OLD WELL by Zheng Yi


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Melancholy novel of contemporary rural Chinese life. The title refers to the name of the small, impoverished mountain village where the story takes place. It also summarizes, unfortunately, most of the plot--which from the start to finish revolves around the attempt of Old Well villagers to find water after centuries of drought, deforestation, and increasing hardship. Protagonist Sun Wangquan faces the book's deepest dilemma: whether to continue the centuries-long search for water by digging wells his ancestors died looking for, or to accept the love and marriage of Zhao Qiaoying, a temperamental girl with big-city aspirations who scoffs at his stub-born commitment to H2O while leaving her high and dry. The story tracks the history of Old Well suffering through retellings and reenactments of ancient land squabbles and legendary disputes between villagers--and effectively shows how contemporary bureaucrats (circa 1983) muddle possible solutions with mindless or harmful gestures of officialdom. The book's strongest suit is its profiling of animosities between petty cadres and the people they often disserve, an issue very much behind the recent violent protests in China. Eventually, the love and water plots climax when Sun's arranged marriage to another woman persuades Zhao that waiting is futile, and she rides out of town, symbolically, on a tractor. His commitment to home, backwardness, and struggle is the bitter cost that the upwardly mobile Zhao can't abide. A somewhat tedious read, but also a touching reflection on the huge gap remaining between the meek and the grand in changing China.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1989
Publisher: China Books