Here is the article which appeared in Exiled Ink! magazine, issue 4, winter 2005/6:
Yoyo, Ghost Tide, Fourth Estate, London, 2005,
translated from the Chinese by Ben Carrdus
Reviewed by David Clark.
Ghost Tide throws light on a broad sweep of modern Chinese history, from the collapse of Empire and the old order, conflict between nationalist and communist forces, the hardships endured in the rush to modernisation, followed by the self criticism and inward-looking self obsession of the cultural revolution. Only to emerge in the harsh and confusing light of global consumerism, just hinted at in the book.
Yet, this is not a historical account of those days. This is not a well- researched social documentation of twentieth century Chinese history. It is something quite different and magical, a fable of our times, dealing with the essence of historical truth through the intermediary of characters who inhabit the hinterland, the margins. Indeed these characters acquire a larger than life quality, standing for a whole era, an attitude of mind, the spirit that swept the whole country. These characters acquire a life of their own and animate the novel, they move the story along a historical continuum and embody the spirit of a particular moment in that history. They are both characters in a novel and ghosts of the past which still animate the present, in the modern China of today.
Whilst these characters are known, in a very real sense, to the Chinese who lived through this period, under other names and guises, they are largely unknown in the West. Yoyo has done a great service to western readers by bringing these characters to our attention. Yoyo weaves an enthralling story, a fable in which the characters inhabit a landscape shaped by the demons of superstitions or the demons of cultural and political forces beyond the control of ordinary folk. The tale is told in a manner that keeps the reader’s interest throughout, and engages us in the various passions, enthusiasms, foibles and longings of the main characters. It is also told with a great deal of humour as well as insight into what propels the characters forever forward.
We are first of all introduced to Xiezi’s father and we are plunged straight into the turmoil of Communist China facing new realities. He is a veteran of the long march with the Eighth Route Army, imbued in the revolutionary zeal of the time, devoting himself entirely to the cause, to the defence of his country and the fulfillment of the Party’s dreams. He had been a rough country boy who had been propelled into the very heart of the revolution, alongside the Eighth Route Army, but his role had been a very minor one, tending to the reserve horses, at the very rear. Nevertheless, he had to be duly rewarded as a hero and was given the post of coal-plant manager in a city ten thousand miles away from the capital, and that is as far as the illiterate hero could rise within the ranks. He continued to support the Party through all the twists and turns of the post-war period, retaining his faith in the old certainties of the initial struggle. This, despite severe hardships, despite being asked to lie for his country and announce ever better harvests and production attainments even in the face of famine and deprivation.
We are also introduced to some of the absurd excesses of this blind faith in future progress, the melting down of much useful household objects in order to produce home-made steel of such poor quality that nothing could be manufactured with it, all in the name of increasing steel production. Or the sudden appearance of a locally produced car, called the “Forever Forward”, which looked a bit like a tractor but had the singular feature of not having a reverse gear, symbolising the forward march of Communism. This resulted in huge traffic jams, as mobile construction cranes had to be dispatched to rescue and remove vehicles trapped in dead end streets.
We hear about the periodic witch-hunts against those still tied to the old superstitions or simply those caught up in minor misdemeanours, the public humiliations and degrading punishments meted out. Yet, while Yoyo writes about the ideological and bureaucratic excesses of the regime, she does so with humour and a light touch, highlighting absurdities rather than focusing on gruesome details. One of the most touching scenes in the novel is the account of the children of the fallen cadres, during the cultural revolution. The youthful children of former elite officials are set apart, parading themselves in their parents’ old uniforms, now that their parents were in prison or rehabilitation camps. The uniforms are threadbare in places, but the signs of where medals used to hang or where epaulettes used to be, still clearly visible. The youths hang around together, listening to classical music on old 78 records, reading 19th century Russian novels and singing old folk songs together.
Xiezi herself is a much more complex character. As the eldest surviving child in the household, she is given many tasks and errands to fulfil, in many ways standing in for the absent sons, none of whom survived childhood and infancy. She has a serious and quiet disposition, but in adolescence is worried by the male gaze of Chairman Mao’s eyes watching her from his portrait as she takes her weekly shower in the public baths. She avoids showers for months on end, feels guilty about avoiding the Chairman’s gaze; is she being disloyal to the Party? She makes up for it by buying several portraits of Chairman Mao which she hangs up all around the house, and then denounces her best friend in school for not having a portrait of the Chairman in her bedroom. But she has to contend with other worries. She feels she is ugly, being considered too thin, her lips too thick for Chinese notions of beauty. She despairs of ever finding a husband; she falls in love with a classmate but does not dare speak to him. Life passes her by and by the time Xiezi is thirty she reinvents herself as a man, but nobody seems to care.
This tale is counterbalanced by the story of Dandan, who is born a boy but brought up as a girl until he is twelve, as a ruse to cheat the demons who seek to devour little boys. At twelve Dandan is told to dress and behave like a boy again, but he still yearns to be a girl. Later he falls in love with the male lead in a dance troupe, the affair is discovered and he is put in prison and disgraced forever. The novel is a fable about the struggle for a better future in which millions of individuals are forced into conformity, but some individuals still struggle to be allowed their own individuality. The reader becomes engrossed in the long sweep of history, in events that affect the lives of millions, whilst still engaged with the individual's struggle to retain their own unique identity. It is a powerful plea for the need to express one's own creativity and sense of self.