s zealous older brother.

Mao’s Town is righteous with the truth and rich with feeling. And while its literary handling is slightly shaky, the book is ultimately a gripping read.