Silence of the Tide
Silence of the Tide focuses on daily life in a north-western Chinese city. Although the story takes place during the political and social chaos of the years following the Revolution of 1949, the characters are influenced much more by their belief in local folk-religions and ‘superstitions.’ The writer uses black humour and irony to point out the absurdities of political extremism in a society dominated for millennia by spirits and ghosts. As a result, the novel amply reflects the prevalence of ‘realistic mysticism’ in China throughout the ages to today.
Silence of the Tide reads almost like a series of short stories. The chapters are all linked, however, by the subtle use of foreshadowing, by the characters, and by the major themes contained throughout and detailed in the following synopsis.
Importantly, Silence of the Tide unravels some of the mystery of China for the western reader. The insight gained into the spiritual life of the characters offers a vital clue for anyone trying to understand China’s tortuous journey through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Chapter One – A Mysterious Phenomenon.
The novel opens with the passage, Xiezi sounds like a Japanese name. But she is not Japanese. Xiezi is from the north-west Chinese earth, and her father actually fought against the Japanese. We are introduced to Xiezi’s father, and the profound loathing he and his generation have for the Japanese, a racial hatred nurtured by the Chinese Communist Party. But an encounter with a modern and educated young man reflects how outdated and parochial his generation’s views are.
Even though Xiezi’s father fought for the Revolution much earlier than most, his lack of abilities has left him as only the manager of a small coal plant – a cause of deep personal dissatisfaction. He is however, extremely sensitive to the politics of the day, with an ability to accurately assess the situation by reading just the headlines in the daily papers. He is convinced that with his outstanding Revolutionary credentials he should have made it to Beijing long ago, but without anyone in the Party to open doors for him, no one can appreciate his political acuity.
The character of Xiezi’s father is used to portray the enormous changes in China since the Revolution of 1949. In particular, through him we see the profound confusion people suffered as political campaigns set out to destroy their ancient ways of living and thinking, disparaging and even outlawing their spiritual existence only to be replaced with a soul-less ideology. (This echoes the current situation of the Chinese government’s outlawing of Falun Gong and other ‘cults.’)
Xiezi’s father is a member of the Party, but he is also deeply imbued with traditional beliefs. The story describes his overwhelming desire to father another son and heir – three sons have all died young leaving him embittered and resentful. He subconsciously believes that only his faith in Buddhism can help him, so he regularly steals away to a remote temple to pray to Guan Yin. He doesn’t even tell his wife what he’s doing, and this only enhances his conflict of ‘faiths.’ Furthermore, if discovered at the temple, he would certainly lose his job, however insignificant it might be.
Included in the chapter is a description of how Xiezi’s father chose the names for his four daughters (Xiezi hates her name for a variety of reasons, not least because it sounds the same as ‘scorpion’ in Chinese). As a Party member, he cannot show any favouritism towards boys because such blatant sexual discrimination would be a manifestation of old traditions. He therefore gives his daughters names containing the character zi, meaning son, subtly continuing a tradition of giving unwanted daughters names such as ‘Beckon a Brother’ without overtly showing his ‘feudal’ thinking.
All characters in Silence of the Tide are engaged in difficult struggles with their conscience: they must actively oppose the outward forms of their ancient culture at the same time as suppressing the innate styles of thinking and living which have created that culture. Their only option is to ‘pretend’ their way through life, wearing a variety of uncomfortable disguises and masks.
Chapter 2 – Sacrificial Goods to the Great River.
Chapter two contains a description of how the river running through the heart of the city has repeatedly flooded throughout history, and details how it took the lives of the three sons in Xiezi’s family. (The writer deliberately avoids using the river’s true name, The Yellow River, because of its overt associations with Chinese nationalism.)
At one time there was no bridge, so the only way for people to cross the river was by using a goatskin raft. There is a vivid description of the highly skilled and ritualised process of building such a raft, an art which is now lost.
Tradition holds that the Lord Dragon King lives in the river, and he only eats the flesh of pre-pubescent boys. People have to perform an elaborate set of ceremonies to appease the Lord Dragon King and protect their sons, sedating him with offerings of fruit and wine before attempting the treacherous crossing. The description of the ceremonies affords an insight into the Buddhist culture of north-western China, and the Shamanist influences of nearby Mongolia and Tibet.
We see the events leading to the drowning of the last son, and the enormous influence it has on Xiezi’s family – especially the women. Their household is like a microcosm of China, reflecting the low status of women in society. Despite strenuous efforts by the Communist Party to promote sexual equality after coming to power, China and Xiezi’s home are dominated by men.
The river is a brooding presence in Silence of the Tide, and like the political climate, it rises, swells and brings disaster, only to recede again, menacing in the background. It is a major character in the novel – a thread running through the lives of all the characters.
Chapter 3 – An Age of Absurdities.
The ‘age of absurdities’ relates to a period in the late fifties and sixties when China was riven by political campaigns. Through Xiezi’s young eyes, the chapter details how people threw themselves into the Great Leap Forward, destroying millions of tons of perfectly good metal-ware in shoddy ‘backyard furnaces.’ The aim was to produce enough steel to build the planes and cannons needed to overthrow American Imperialism.
The decimation of the countryside and the neglect of crops by people engaged in making useless steel led to a disastrous man-made famine in China. The government laid the blame for this squarely at the feet of sparrows, who were accused of taking food from the people’s mouths, and the ‘Campaign to Eliminate Sparrows’ swept China. The method of extermination was create a cacophony of noise for months on end, preventing the birds from landing until they died from exhaustion and fell to earth. School students who handed in their quota of dead sparrows were given an official commendation. Xiezi enthusiastically wins two such commendations but suspects that some boys in her class are handing in only a fraction of the sparrows they kill. She later discovers that driven by hunger they were eating the sparrows they kept. Xiezi, keen to be a good student and first-rate Young Pioneer, loses the battle with her conscience, and joins the boys in a banquet of sparrows.
The writer points out that despite the mass support for such politically driven enterprises, people were still only concerned for their own welfare. Even small children feigned support for the sake of excitement and food.
The stories here differ greatly from the ‘Scar Literature’ coming out of China. The true scars are on people’s conscience: the more vehemently their innocence is protested and victimisation claimed, the deeper their scars become. The absurdity in the absurdities is if everyone claims to be a victim, who then were the assailants?
Xiezi’s youth and innocence are gone, and the chapter closes with the line, In China’s vast skies, sparrows were gone forever.
Chapter 4 – The Function of Bathing.
We are given a deeper insight into the character of Xiezi’s father with an explanation into why he never washes: all of his sons were drowned in the river, so he believes water to be the ‘evil element’ of his family.
When washing with her sisters one day in a public shower house, Xiezi is horrified to see a pair of man’s eyes looking at her naked body, and she instinctively covers herself with her hands. The eyes are actually those in a poster of Chairman Mao – so omnipresent in China at the time that they were even hung in women’s showers. The incident, coinciding with her own physical maturing, exerts an enormous psychological pressure on Xiezi: any manifestation of disloyalty to Chairman Mao can be perceived as a Counter-Revolutionary act. During the Cultural Revolution female Red Guards worshipped Mao as their idol, their hero, and often as the only sex symbol in their lives. It was this latent sexuality that drove many of them to their wildest, most brutal excesses. Xiezi’s fear of Mao’s eyes and her love of his wisdom are felt in equal measure, posing an agonising dilemma for her. To steel and punish herself, she dresses and undresses again and again in front of a poster of Mao in her bedroom, bought for that specific purpose.
Xiezi’s yearning to prove herself worthy of Mao and the Revolution compels her to denounce her only friend during a campaign to expose ‘hidden Rightists’ at her school. Full of remorse, she realises not only has she failed to be bathed in the political glory she has dreamed of, but she has lost a good friend for ever.
The chapter includes an account of Xiezi’s mother making a complicated folk-prescription to try and conceive a son. Implicit in the account is people’s unfaltering belief in their traditional faith-healing and religion, despite the Party’s best attempts at brainwashing.
Chapter 5 – All About Dandan.
Chapter five introduces Dandan, Xiezi’s neighbour and a treasured only child. His grandmother, fearful he might die young and end the family line, decides to raise him as a girl from the time of his birth to his twelfth birthday – the completion of a cycle of Earthly Stems. She plans to then have his feminine spirits exorcised by a witch, whereupon his boyhood would continue into manhood, then fatherhood. (Local tradition holds that boys are like rare and beautiful flowers, therefore difficult to tend and easy to lose. Girls, on the other hand, like weeds, grow irrepressibly.) Dandan is brought up dressed in skirts and blouses, and grows two long, black plaits which he adores, much to the scorn of the other children in the neighbourhood.
Dandan is thrilled by his grandmother’s extraordinary skills at making traditional paper cuts. She refuses to let him try making his own, however, explaining it is a pastime for girls, not little boys, leaving him deeply confused.
Dandan’s grandmother is obsessed with his penis, and regularly checks on its development by feeling and stroking his groin. Indeed, she loves Dandan’s reproductive organs more than she appears to love Dandan himself. Dandan has extraordinarily vivid dreams about escaping his grandmother’s clutches to a place where gender is irrelevant and there is no one to tell him what to do.
There is a dramatic account of Dandan’s exorcism by the witch on his twelfth birthday. His beloved plaits are cut off, and after his grandmother dresses him in boy’s clothes, she forces him through the door to face the world. Terribly scarred by such an unusual upbringing, Dandan privately resolves not to have any children, foreshadowing his eventual homosexuality.
Chapter 6 – Rendered Speechless.
This chapter relates the effects of the man-made famine in China which killed millions of people in town and country alike. The official press was full of flagrant lies about bumper harvests, spread by obsequious local-level cadres lying about conditions on the ground. Even Xiezi’s fanatically loyal father finds it almost impossible to justify – until he dons his mask.
Old Man Qi, a hundred-and-eight years old, has lived through three distinct phases of China’s history: the Qing, the Republic, and the People’s Republic. He dares to say things about the Party’s inadequacies and incompetence that no one else does – however much they might secretly agree. Old Man Qi dies in the famine and returns as a good ghost, whom people believe will dispel the evil ghosts causing the famine.
The manifestation of Old Man Qi’s ghost emphasises the prevalence of realistic mysticism in Silence of the Tide, used to convey the solace people found in their traditional beliefs to counter the grim realities of their existence.
Chapter 7 – A Beautiful Shape.
China’s class structure during the Cultural Revolution provides the background for this chapter. Despite the Party’s proclaimed intention to eliminate class, the distinctions in society were in fact extremely sharp, with the children of high-ranking cadres being but one example of an elite. Even though their parents had been overthrown, they were still imbued with a sense of superiority, regarding themselves as China’s new nobility. Even in the remote and impoverished north-west, their quality of life was far above that of the common people. They were the few people in China likely to receive a rounded education or come into contact with non-Chinese. Because of their education they have an even greater thirst for life and fully realise the nature of the political pressure they are under.
Through spending time with the daughter of a high-ranking cadre, Xiezi sees and hears a piano played for the first time in her life. With the windows and doors tightly closed, she hears Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and a variety of Russian folk songs about love.
The girl who introduced Xiezi to the group commits suicide. Her death is just one more fatality in a society that has become numbed to the value and meaning of human life and death.
The endless political campaigns and the privations of live have brought everyone’s hatred and anger close to the surface, and fist fights are a common sight on the streets. Watching a punch-up is invariably the only entertainment available in the city, and rather than intervene, passers-by usually do what they can to clear a space so fists can freely swing.
The vehemently leftist Party Municipal Secretary in the city orders the production of a car with the politically correct feature of having no reverse gear (this, along with other anecdotes and vignettes throughout the novel, is a true story). The city’s streets become impossibly jammed with cars stuck in dead ends and tow trucks struggling to reach them and turn them around. But at least the traffic jams cause more fights – more free entertainment for the spiritually deprived and voyeuristic city-folk. The Party Municipal Secretary has it gently explained to him that his ambition of producing a car incapable of turning right would mean closing off half the streets in the city.
Chapter 8 – The Bound Feet Foot-Patrol.
The main body of this chapter is a bleak account of how people in China during the Cultural Revolution had no private life. This was primarily due to old, uneducated women, usually from the countryside and desperate to be in the cities, who assiduously spied and reported on the activities of everyone in their neighbourhood for the Residents’ Association. An example of such a devious and vindictive woman in the novel exists in the form of Li Xiuying, whose machiavellian scheming leaves a trail of shattered lives behind her.
There is an ironic account of Mao’s ludicrous theories on population, where he called on the Chinese people to have as many children as they could to increase the likelihood of China surviving a nuclear holocaust. Liu Xiuying, almost as a career move, has seven children of her own.
Li Xiuying’s chicanery brings in to focus the daily lies, deceptions and accusations people had to use to safeguard their own welfare, often at the expense of others.
Chapter 9 – Dandan’s Dick.
Dandan has become more and more effeminate with the passage of time. When he reaches the age of starting a family of his own, his family introduce him to potential wives in the hope he will marry young and father sons and grandsons of his own. But the experience of being brought up by his grandmother has left him uninterested if not fearful of women, and he realises he is gay. The social pressures upon him now only cause him to flaunt himself more than he had, and he causes a big stir in the ugly grey city by walking the streets in jeans and a gaudy, colourful shirt. He is arrested having had an affair with the leader of a dance troupe, and sentenced to seven years in prison for sodomy – harsher than expected because he refused at his trial to admit he had hurt anyone or anything.
The writer recounts the long history and traditions of homosexuality in China – especially during the Song and Ming Dynasties – where scholar officials routinely employed a ‘book boy’ to tend to their daily needs, and to share their beds at night. The Party have been so keen to deny the existence of such ‘decadent and bourgeois’ behaviour, that most people in China are unaware of it. As a result, the condemnation of Dandan by everyone in the city is all the greater, not least from his grandmother who hopes he will be executed.
Chapter 10 – Xiezi’s Howl.
The final chapter returns to the character of Xiezi, and her sad, disillusioned life of self-loathing as she heads into spinsterhood. Walking one day by the banks of the river, she sees a cloud appear over the surface of the water. She steps inside, and sees an image of herself – the Scorpion Spirit – who tells her the story of how she acquired her hated name: When her mother was pregnant, she dreamed the Scorpion Spirit was in her womb. Her father took this as an omen that his next child would be a son, but when a daughter appeared, he named her Xiezi – a homonym for scorpion in Chinese – in the hope that his next child would be a son. The Scorpion Spirit tells Xiezi she was born to endure all the scorn and bitterness due to scorpions, a tragic substitute for the Spirit herself.
Vignettes in this chapter portray the hatred shown to intellectuals (almost anyone educated above middle-school level) during the Mao era, and the appearance of ‘barefoot doctors’ and Worker Peasant Soldier Universities. There is a particularly graphic and chilling account of untrained people trying a new dental anaesthetic which seemed to rely more on enthusiasm than science.
When at school, Xiezi fell for a boy in her class, but lacks the courage or experience to know how to advance the situation. The boy later poses as a doctor, and conducts breast examinations on women staying in the city’s hotel – a ruse to gain sexual excitement. The episode serves as an example of how society has been warped and deformed by the prurient political climate.
The end of Silence of the Tide sees Xiezi, now insane and convinced her name has been the cause of all her suffering, fulfilling her lifelong ambition of changing it to Wu Tianyu – a beautiful masculine name meaning Heavenly Rain. She wanders the streets, howling out her name to anyone she meets.
She has a dream where she, as a man, takes Dandan as a wife. She is no longer a spinster and in her mind, Dandan is no longer a prisoner. They both have what they desire the most, and the tragedy of their lives ends as a farce.
Structurally, Silence of the Tide forms a perfect circle, from Xiezi’s name at the beginning, to her changing it at the end. The absurdity of life in a China ravaged by political fanaticism is described with irony, humour and anecdotes, poignantly revealing the inner conflicts people still routinely endure between traditions and modernity. In a place where the absurd is a daily occurrence, mystic realism instead becomes realistic mysticism and the reader is given a priceless insight into the reality of the mystery of China.
Translated and edited by Ben Carrdus.