Nothing seems real. Events seem to take place on a poorly lit theater stage, and while the actors recite their lines, shadowy figures menace them from unseen corridors. There is the sense that all meaningful exchange occurs behind closed doors, between people who must whisper to make themselves truly heard. And yet around every corner are the ears and eyes of willing betrayers.
To escape from Communist China, Eileen Chang–also known as Zhang Ailing– moved from her native Shanghai first to Hong Kong, then to the United States. She was commissioned by the United States Information Service to write two anti-Communist propaganda novels; The Rice Sprout Song and Naked Earth. Though heralded as a big new talent in Hong Kong, Chang fell into the life of a recluse in the US. Ghosting the lines of her biography is a tragic fall that is as suggestive as those of the people she wrote about so poignantly.
Since her death, she has been rightly recognized as one of the most influential writers of modern China.
In Chang’s capable hands, Naked Earth rises above its dubious political origins as anti-Communist propaganda. Chang’s spare yet intensely lyrical prose delivers us the harsh, surreal, and calculated atmosphere of China during the early Communist years. It is also a forbidden love story between recent university graduates Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan who meet taking part of the Land Reform that was sweeping the nation. Far from home and uncertain of his every move, Liu feels the eyes of the state–planted in the faces of his neighbors and fellow communist “cadres”–upon him and Su Nan: “The yellow dirt path, drained colorless in the moonlight, stretched straight ahead. He stumbled on and on between the pale thick walls, as if in a dream, half lost in heavy sleep. The marching steps [of the sentries] were always behind him.”
Liu Ch’uen his love are separated when he is moved to Shanghai. His love for her is kept alive through surreptitious letters, but his sexual appetites are awakened by an older female coworker. In love, as in life, he is unable to stay true to his first self, and step after step finds him further trapped in the maze of party lines and silenced by the jargon of political correctness. Like a shroud, his life in Shanghai tightens around him until he is almost comfortable, numb.
Anyone familiar with Communist China will not be surprised at the cold political maneuvering of neighbors stepping on each other’s backs to rise in the ranks, or the cookie cutter logic that, at its worst, cost millions of people their lives. All this can be found in Naked Earth, but to read this luminous work for the historical accuracy or political acumen would be like plucking a rose in bloom for its thorny, wooden stem.
Published on June 16, 2015 by New York Review Books