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Authors: Lin Zhe

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Old Town

BOOK: Old Town
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Old Town
is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have some counterparts, the characterizations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s imagination. Accordingly,
Old Town
should be read solely as a work of fiction.

Text copyright © 2006 by Lin Zhe
English translation copyright © 2009 by George A. Fowler

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by AmazonCrossing
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140

Library of Congress Control Number: 2010918614
ISBN: 978-1-611090-07-9

Old Town
was first published in 2006 by Writers Publishing House, Beijing, as
Waipode Gucheng
Translated from Chinese by George A. Fowler and published in 2010 under the title
Riddles of Belief…and Love
This English edition published in 2010 by AmazonCrossing.


Lin Zhe (pen name of Zhang Yonghong), is the author of
Grandma’s Old Town
Waipode Gucheng
—Writers Publishing House, Beijing, 2006), renamed
Old Town
in this English translation. She was born in 1956 of Han Chinese parents then serving in the People’s Liberation Army in Kashi (Kashgar), a small frontier city in what is now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After graduating from the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Fudan University in 1980, Ms. Lin worked as a reporter and editor for
Women of China Magazine
in Beijing. She has written fourteen novels that focus on women’s issues relating to marriage and personal and family life. In addition, before publishing
Old Town
, Ms. Lin wrote three dramatic series for Chinese television unrelated to this novel.

The first, rather small edition of
Old Town
quickly sold out, and its enthusiastic reception prompted Tang Min, one of the country’s most prominent film producers, to buy the rights to adapt it for television. The series, called
Army Doctor
, featuring well-known actors, began broadcasting in China in May 2009. Before production of
Army Doctor
had been completed, Tang Min commissioned Ms. Lin to write an additional television series based on the novel. Production of this series, named
Bygone Days in Old Town
, is now in its final stage, and is expected to be broadcast to Chinese audiences in early 2011. In addition, the Chinese publishers of the novel will be coming out with a second edition in the near future.

Of all her works to date,
Old Town
was the book that Lin Zhe had long wanted to write: a portrait of ordinary Chinese people from the aspect of faith—that system of beliefs and values, spiritual strength, if you will—that sustains people in difficult times. China certainly has suffered horrendously difficult times over the past century, and faith there has been clothed in very differing raiment indeed. Lin Zhe’s parents, for example, were firm believers in communism and the stability it would surely bring to their afflicted country. In sharp contrast, Lin Zhe and her generation, who were still children during the Cultural Revolution, learned by bitter experience to believe in nothing whatsoever except themselves. Lin understands that while her generation may have gained a fierce clarity of sorts, they lost the spiritual strength that had been the precious heritage of the generations that preceded them.

Nor was this solely the result of disillusionment and cynicism from coming of age during the Cultural Revolution. Over the past sixty years alone, it is said, China has gone through the unimaginable equivalent of change that the West took two hundred years to experience and adjust to. As she has said to me, “Because of this enormous process of change, our traditional system of values has been severely impacted, and as a result we are the most lost and chaotic of generations. I felt it was my responsibility as a writer to record this history, and in my writings I have expressed our generation’s confusion, especially the confusion suffered by Chinese women.”

It is in this context that we approach and understand the recurring voice of the narrator, for this book is really her story: one of emptiness and despair, recollection, and, ultimately, a kind of illumination and salvation.

My longtime friend Lars Ellström, of Beijing and Oaxen Island, Sweden, unexpectedly and enthusiastically thrust
Old Town
on me in 2007. Lars and I first met in 1970 at Nanyang University in Singapore, where we both were studying Chinese, I the rankest of beginners and he already impressively advanced. When I telephoned Lars to discuss a certain literary translation project I was then considering, he interrupted to tell me of the book his friend Yonghong had recently written, and “never mind” the one I had called about. The result of that telephone conversation is now in your hands.

I had to make several key decisions in bringing this novel to a non-Chinese readership. Primary among them was how to deal with the predominant use in the text of relationship titles rather than proper names for members of the extended Lin and Guo families. Addressing and referring to close family members with relationship titles and not names is a living tradition in Chinese culture and society. And Chinese relationship titles embed precise terms that can clarify, for example, whether an uncle is on the father’s or mother’s side of the family and what his age is relative to one’s mother and father. Thus, while Chinese readers would have had little difficulty in identifying and keeping track of these relationships in the original text, my concern was that the readers of this translation might find all of this rather bewildering. However, rather than requesting Lin Zhe to invent new proper names for this translation I have decided to remain faithful to the source text for several reasons. First, bringing a plethora of new names into play would surely cause more confusion than clarity. Second, such relationship titles in this book are actually rather limited in number, and I have provided family trees as a reference for the non-Chinese reader. Mainly, however, I saw retaining these titles as a way to draw us out of our world and into one that is very Chinese.

It is common in China to address friends by prefixing “Old” or “Young” to their surnames. This is generally a reference to the friend’s age relative to a speaker, even if the difference is not that great. Thus, Dr. Lin’s former medical adjutant, Li, continues to be “Young Li” across the years of their relationship, and Dr. Lin himself is referred to as “Young Mr. Lin” by Mrs. Yang, the widow of his former classmate in Shanghai, even in both of their old ages.

The given names of Chinese children are frequently made diminutive by adding an “er” sound to them. Thus, rather than “Little Hong,” or “Little Su,” etc., which are perfectly correct, but to my mind slightly cloying, I have simply transliterated these as “Hong’er,” “Su’er,” and so on.

Apart from the stylistic changes inevitable in rendering the Chinese source into English, I have faithfully mirrored the structure and narrative flow of Lin Zhe’s original work in my translation. In particular, I have tried to evoke the flavor of the many proverbs and sayings in this book without obscurity or literalism. The striking array of allusions drawn on Chinese history and literature of all genres across the millennia, so typical of educated Chinese in their speech and writing, is also richly deployed in Lin Zhe’s novel. I have provided footnotes rather than paraphrase or simply delete these proud jewels of the Chinese language. I hope readers will find these clarifying and illuminative of how profoundly China’s history and culture reverberates and ever accumulates in Chinese self-reference.

On one specific historical note, in the sections of this novel dealing with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the reader will come across many references to “rebel factions,” far more, in fact, than to Red Guards. As explained to me by Lin Zhe, while the Red Guards were largely student activists, the “rebel factions” were, by contrast, oppositionist organizations made up of nonstudents, i.e., factory workers, political cadres, teachers, etc. The armbands they wore would indicate their particular affiliations. The motivations and actions of these rebel factions were more a reflection of political conditions at the local level than any unified ideological stance or strategy, and they not infrequently engaged in armed clashes with each other. Lin Zhe recounts all of this in her novel.

In her citation of verse two of Psalm 78 in the Old Testament of the Bible as the frontispiece inscription in the Chinese edition of her novel, Ms. Lin foreshadows all the wondrous (and often terrible) deeds and “mysteries of old” related in her story. As I read
Old Town
, this evocation of “mysteries” struck me as touching something both existential and universal, notwithstanding the very specific twentieth century China setting of this novel. For riddles abound in the telling of
Old Town:
Who or what force directs our lives? Is it fate? Divinity? If it is divinity, then how to understand the confluence of events that impact and shape human existence and all too often bring suffering? And what holds life together in desperate circumstances – is it belief in God, Bodhisattva Guanyin, or a political system such as communism? Or is it love – whether of another person, one’s family, or even one’s country? And, seemingly above all, how is it that some people are nourished and sustained by that mysterious association, marriage, while others are somehow doomed to be poisoned by it?

Old Town
, the love of Ninth Brother and Second Sister for each other is like the bloom of an indomitable rose bursting forth in a climate of desolation, terror, and despair. The narrator, by contrast, is baffled and bitter over the failure of her own marriage and her pointless love affairs. Most poignant of all, though, is the mystery of the generations that preceded her. But this is beyond her understanding, for the world and age that shaped those generations is now closed to her forever. And if that is so, then who, really, is she? These are among the questions, the riddles that the narrator ponders throughout her long meditative recollection of her family in Old Town.

Finally, as we stand on the threshold of Old Town, a note on architecture. In the traditional houses of the educated and reasonably well off in coastal South China, the kitchen would be in the far back, next to the back door. In the old days, servants could pass in and out only through that back door, not through the front gate. Inside the main gate of an Old Town home is the “sky well,” a smaller version of the more spacious courtyards of North China. Smaller, I would guess, because of the vastly greater rainfall in this region of the country. Passing through the sky well, you will arrive in the main parlor. Here are placed the ancestors’ pictures, memorial tablets, and various and venerated heirlooms. Here also is the family dining table. By the side of the sky well of Ninth Brother and Second Sister’s home is a little room that will later be converted into a simple clinic. Their residence at West Gate is rather small, not very typical, and certainly a far cry from the “three-courtyard-deep” mansion of Ninth Brother’s boyhood, when old dynastic China had breathed its last and something new and unknown was just beginning to take its place.



Background Dates and Events in Modern Chinese History

1911 – Uprisings of republican forces in South China topple decrepit Qing dynasty. Sun Yat-sen elected first provisional president of the Republic of China.


1912 – Guomindang (“Chinese Nationalist Party”) founded and assumes leadership of China’s republican revolution. Provisional president of the Republic of China now Beijing militarist Yuan Shikai.


1916 – Death of President Yuan Shikai. Chaotic warlord period commences in many parts of China.


1921 – Communist Party of China (CCP) founded.
The True Story of Ah Q
by Lu Xun published in serial form.


1926–1928 – Northern Expeditions by Guomindang armed forces in coalition with CCP and other leftist factions to unite the country by defeating the warlords. Commander-in-Chief Chiang Kai-shek brutally purges the Northern Expedition of its communist and leftist elements in Shanghai in April 1927. CCP goes underground in cities or flees to rural areas of south China. Red Army formed in Jiangxi Province.


1928 – Capital of unified China established at Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, under leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, chairman of the National Government in Guomindang one-party state. Series of encirclement and annihilation campaigns launched against CCP-controlled areas.


1932 – Japan sets up puppet state of Manchukuo under Pu Yi, last emperor of the now-defunct Qing Dynasty. Manchukuo becomes springboard for Japanese aggression in North China. Other relatively small-scale Japanese provocations in China since early 1930s.


1934–1935 – Withdrawal of embattled CCP forces from southern China to Shaanxi Province (“the Long March”).


1937 – The Second Sino-Japanese War formally begins with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (July 7), followed by the Battle of Shanghai, aka, “Songhu Battle” (August– October), the Battle of Nanjing and the Nanjing Massacre (December), Guomindang government commences graduated migration to Chongqing, Sichuan Province, far up the Yangzi River. Guomindang government under Chiang and Communists under Mao Zedong sign agreement for a joint war of resistance against Japan.


1945–1946 – End of the Second World War in Asia. Negotiations between Guomindang and Communists on a coalition government fail. Open civil war resumes in July 1946.


1949 – Civil war ends in Communist victory. Portions of Guomindang army and numerous government officials, business figures complete retreat to Taiwan. Mao Zedong proclaims birth of People’s Republic of China at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing (October). Chiang flies to Taiwan from Chengdu, Sichuan Province (December).


1950–1953 – Korean War. Chinese forces enter Korea to prop up collapsing North Korean army. War ends in stalemate along the 38th Parallel. Ceasefire and armistice signed by commanders of UN Command, Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteers on July 27, 1953.


1956 – Hundred Flowers Campaign starts, critical views of party policies and government leadership encouraged by top leadership. Motivations for this still debated.

BOOK: Old Town
3.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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