While recovering from a near fatal disease, Zhang (Strategies for Investment in the Stock Market, 2007, etc). penned this hefty but fast-paced tale of a young businessman’s life during the economic reform policies of Deng Xiaoping.
Cheng Dong’s story begins in the dusty, lower-class side of “Sandy City,” beside the banks of the Yangtze River in southern China. By the time Cheng graduates from high school in 1981, China’s political doors are open for individual and joint venture investment, thereby resulting in burgeoning growth and a new class of business entrepreneurs. Unable to afford college, Cheng Dong’s father helps him procure a job at the state-owned Sandy City Chemical Factory. Smart and driven to get rich, Cheng quickly learns corrupt business tactics—e.g., skimming money from the factory—and he excels in sales. The book’s strength is Zhang’s three-dimensional characterization of Cheng Dong. The same man who donates huge sums of money to an orphanage also rationalizes cheating on his wife. Not weighted with thoughts of morality, the first real change in Cheng’s character occurs when an underling faces punishment for placing a labor-union poster on the state-owned factory’s bulletin board. He gives the man money to help him escape the authorities, yet Cheng is perplexed by his own act of selflessness. The four women Cheng loves are reflections of his own personality: Li Ping is shallow and materialistic; Fang Jiwen contracts a fatal disease and dedicates her life to helping orphans; Anna, the mayor’s daughter whom Cheng Dong marries, has a sharp economic mind; and Cheng’s pregnant mistress, Lili, masters the art of brewing tea and symbolizes Cheng’s yearning for the old customs. The voluminous text is heavy on dialogue, which flows easily for the most part, though there are sections that feel like a college lecture, such as discussions Cheng has with Jiwen’s father, who is an economics professor. Originally published in Chinese, Fowler’s translation includes helpful footnotes and cultural explanations for names, but the story can be understood even without these aids.
An affecting portrait of a culture as it comes to terms with class struggles and major economic change for some.