From Shaolin to the sugarloaf mountains of Gwangdong to Tiananmen Square and the skyscrapers of New York: an epic novel that neatly distills modern Chinese history.
It’s a staple conceit of martial-arts movies that brothers separated at birth will search for each other all their lives, only to fight to the death. Exiled Chinese novelist Da Chen (Colors of the Mountain, 2000, etc.) takes this stratagem and runs with it. The paterfamilias is a great general named Ding Long, a stalwart of Maoism. Stationed away from his family in South China, he sires a young son with a local woman. Ashamed, she leaps from a cliff and into legend. Young Shento’s adoptive parents are in turn massacred by Vietnamese, but not before he has been entrusted with the secret of his birth. Packed off to a military camp, he falls in love with the beautiful Sumi Wo. When events force them apart, Shento becomes a secret agent, assassin and presidential bodyguard, all the while nursing his hatred for his missing father—whose “real” family has been in turn blessed with every favor, including a brilliant son, Tan Long, who seems destined for great things in the new China. “Money will change this country, not Marxism,” Tan Long intones. “And then when we all have more money, life will be better and misery and hunger will be gone.” Of course, Tan Long’s path crosses Sumi Wo’s, both brothers thus tasting bittersweet love. Tan Long becomes a political prisoner, then exile, while Shento helps suppress China’s nascent democracy movement. Yet blood is blood, and Da Chen’s elegantly written novel ends on the promise of redemption and perhaps even reconciliation, as Shento realizes that “reality is often the antithesis of one’s dream.”
Often melodramatic, but Da Chen’s sweeping tale, reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s film To Live, successfully transports Chinese conventions into English to recount the agony of history.