Dear Ru Zhijuan,
The Path through the Grassland (tr. Yu Fanqin. Original: 草原上的小路, 1979) begins and ends on a vast piece of uncultivated land, crossed by a desolate path that is as meandering as your story’s narrative style.
It starts shortly after the Cultural Revolution, and our protagonist, Xiao Tai, is crossing the grassland. Like her colleagues, she is a young girl sent to the countryside to work at an oilfield. At this point in the narrative, she is wating for a letter from a member of her team, Shi Jun, a young man who has temporarily gone South to care for his father.
The story then jumps back in the past, to the moment when the two met; and keeps coming back and forth between present and past, to the moment she receives a letter from him, as our protagonist muses about its content. In it, Shi Jun had written: “Hope to see you again. Tell me please, how should I introduce you to my father?” Together with Xiao Tai, we are left wondering whether there might be some kind of awkward declaration of love or a business-like marriage proposal behind such cryptic words.
Hovering over Xiao Tai’s musings, we can hear her colleague’s stifled sobs in the next room. Yang Meng is an educated girl sent to work in the field as a punishment, after her father had fallen out of favour with the Party. Hers is a tragic story: her mother committed suicide, her father has no real prospects of ever being allowed to return to his home, and Yang Meng is forever waiting an acceptance letter from the University. “The hardest thing for a person to bear is not a dressing-down or beating, but loneliness, ostracism.”
Shi Jun’s is also a tragic story: his father had been imprisoned as a secret agent and his mother had also committed suicide. However, differently from Yang Men, Shi Jun has turned sour and cynical. “I don’t believe in angels (…) These last few years I have come to believe in conditions. Conditions and interests determine everything. The attitude towards us of some relatives and friends changed completely when my father got into trouble.”
While Yang Meng remains hard-working, studious, and generous, Shi Jun seems to have a pragmatic and selfish approach to his relationships. Is this some kind of love triangle, where Yang Meng gives up her love, so as not to bring trouble to Shi Jun, due to her father’s reputation? Or is she pushing Xiao Tai to Shi Jun, in exchange for a favour to her father? Furthermore, are Shi Jun’s motives genuine toward Xiao Tai? Or is he moved simply by conditions and interests? Can politics and corruption stain something as pure as Xiao Tai’s romantic dreams? “In mechanics, an external agent puts something still into action. It’s like a bridge leading you to the other side. But, in real life, this bridge is sometimes frighteningly narrow, or sometimes as beautiful as a rainbow. It’s entirely up to you to choose where you want to go after crossing this bridge”, Yang Meng says to Xiao Tai.
I love how this story presents itself in the simplest way, while, at the same time, opening up different levels of interpretation when one least expects. Mirroring Xiao Tai’s search for a path through life, we have China’s quest for a new way forward after the fall of ‘the gang of four’ – a twisting path through a vast, devastated moral land. “Then she quickened her pace, wanting to go out to the grassland into the breeze. She wanted to walk on that twisting path, to ponder what course to take through the swirling stream of life.”
Much like our protagonist, we are left wondering, tossed left and right, back and forth, through the meandering path between reality and dream, freedom and conditions, Yang Meng and Shi Jun, idealism and cynicism, bridge and rainbow, forever crossing through the grassland.
“The desolate grassland stretched out as if to the end of the world. On a piece of uncultivated land as vast as this, one could have made straight for anywhere, but the narrow path running across it was zigzag and winding. (…). Yet, no matter how the track twisted, it was bound to lead somewhere.” – Ru Zhijuan, The Path through the Grassland