The Chinese novelist Lu Yao (birth name Wang Weiguo) has been celebrated in China for decades, but Life, released by AmazonCrossing last year, is the first of his works to be translated into English. He was born to a poor peasant family in rural northern Shaanxi in 1949, the same year the People’s Republic of China was founded, and the course of his life hewed closely to that of the nation.
At the height of the famine in the Great Leap Forward, his family handed him off to relatives in a neighboring county. During the Cultural Revolution, Lu Yao became the head of a group of Red Guards before being exiled as an “educated youth” to a rural village. In the last stages of the Cultural Revolution, a short-lived policy prioritizing the admission of students from peasant backgrounds allowed him to attend university in Yan’an, the sacred endpoint of the Long March. There, he began writing fiction about the struggles of life in his home region.
Life was a sensation when it was published in 1982, and it was rapidly adapted into a television show, a radio play, and an award-winning film. At the height of its popularity, Lu Yao wore himself out running back and forth from his apartment to the communal telephone fielding requests for interviews and appearances. Even the timing of his death seems overdetermined—after a long illness, Lu Yao passed away in 1992, the same year that Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour signaled another, deeper phase of market liberalizing reforms.
Lu Yao is beloved by those for whom the story of the People’s Republic of China is fundamentally a success story. “This book changed my life,” reads the new edition’s cover blurb by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba (the Chinese version of Amazon, if Amazon were merged with eBay and Paypal). Ma says he was inspired by the resilient example of Life’s protagonist Gao Jialin to keep pursuing a university education, even after having failed the college entrance exam multiple times. Lu Yao’s most influential fan is none other than Xi Jinping himself, who shared a cave dwelling with the novelist during the Cultural Revolution; he has promoted Lu Yao’s works in public speeches.
Despite his fame in China, I have never seen Lu Yao on an undergraduate or graduate syllabus of Chinese literature here in the United States, and it’s not hard to see why. During the 1980s, the sudden about-face of the post-Mao “opening up” generated unprecedented economic opportunities, but also anxieties over hyperinflation and economic instability, the persistence of authoritarianism and official corruption, and the meaning of Chinese life after the dramatic failures of Maoism. Many Chinese writers responded to this abrupt social transformation by eagerly experimenting with new ideas from inside and outside China, and their experiments—Yu Hua’s graphically violent surrealism, Can Xue’s radical narratives that test the limits of comprehension, Mo Yan’s magic realist revisionist histories—are much more intriguing to readers of Western modernism.
Lu Yao, by way of contrast, kept the Party faith. He wrote what the translator Dylan Levi King has adroitly labeled “capitalist realism”: putting the old tools of socialist realism to work to support the liberalizing policies of Reform and Opening. His fans, apart from such luminaries as Jack Ma or Chairman Xi, include people like the chengguan from Henan Province I met by chance on summer vacation. Chengguan translates literally to “urban management personnel,” but in terms of their dubious legal mandate and propensity for thuggish violence, and the low esteem in which they are generally held, “rent-a-cop” might be a better translation. When I told him that I study contemporary Chinese literature, he exclaimed, “Contemporary Chinese literature, it’s all garbage!” and commenced to rant: Mo Yan writes like a child, you can’t make heads or tails of it, all the other writers are barely literate and know nothing about Chinese culture, they are totally out of touch with the real world. After a few minutes of this, he paused to note one exception: “Of course, I’m not talking about Lu Yao. Lu Yao, I like.”
Life is the story of the struggle of Gao Jialin, a rural schoolteacher, to choose between two women—Liu Qiaozhen, the beauty of the village, and Huang Yaping, his former classmate—and the two futures they represent. The educated Jialin sees the necessity of national progress, unlike his antagonists, the village bigwigs Gao Minglou and Liu Liben, who obstruct his (and the nation’s) advancement out of shortsighted self-interest. The conflict is put exactly in those terms: “We must eradicate the countless irrationalities of life and let light shine in its every corner,” the narrator states baldly. A romance begins with a conversation about advancements in renewable energy, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the 1981 US air traffic controllers’ strike. To put it mildly, the novel lacks nuance.
But Life is also a melodrama built solidly around a central love triangle, and the structure works as well here as it does in Twilight. Like Jialin, the reader struggles to choose between Qiaozhen, with her firm sense of principle and her local clout, and Yaping, with her charming ebullience and well-connected urban cadre family. And the stakes of Jialin’s struggle are clear: if he doesn’t make it out somehow, he’ll live out the same bleak, backbreaking peasant life as generation after generation of his ancestors did, all his talent blown into oblivion by the Gobi wind. The feverish desperation of young people to become someone, anyone, powers the novel as it has centuries of bildungsroman. Chloe Estep’s natural, comfortable translation is good, too, though there’s not much she can do with the chunks of clunky Maospeak that clog the narrative.
On one hand, within the framework set up by Life, it is hard to resist rooting for Jialin; on the other, that requires maintaining a certain cognitive dissonance. Jialin is hard-working, entrepreneurial, and talented, but none of that is responsible for his fleeting victories; he is given a plum job when his uncle becomes the regional labor bureau chief, and loses it when his uncle is accused of improperly pulling strings on his behalf. Lu Yao does not conceal the contradiction between Jialin’s belief in meritocracy and his reliance on a corrupt system, but instead of advancing any deeper structural critique, Life simply asserts that a ceaseless effort to be the right kind of person and an unwavering faith in the system will miraculously pay off. This is an attitude that observers of Western mass entertainment will also find very familiar.
When Yaping complains about the unfairness of the choices life has presented to her, her father snaps back, “Don’t complain about life. Life is always fair. You should complain about yourself!” The critic Lauren Berlant has labeled the American version of this logic “cruel optimism”: “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” There is no greater obstacle to Jialin’s success than the intrinsically corrupt communist system in which he invests his hopes, yet in the absence of the prospect of political change, abandoning faith in the system would be far more jarring to the Jialins of the world than maintaining it. Life may not be “always fair,” but what else do we have?
As in the American melodramas Berlant studies, where “‘tomorrow is another day’ in which the fantasies of the good life can be lived,” Life ends by deferring its promises of happiness indefinitely. At the end of the novel, Jialin finds himself stuck again in his home village. An elderly villager implores him not to lose hope, pointing to his own labor: “When I plant a tree, I think about how when I die, later generations will pick fruit from that tree, and they’ll say, ‘This is one of the trees that old bachelor Deshun planted.’” Jialin is moved by Deshun’s example and commits to dedicating himself to an uncertain new life. His choice to be patient with the system is also the choice made by the vast majority of Chinese citizens, especially as decades of unprecedented economic growth made the eventual fulfillment of the “Chinese Dream,” to use one of Xi Jinping’s political slogans, seem plausible.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the State Council’s Development Research Center, 68% of respondents expressed confidence in China’s future. Skepticism of the figure is justified, but readers should also know that it represents a disappointment—the 2017 survey found even higher levels of confidence in the future. Promising the Chinese Dream has successfully placated a silent majority for now, but it is a way of buying stability on credit, and as the Chinese economy inevitably cools down, the debts incurred will come due.
If the secular faith of the American Dream has foreshadowed that of the Chinese Dream, the cruelty and rage of the Trump era give us a good idea of what happens when these kinds of dreams are disappointed on a mass scale. Already, Xi’s China is characterized by periodic eruptions of rage and violence directed at Japan, at Muslims, even at helpless kindergarteners—when people are barred by the state from being angry at legitimate targets, their violence will find another means of expression. These ugly spectacles offer us a preview of what might happen if the Jialins of contemporary China, still patiently waiting, finally figure out that they’ve been had. Tomorrow is, after all, another day.