Reviews / July 2011 (Issue 14)


by Katherine Foster


Han Dong, translated by Nicky Harman, Banished!, University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. 251 pgs.

It is 1969, three years into the Cultural Revolution, and a cadre family from Nanjing has just signed up for "Glorious Banishment." The father, Tao Peiyi, a writer, has already been persecuted in struggle meetings, had his party membership suspended and his front door pasted with slogans including "Down with Tao," "Bomb him," and "Burn him." In this context, banishment to the countryside means "the chance of freedom."

So begins the story of the Tao family told in Banished! the first novel by the Chinese poet Han Dong. It is a tale fluent in the jargon of the Cultural Revolution, a language so alien to today's young that the author included a glossary in the Chinese edition, part of which also appears in the English translation. The entry for "Glorious Banishment" reads:

Banishment, Sometimes Glorious Banishment: Describes a top-down movement. The "top" was the city; the "down" was the village. Banishment to city dwellers meant their being reduced to the level of peasants or even lower, a fall in social status that was deeply demoralizing. While the effect on the banished was largely psychological, there was also, for some cadres, a very real drop in living standards that ultimately led to their deaths.

Unlike the generation of students sent down to the countryside after the disbandment of the Red Guards, banished cadres could take their families with them. The aim was "Striking Root" (扎根 zhagen, also the novel's Chinese title)—for a family to relocate permanently, burying the old and marrying off the young in the village. Through the Tao family, Banished! exposes the impact of social dislocation and isolation on three generations: the middle-aged Tao and his wife Su Qun, their six-year-old son young Tao and the senior Tao's aging parents.

Tao and Su Qun are the pivotal generation. As revolutionary cadres, they rationalize the demands made of them, no matter how damaging and bizarre. To integrate into village life, they study farming and medicine. Su Qun eventually becomes a "barefoot doctor." The older generation, by contrast, are shattered by the upending of everything familiar, from their social position to their surroundings. Amongst the chaos, Grandpa becomes fastidious. In the village, Granny stays indoors, confined by her once-bound feet and fear of the unknown. Young Tao, who represents those who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, finds it easiest to adapt and, as an adult, will remember their place of exile as "home."

The novel makes full use of these different perspectives, sometimes through differing accounts of the same events, as it explores the subjectivity of the individual and the space between what characters believe and what it is politic for them to say. Young Tao is delighted by his father's persecution, proud that his family is finally involved in what, to a child, is the noise and excitement of the Cultural Revolution. Tao attempts to sustain the view that rural exile is a positive experience, a place where he can learn and contribute. Su Qun gets fully involved in her new life, while pursuing her secret ambition to find an escape route back to the city for her son.

Sitting above the action, the narrator provides the final viewpoint, the eye of history on the life and times of the Tao family. The last chapters of the novel are devoted to the narrator's assessment of the destruction of Tao as a writer and a man. Embroiled in the business of living, of creating a refuge out of desolation, Tao is also a once-respected author whose creativity is first curtailed, then silenced and, last, horribly warped through the convolutions demanded by writing to "serve politics." In a final irony, Tao Peiyi becomes a celebrated author once again only after death allows the narrative of his own life to be revised:

All in all, Tao's death brought him much honor. It was only then that people realized what an important man he had been and how difficult it would be to fill the gap he had left…Even Tao, had the news reached him beyond the grave, might have had to look at himself in a new light and would surely have been more than a little flattered.

Exploring the trauma of history through the life of the individual is, understandably, a popular approach in contemporary Chinese literature. In this, Han Dong's Banished! follows a well-established path. It is set apart, however, through its experiments with perspective, with the subjective interpretation of the world, which renders "reality" transient and intangible. The narrator is in on the game, telling us how easy it is to supplant fact with fiction: "when I have finished writing this book, no trace will be left of the lives that furnished me with my original material."

As a portrait of time and place, Banished! is also extraordinarily rich in detail. The narrator illuminates everything from the peculiar social hierarchy of the exiled and disgraced to the mud-brick construction of a village house. And the minutiae of existence, in the narrator's eye, is not just observed but transformed. Pieces of used toilet paper in a field flutter like "white doves"; newspaper pasted over cracks in the walls of the Tao's home, a dilapidated cowshed, makes "a hushing sound rather like a lullaby." This beautification of filth underscores the instinct which drives Tao: to imagine the efforts of the individual as significant, despite what the evidence suggests.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.