Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Rice Sprout Song" by Eileen Chang

This novel is the first novel that Eileen Chang wrote originally in English with a later version in Chinese (秧歌). I chose to read the Chinese edition as I wanted to feel closer to the characters in the novel as well as to the author. Before this novel, I had never read any of her works, because as an adolescent I had preferred to read novels by the Taiwanese novelist Chiung Yao (瓊瑤).

The title of the novel refers to a festive folk song that used to be sung by villagers in rural villages to celebrate abundant harvests. It is oxymoronic when placed alongside the theme of the novel, which is about starvation and hunger. The novel is set against a backdrop where the land reform introduced by the Communist Party promised the rural populace great hope but soon led to the absurd collectivization scheme, starvation and death on a horrifying scale.

The author notes in the Epilogue that her story is based on an essay in the publication called People’s Literature, written by a young Communist cadre to record his eyewitness account of what had happened in the spring famine of 1950 in a North China rural village. He had been sent there to live exactly like the peasants and learn from them. While experiencing hunger himself, he noted that everyone was forbidden to utter the truth, i.e., the unbearable sufferings during a famine. Anyone who dared whisper the truth would be deemed a nationalist spy and arrested.

In the novel, hunger is described as “having for every meal a bowl of watery rice gruel with a few inch-long strips of grass floating on top”. Gold Root with his wife Moon Scent and daughter are just a typical family in the Tam Village silently bearing with crushing poverty and slow starvation until one day his deep-seated rage explodes. He fulminates against the village leader Comrade Wong for stubbornly denying that the peasants are starving to death. The climax comes when a hungry and furious crowd starts storming the government granary….

My heart remained tightly knotted for a long while after reading the novel. How I wish that the novel were purely fiction, but the mere thought would be sacrilegious to those who have had the misfortune to have a taste of what constant hunger is like.

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