Author Yu Hua’s book Brothers tells the story of two boys who grow up during and after the Chinese Communist revolution. Yu Hua is the author of several other books, including Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, and is known as one of China’s preeminent contemporary writers. Yu Hua often tackles social issues in his works, and Brothers is no exception (Li, 2011). By offering the life story of these two brothers, Baldy Li and Song Gang, author Yu Hua also offers a strong social commentary on recent Chinese history (In Ji and In Wu, 2000). The story covers the lives and deaths of these two characters, while also offering insight into the changes China went through from the time of the revolution until the early 20th century. Yu Hua tells his story with few details about the physical and regional settings in which the events take place, and lets the action and the plot give readers the opportunity to imagine for themselves what the world was like in the years covered in the story.
Part I: Setting
After a brief introduction to an older Baldy Li, the reader meets him as a young boy growing up in the town of Liu. Hua does not give away too much information about the setting immediately, but instead uses the actions and events in the story to slowly reveal details that tell the reader about when and where the story takes place. Baldy Li’s father, it is revealed, had died in May; this is explained when Song Fanping tries to save Baldy Li’s father after the father’s accidental fall into the town cesspool. When Song Fanping washes himself off later, the author explains that the water he uses is cold, as is the air around him. This gives the reader a sense that it is still late winter or early spring, and the action may be set in the sort of geographical region where it is cold at that time of year; indicating, perhaps, that the town of Liu is at a high elevation.
This sense of geography is later reinforced when the family discusses the idea of visiting the seaside, and it seems clear that the area in which they live is different enough from the seaside that the two regions are separated not just by miles, but by geography and climate as well. Baldy Li’s first outing as a baby comes when he is just over a year old, and his mother takes him outside at night because she is too ashamed over her husband’s death to venture out during the day. Again, the author does no specifically state what season or time of year it is, but if he was born the day his father died, and he is now a little more than a year old, it is most likely sometime around June. The story often gives the reader enough information to fill in the missing information, and to use the power of imagination to add in the details about the weather, the time of year, or sometimes even the time of day.
While the book does not pin down specifically where Liu Town is located, there are a significant number of details that give the reader a sense of what the town is like. It seems to be somewhere between a village and an actual city; the town has electricity, for example, but does not have indoor plumbing, at least not for everyone. The town’s public latrine figures prominently in the story, as Baldy Li’s father had died after falling into it. It is clear from the passages that describe this event that many, if not all, of the local townspeople use this public latrine. When the man who would eventually become Baldy Li’s stepfather needs to clean himself after jumping into the cesspool, he does so using a bucket which he repeatedly fills with water from a well. These details make it clear that some of the advances of modern life of that era have reached the town, but there are still many aspects of life that are less up-to-date.
The book further establishes the geographical and regional position of the town when it becomes necessary for Baldy Li and his family to go to Shanghai so his mother can visit a doctor. It is not made clear what direction the train travels to reach the city, and the book does not indicate how long it takes to get there. The reader is left with the impression that the train ride must not have been particularly long, or the details of the tip would have figured more prominently in the story. Once the family arrives in Shanghai, Baldy Li is impressed by many aspects of modern city life. This section of the book leaves the reader with the impression that Liu Town is not very far away from the city, but it is still far enough that life in the city and life in the town are quite distinct and different from each other.
Because of the lack of specificity in the early section of the book, it is difficult to pj down just exactly what year or era the story is set in. The existence of electricity would indicate that it is sometime in the 20th century, and the semi-rural and seemingly agrarian lifestyle would indicate that it is somewhere closer to the beginning of the century than it is to the end of the century. After the settings and characters are initially established, however, it is the events of the book, rather than any specific information about the year, that make it clear when the action is taking place. When Song Fanping becomes an avid supporter of Chairman Mao, it is evident that the Communist Revolution of 1949 has taken place. Further, it is made clear that this is a recent event, as the lives of the townspeople are suddenly and completely transformed by the changes the revolution brings.
The author uses an interesting, and rather humorous, technique to demonstrate how the revolution alters the lives of the people in Liu Town. When each character is introduced, the name offered to the reader is a combination of the person’s occupation and his given name. Some examples of this literary device are seen in the names “Poet Zhao” and “Blacksmith Tong,” among many others. The town barbers have the word “scissors” in their name, while Baldy Li is named such because of the way he wears his hair. When the Communist party takes over the country, the people in Liu Town adopt the name “Revolutionary,” so “Blacksmith Tong” becomes “Revolutionary Tong,” for example. It is a central component of the story that the people of the town tend to go around proclaiming their revolutionary zeal as often and as loudly as possible. While this zealotry seems, on one level, to be offered willingly, it is also evident that the people of the town live in fear of reprisal from the Communist military forces that sweep through and occupy their town.
The events of the story also help to establish what the mood and tone was like at the time. Song Fanping, who began as such a fervent supporter of the revolution, is soon targeted by Communist forces because of his past as a landlord or land owner. There are clear distinctions drawn between the poorest of the peasants, who are portrayed by the Communist party as the most noble of Chinese citizens, and the middle and upper classes, who are viewed with disdain and even subject to imprisonment and torture simply for being a member of those particular classes before the revolution. At first, though, there is nothing but excitement as the effects of the revolution are first felt and seen in the form of a parade:
“All the way down the street, red flags as numerous as hairs on a cow flapped in the wind. The large flags were as big as sheets, and the small ones were as tiny as handkerchiefs. Flagstaff clanged against flagstaff, and flag knocked against flag, whipping this way and that in the wind.”
This passage helps to give a sense of scale to the town, as the parade is described as the biggest the town has ever seen. Despite the relative size of the parade as compared to anything else in the town’s history, it still seems fairly small by contemporary standards. There are no vehicles, for example; it is, in effect, simply a larger group of people winding through the streets and alleys of Liu Town carrying flags. It is, however, one of the most exciting events the two has seen, and Song Fanping happily leads the procession while waving the largest of the red flags.
Song Fanping’s happiness is short-lived, and subsequent events offer and even greater sense of what the time and place were like during the events of the story. It may be historical fiction, but the details give the reader a visceral sense of what the revolution meant, in practical terms, for many Chinese people. Despite his enthusiasm, Song Fanping is soon targeted by armed forces and taken to a local warehouse that is serving as a makeshift jail, where he is beaten and tortured for nothing more than having owned land. The author makes these events seem very real and present, and the effect is unsettling. It is easy to get a sense of what life was like, and how quickly neighbors turned against neighbors, when the revolution came. People were suddenly suspicious of each other, and the brothers begin to go hungry as the once-abundant rice, noodles, and other food was no longer plentiful.
The author describes the “struggle sessions” that were initiated by the party against those who were considered to be class enemies. Song Fanping was routinely targeted and made to “confess” to his various crimes. Baldy Li’s mother, Li Lan, is in the city seeking medical treatment during Song Fanpong’s incarceration, and she witnesses these same struggle sessions there, as “one doctor after another was brought down.” It is one thing to read about this sort of thing in a history book, but quite another to read such descriptions that paint a vivid portrait of what struggle sessions meant for the daily lives of the average Chinese person. Later, as Song Fanping is savagely beaten to death with metal-spiked bats, a local woman watches in horror, wondering how people could be so savage. It is the enthusiasm of those who are administering the beatings, as well as the several townspeople who hear about it and rush to join in, that tell the reader so much about the reality of the revolution.
The first section of the book helps to establish the tone for what comes next. The upheaval of the revolution alters Chinese society permanently, and it goes through a transition from the pre-revolution era to the modern age where the government is still run by the Communist Party but uses the power of capitalism to make money. The two brothers in the story, Baldy Li and Song Gang –who are really just stepbrothers, as Song Gang was Song Fanping’s biological offspring- seem to represent the two sides of life in post-Revolution China. Baldy Li seems particularly well-suited to take advantage of the shifting moral and economic landscape, while Song Gang seems like a relic from the time before the revolution. If that revolution had never come, it may have been Song Gang who had a successful life and Baldy Li who fell by the wayside. As it turned out, though, Baldy Li was able to capitalize (pardon the pun) on the realities of life in the post-revolution era, and became a successful businessman who monopolized much of the economic activity in Liu Town.
What Yu Hua manages to do in this book is to give readers a strong sense of place and setting during each section of the life stories of the two brothers. There is often very little detail given about the physical surroundings of the characters, but the descriptions of the action and events allow readers to picture what life must have been like then. In the early section of the book, for example, Yu Hua does not describe the terrain or the climate in Liu Town; instead, most of the story deals with the actions taken by Baldy Li. As he goes from one event to another, however, a uniform picture begins to emerge of a small town that is still largely rooted in a pre-industrial age. The town has a blacksmith, for example, so it is possible to imagine that many people in the town have livestock of one sort or another. There is no running water, and even the electricity is limited. Yu Hua does not come right out and announce that Baldy Li’s house is without electricity, but events in the story make it clear. When his mother locks herself in her room one afternoon, Baldy Li sits outside her door until the house grows dark. When Baldy Li and his brother are first introduced to frozen desserts, we are told that the coldest thing they had ever tasted before that was the water from the well.
As the story continues to develop, and China begins to transition into the modern age, the same sorts of details about the characters’ daily lives emerge, and it is possible to imagine the town growing as it becomes the home of Baldy Li’s entrepreneurial activity. Baldy Li engages in a number of different money-making enterprises, each reflecting the striuggle the nation went through to move from the pre-Communist era through the economic reforms that embarced some aspects of capitalism. It is no coincidence that Baldy Li makes the bulk of his fortune selling scrap; this serves as a metaphor both for the excesses of capitliasm and the inner emptiness of Baldy Li’s emoainal and moral life. In the final irony of the story, Baldy Li decides to hold a beauty pageant for virgin girls in an age where hymen replacement surgery and other such tricks mean that none of the entrants to Baldy Li’s pageant are actually virgins. This is a telling move on the part of the author, as he seems to be describing the nation of China itself as a nation that is no longer pure and virginal. All the money generated by capitalism cannot help China regain its soul.
Part II: Analysis
Yu Hua’s Brothers is largely plot-driven; the characterizations are not particularly complex, and the settings for the events in the story are offered with few details. It is the things that happen in the story, both things that the characters do and the things that are done to them, that give readers a sense of time and place. Beyond the sense of place, however, there is also a strong sense of mood and of tone. The landscapes in which the story takes place are not necessarily geographical or regional; they are emotional. The most jarring shift in tone in the book takes place when the effects of the Communist revolution reach Liu Town. Although Baldy Li and his mother had difficulties when he was a young boy, those difficulties were related to the death of her husband, and the sense of despair and isolation she felt after his death. After marrying Song Fanping, the lives of the boys improve greatly, at least for a time. Baldy Li now has a father figure, and the four of them now have a family unit. So the struggles and the joys these characters experience are fairly universal, and can be related to by readers of all backgrounds.
After the parade of red-armband-wearing men and the townspeople with red flags march through the streets and alleys of Liu Town, however, things begin to change. For those who lived through these changes, and those who did not but are reading about them in Yu Hua’s book, these changes come swiftly and harshly. Song Fanping’s denouncement as the son of a landowner is brutal and humiliating, and eventually results in his death. Yu Hua has written about struggle sessions in other books as well, and he manages to make it clear just how astonishing and frightening they were. In Chronicle of a Blood Merchant a young character is walking to see a family friend when he is stopped by a stranger and asked where he is going:
“Is that the food you’re bringing over to the woman named Xu Yulan? Let me ask you this: have you held a struggle session at home? I mean to denounce Xu Yulan?”
Xu Sanguan held the aluminum lunchbox tightly to his chest, lowered his eyes to the ground, and nodded. “She’s already been denounced all over town. They denounced her at the factory, and at the school, and she’s been through five struggle sessions at the town square.”
The man said, “she has to be struggled against at home, too.”
This passage brings to life the reality of the swift changes that swept through China in the wake of the Communist revolution and the harsh, brutal treatment that people received not just from police or government officials, but also the harsh treatment they inflicted on each other. The descriptions Yu Hua details in his books are offered so bluntly and directly that they almost seem absurd or even ridiculous, but these struggle sessions and other such events were quite real, and happened quite frequently. The political environment in the time caused people to turn on each other and denounce each other as a means of self-preservation and self-protection (Williams and Wu, 2004). Demonstrating a willingness to denounce one’s neighbor was a way of showing loyalty and allegiance to the revolution.
Song Fanping’s treatment by the townspeople, and his eventual imprisonment, was also a typical part of life in the period. The denouncement of an individual might begin with a “study session,” where one or more people would begin to discuss the real or imagined crimes and transgressions against the party of whichever culprit they chose to single out (Williams and Wu). These study sessions would then turn into struggle sessions, and with enough denouncements or evidence –no matter how flimsy it might actually be- the person being denounced could be hauled off to jail. The jail to which Song Fanping is taken is a reflection of what actually happened in real life as well. In the book, a local warehouse is converted into a jail; this was common in the post-revolutionary period.
The struggle sessions depicted in the book are, in some ways, actually less severe than those that took place in real life. Actual struggle sessions could sometimes amount to kidnappings, where those who were singled out would be locked up somewhere, sometimes beaten, or deprived of food, or tortured (Williams and Wu). This treatment was relatively minor compared to the treatment people might receive in a prison setting, such as the warehouse in which Song Fanping is imprisoned. In the book his arm is dislocated and permanently ruined. It was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured even to death in such prisons. In many cases those who were singled out for study sessions, struggle sessions, and imprisonment had been selected only because they were members of a particular class. The charges and accusations against them may not have been true, but after enough torture many would simply begin to confess to whatever crimes they were accused of. What makes Yu Hua’s book so compelling is that these events are seen through the eyes of a child, who does not understand the larger significance of what is happening. All that Baldy Li knows is that his beloved stepfather has been taken from the family.
In his adult life, as Baldy begins to amass his fortune through selling scrap, Yu Hua again offers an up-close and personal perspective on events that were playing out all across the country and affecting millions of Chinese people. In the wake of the death of Chairman Mao, the nation started to see slow reforms to its economic and political realities (Harding, 1987). The pressures of the modern age on a global scale were beginning to have an impact on China; again, though, we see the real-world impact of these pressures through the perspectives of only several primary characters. It was the shift towards economic reforms that made it possible for Baldy Li to earn his fortune and to become such a significant player in Liu Town. The government was still directly involved in the economic sectors of the nation, but it attempted a range of different reform efforts aimed at improving the economy (Carillo and Garcia, 2011). As the nation grew its industrial capacity its steel and coal industries grew (Carillo and Garcia). In the book Brothers Baldy Li makes his money on the fringes of industry by selling scrap.
For any reader interested in learning about life in China in the post-reviltuonary period, Brothers offers some interesting insights. It is not intended to serve as a work of historical fiction, of course, but many of the settings and events in the story do reflect events and settings in China at the time. The period after Mao’s death, when economic changes began to alter the nation, was a confusing time for many Chinese; their historic culture had been swpet away by the revolution, and they were struggling to come to terms with the forces of capitalism that were reshaping the rest of the world. By detailing the lives of Baldy Li and Song Gang, Brothers offers readers a chance to see what these changes meant on a personal scale.
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Harding, H. (1987). China’s second revolution: Reform after Mao. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution.
In Ji, B., & In Wang, D. (2000). Chinese literature in the second half of a modern century: A critical survey. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Li, H. (2011). Coming of age in a time of trouble : the Bildungsroman of Su Tong and Yu Hua. B.C.: University of British Columbia.
Williams, P. F., & Wu, Y. (2004). The great wall of confinement: The Chinese prison camp through contemporary fiction and reportage. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Yu, H., & Jones, A. F. (2003). Chronicle of a blood merchant. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Yu, H., Chow, E. C., & Rojas, C. (2009). Brothers. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.