Two people's vastly different experiences during the Cultural Revolution are the subject of this beautiful, sad novel by an internationally renowned Chinese writer and dissident not previously published in English. The protagonists are Liang Riu, a former university student and Red Guard who has lost his faith in the revolution, and Sunamei, a beautiful girl coming of age in a rural matrilineal community, home of the Mosuo people. Liang's and Sunamei's lives run parallel—but in sharp contrast—to each other. While Liang is being reeducated by tending water buffalo on a farm along with other intellectuals, Sunamei celebrates her skirt-wearing ceremony, a ritual that marks the beginning of adulthood. Liang is imprisoned as a counterrevolutionary; Sunamei takes her first axiao (lover). The Cultural Revolution, which dominates Liang's world, has barely touched Sunamei's: Forces that subdue an entire nation fail to exert the slightest influence over a small, backward community, though they try repeatedly. The government sends officials to enforce Communist morals, including traditional matrimony, among the Mosuo, but when they leave, things continue as before. One official, however, convinces Sunamei to join the county singing and dancing troupe. It is in the village where she lives with this troupe that she and Liang meet—he has been relocated there after being released from prison—and fall in love. Liang insists that they wed, although the concept of marriage doesn't exist in the Mosuo culture, and Sunamei never understands Liang's need to ``own'' her. The relationship is impossible because neither partner is willing or able to live in the other's world. Eventually, Sunamei goes back to her loving and peaceful community, Liang to his modern China, and the reader is left to decide which of the two is in fact more ``primitive.'' A lyrical work, both tragic and uplifting.
Read full book review >