The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China. Wenfu Lu.
A Decade of Disaster…. June 25, 2000
I want to review The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China by focusing on one jewel of a story by Lu Wenfu (1928-), who suffered long and hard from the horrors of the communist regime and understands in his fiction, as in the writings of Fang Lizhi, Wei Jingsheng, and Harry Wu, that Chinese communism’s most egregious crime is its stifling of the human spirit. As a young man, he fought in the Red army against the Koumintang and dreamed of the “happy society” socialism would usher in. Like so many writers, in 1957, he was denounced as a Rightist, during the Hundred Flowers purge and the Great Leap Forward, and sentenced to manual labor to reform his thinking. After three years of running a machine lathe, he was deemed reformed and allowed again to write. Then, in 1965, Mao took China down the violent path of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and Lu Wenfu was once more denounced and sentenced, this time, to the life of a mechanic. He later wrote of his experience during the Cultural Revolution:
“I was ’struggled against,’ forced to confess my crimes and paraded through the streets with a placard around my neck. I was already numb to the pain, and worried about when this disaster for my country would end.”
Finally, in 1969, he was sent out to the countryside where he farmed for several years. For more than a decade, Lu Wenfu wrote nothing until after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976. What little was left of the traditional culture had been trashed; the ruthless persecution of “stinking intellectuals” like Lu Wenfu had been encouraged by Mao himself; thousands of Taoist and Buddhist temples and relics had been destroyed; millions of lives ruined; perhaps as many as 400,000 individual human beings murdered.
In 1979, Lu Wenfu wrote his brilliant short story “The Man from a Peddler’s Family.” Into it he poured all the sufferings of his life. The story begins with the protagonist, Mr. Gao, reflecting on Zhu Yuanda, a seller of wonton. Thirty-two years ago, Mr. Gao had heard for the first time the sound of his bamboo clapper, announcing the advance down the lane of the little kitchen stove on its carrying pole, figuratively “calling or relating something.” Zhu Yuanda came from a long line of street vendors, generation after generation, reaching back into the distant dynasties. Following in the footsteps of his father, he continues the family trade. At the time, apparently 1947, Mr. Gao is out of regular work and must sit up late at night, in an unheated room, grading student notebooks for a bare existence. After the Beijing Opera let out late, Zhu Yuanda would bring him “a little warmth,” a hot bowl of wonton to his “main customer.” Though formerly friends, after the liberation of 1949, Mr. Gao, now a cadre, considers Zhu beneath him. Occasionally, he would still hear the clapper, “calling, saying something.” Gao remembers, as the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Forward raged, “I never bought anything from him and I wouldn’t allow my wife or children to go. I believed that buying his things was aiding the spontaneous rise of capitalism.” The Anti-Rightist struggles continue, disturbing Gao, until, in what may be an allusion to Buddhism, he ponders how “The world seemed out of joint.” Lu Wenfu is clearly suggesting there is something more to the business of the clapper than just petty bourgeois capitalism.
Yet Mr. Gao goes through his own internal struggles and battles. For a time he attempts to correct or reform Zhu Yuanda, and later tries to ignore or forget him, hoping to save his own skin from the social upheavals. They had, though, formerly shared “a genuine affection,” one that Gao cannot entirely forget despite his position within the communist order. Back and forth, he meditates on Zhu, finding him sometimes to be a capitalist, at others, one of the proletariat: “And then a thunderclap split the earth. The bugles of the Cultural Revolution were sounded, announcing the end of all capitalism.” Gao himself becomes implicated in the madness and is “publicly criticized and denounced.” He manages to avoid his own destruction but happens past Zhu Yuanda’s house one day to find it and him in the midst of a horde of Red Guards smashing the “Evil Den of Capitalism.” Gao, himself a cadre, knows better. He knows Zhu is a simple, decent man attempting only to feed his father, mother, wife, and four children, by, as he says, “my own efforts.” In brilliant words, Lu Wenfu undercuts with scathing irony the pious, radical beliefs of decades of revolutionaries like Lu Xun, when Gao thinks, of the Red Guard’s destruction of everything Zhu Yuanda owned, “How could a noble theory produce such piracy as this!” The worst offense is when the “wonton carrying-pole was dragged out,” “a thing of exquisite workmanship,” a thing redolent of the past, of the best of Chinese traditions, and shamelessly hacked into splinters. Zhu’s family is reduced “to picking up garbage in the streets” in order to make ends meet. Lest the reader imagine Zhu was an exception, Lu Wenfu emphasizes that the seller of wonton was only one of many on the same street who suffered when he mentions the hot water boiler, the cobbler, the barber, and the flatbread seller as all meeting the same pitiless fate.
Like hundreds of thousands of real human beings, Zhu is sent to the countryside for reeducation. Eight years go by. Gao hears nothing of Zhu. Unexpectedly one day Gao hears that Zhu’s sons are working in a local factory and later that Zhu himself is back. Before leaving, Zhu had given Gao the only thing that had somehow escaped destruction, the bamboo clapper. Gao, imagining he’ll now want to return to his old business, begins to anticipate it. In a moment of fantasy, Gao remembers how as a young man he heard the sound of the clapper coming up the lane and thinks that now people will hear again Zhu Yuanda’s approach: “Their lives, too, demand that there be others bringing them warmth and convenience. It had taken me more than twenty years to learn this elementary lesson.” It had actually taken more than thirty years, and I wonder if Lu Wenfu is not hoping here that China itself has finally learnt the lesson after its “decade of disaster.” I myself am not so sure. No longer interested in his clapper or selling wonton, Zhu longs only for an iron rice bowl for his children and himself. As Zhu leaves, Gao watches him walk down the street and poignantly thinks, “In these past years I and others had hurt him. We had stifled so much spirit.” All the dreams and theories brought to naught by the broken stature of a ruined man. As in other modern Chinese writers, such pathos takes place against a social background intentionally drained of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist morality and transcendence.