A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree
By Li Er
Li Er, born in 1966, is a native of Jiyuan, Henan Province. He is acclaimed, together with Bi Feiyu, as one of the key representative writers in the wake of Chinese avant-garde literature. After graduating from the Chinese Department of East China Normal University in Shanghai, he taught in university for several years before pursuing a professional career as a writer. He was a professional writer in the Literature Academy of Henan Province, and concurrently associate editor-in-chief of Mang Yuan Weekly. Now he works in the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature. He started creating literature in the late 1980s, and his major works include the novels: Coloratura, A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree; and the novella and short story collections: Poetics in the Afternoon, A Chattering Mute, Lost in Memory, A Night Visit of the Library, which have won the 1st Dingyun Biennale Literature Award of the 21st Century, the 1st Chinese Media Book Grand Prix, the 9thZhuangzhong Literature Award, the 3rd and 4th Master Literature Award, and shortlisted for Mao Dun Literature Award and Chinese Literature Award. His works have been translated into German, Japanese, Italian, Russian and many other languages.
The novel Coloratura was published by People’s Literature Publishing House in January 2002, drumming up quite a buzz both home and abroad and being critically-viewed as one of the best novels between 2001 and 2002. With a huge circulation of nearly 10 million copies, the book won the 1st Dingjun Biennale Literature Award of the 21st Century, together with Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, and was shortlisted for the 6th Mao Dun Literature Award.
A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree is another of Li Er’s masterpieces following the massive success of Coloratura. It depicts how people’s self-esteem and moral conscience are tested by the allure of power. In the novel, the author magnifies every bit of minutia in language that comes off a mix between casual and humorous, while maintaining delicate precision and detail. The descriptions of daily trifles reveal all too truthfully the status quo of rural residents in modern times. For this, it deserves to earn the 1st Chinese Book Media Grand Prix / Literature Book Prize, and be presented to Premier Wen Jiabao as a gift by German Chancellor Madame Merkel. The novel has also been adapted for both film and television, bearing the same title.
The 160,000-word novel A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree creates a portrait of rural life in contemporary China through scenes of a village-level election. It reflects the complexities rural China faces in the era of globalization, and narrates the expanse of difficulties and hidden hopes China finds itself in while pursuing its modernization drive.
Election season is starting up again in Guan Village, and Fan Hua, the current village head summons her husband back from his temporary employment in Shenzhen. She hopes he can give her a hand in the campaign, helping solicit more votes and write an election speech.
At a crucial moment, Qin Shu, the man in charge of family planning issues reports back that a villager has become pregnant outside of their local plan. With elections right around the corner, Qin Shu becomes pretty active now, begging for more responsibility once a new leading group is established.
Fan Hua is just finishing up her meeting on election arrangement, wherein County Magistrate Zhang made a special note about the importance of grassroots work. Should there be even a single case of unplanned pregnancy, the original village committee director won’t be included on the election ballet. And should there be two cases, the entire original group will be expelled.
Family planning is the top priority for this village, and Fan Hua’s blood freezes at the mere thought of Xue E’s pregnancy. She views the whole thing as a ticking bomb ready to go off anytime. So, she sets off to see Xue E the very next day, going there with Qin Shu. She tries to talk Xue E into “defusing the bomb”, only to be snubbed and rebuffed.
Come nightfall, Fan Hua calls the Youth League secretary Meng Xiaohong, having her summon the cadres to a meeting after dinner. Meng is a person Fan Hua can rely on – they always see eye to eye and Fan Hua really appreciated Meng’s efforts in erecting their stone arch bridge. Meng Xiaohong is a pretty humble person, always saying that: “With all these competent people in the village, you should really assign them more tasks. I have much room to improve myself, too.” Now, isn’t that the nicest thing to hear! She simply knows her ability and her position in society. Qin Shu is no match for her – he brazenly asks for power and is forever unable to keep a low profile. Fan Hua figures that she’d simply let Xiaohong take over the business of family planning after the election; she could rest assured that Xiaohong’s got everything under control, as she’s both resourceful and resolute.
But not much later, the pregnant woman Xue E runs away. Her husband Li Tiesuo comes to the village committee making a big scene. This comes off as quite a bold move, as he should have kept her there at home – how could it possibly be our fault she’s gone?! Fan Hua orders: “In view of the current situation, the priority of our village right now is Xue E’s pregnancy. Let’s put our heads together and find out where she is. We’re all in the same boat – united we stand, divided we fall. It’s better that we sing in chorus rather than on our own.”
Xiang Sheng is the committee member in charge of cultural, educational and health matters. He is also the village accountant. But he’s been doing business in Xiushui in recent years. At the meeting, Fan Hua concocts a plan – she will dispatch both Xiang Sheng and Qin Shu out of the village to prevent them from forming local posses. Qin Sheng can be properly assigned the task of finding Xue E, failure of which will get him blamed for negligence. For Xiang Sheng, he needs to use the funding he has to bring that foreigner to the village.
County Head Niu when speaking to Fan Hua said: “If you come across any difficulties in your work, mention them and the Party will do their best to solve them.” He also asked how sure she is of the election, to which she replies: “Serve a second term if elected, otherwise drop it.” The head praised her on taking this stance, saying: “I’m glad to hear you are duly prepared. Having said that, I am all too certain you will be reelected. Actions speak louder than words, and I’d be worried all the time if I put the village in someone else’s hands. After all, over a thousand people live there.”
After clinking glasses with Li Hao, a former classmate, Fan Hua remarks: “Election time again, but this time you’re on your own. Keep the sheep for later – I want you to stay mindful of the fees paid by farmers, public accumulation funding, management costs… everything. I need a confidant in the team, you know. A democratic finance team is to be set up in the village later, which you will also be heading.” Li Hao makes it known to her that Xiang Sheng, who has coveted the position of village head, is expanding his forces to fight a winning battle. “What about Xiaohong?” asks Fan Hua. She is only too pleased to hear his answer: “Xiaohong is a golden phoenix. You are a perfect match for each other, just like the pictures of a dragon and phoenix carved on the stage wall. She is your born successor.” Speaking of Qin Shu, Li Hao says: “All the books he reads are ones borrowed from me. They are all about Lin Biao. That’s what’s on his mind all day. Lin Biao wants to be the chairman of the country, while he wants to be the committee director of the village.” Li Hao also casually mentions that brief meetings have been going between some guys. On the topic of Xue E, Li implies: “The eye of the typhoon is its most peaceful spot, and shadows lie under the light.” But Fan Hua is puzzled by what he’s said.
Fan Hua takes Li Hao’s words with a grain of salt, intending to check up on Xiang Sheng’s accounts. If there are any mishaps, they can get in the way of him in his quest for both positions of village secretary and head. This is well put by County Head Ma, saying that “You shit however much you eat, and God is equal to everyone.”
To put things straight, Xiang Sheng is a thorn in one’s side. But once he pulled out of the election, this thorn was gone for everybody. As for Qin Shu, Fan Hua believes that he is nothing but a fish in the mud, stuck in one spot. Things will be fine as long as he just stays there and doesn’t make more mess. Xiaohong in contrast has always fought for the interests of the village, a hero wounded by her plight.
Word came that Xue E was found in the abandoned paper plant, raising her kid there. Meanwhile, Pei Zhen, the woman who first reported on her delivers food to her. Fan Hua senses something fishy about this whole situation. Qin Shu, Xiang Sheng and Shang Yi must all have a hand in it.
Pei Zhen confesses: “You have known from the start that I am delivering food to Xue E. How can you not know what Xiaohong knows? It’s Xiaohong’s turn to deliver food today. She made it clear to me that only a few people should be involved in Xue E’s pregnancy at this critical period.”
Xiaohong? She knows all about this? And she’s delivering food to Xue E? All this new information catches Fan Hua off-guard, sending her head spinning.
The following day is election day. Fan Hua has recovered from her fever, but she doesn’t go to the designated place of assembly, sitting in her yard instead. The meeting is chaired by County Head Niu, who makes a point to praise Comrade Kong Fanhua, announcing that she has a commendable spirit, a spirit utterly devoted to serving the people. This spirit is an “heirloom” to the Guan village cadres, which mustn’t be lost at all costs. What follows are speeches, with Meng Xiaohong going first. Usually she’d speak only Mandarin in front of the loudspeakers but this time she spoke in the local dialect. She mentions in particular renovations to the paper plant, saying that she hates pollution more than anyone else, and that she will be decisive when collaborating with the plant.
Fan Hua is waiting for Qin Shu to give his speech when music starts to sound. Well, is it almost time to vote? And it seems Qin Shu has given up campaigning as well. But the music suddenly stops, and Xiaohong starts her speech again. This is, for sure, her inauguration speech. She speaks in Mandarin, stirring the listeners passionately with the perfect pronunciation of a TV announcer. But whatever she’s saying is almost inaudible to Fan Hua.
In the novel A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree, Li Er has shifted his main focus from intellectuals to rural China, portraying the huge transformations it’s undergone from the distant past to this very moment.
This is a novel which addresses contemporary rural life and power relationships, doing so in a head-on way. Instead of building a highly interlinked plot, the novel progresses along many strands of minutiae, not only exploring the nature of life amidst vivid descriptions of mundane reality, but also demonstrating Chinese philosophy and the unique ways China solves day-to-day problems. The novel depicts a spectacular “rural war”, that plays out like a lurking danger in the mist – the realities of election season swirling in a mass of complicated political relations. Though the position doesn’t sound powerful, the village head exacts control over political and economic life in the village overall. However, the author does not intend to play up the cruelty of power struggles, nor drum for novelty. His concern is how to present the colorful rural picture in a new era of graceful ease. In his narration of the war, he teases and ridicules here and there as if he were a total outsider; but in effect, the detached narration betrays his mixed feelings towards the rural present.
Li Er portrays a myriad of lives each lured by power. Each character is vivid and substantial and every detail familiar and well-acquainted; the story is interesting and intriguing right down to the core. Among modern Chinese narratives written in the vernacular, this novel is an original in and of itself, for its humor and wit remove the stigmas of “legendary” and “miserable” which tend to simplify and shield China’s vernacular state. As a whole, this story can be summed up with the grand themes: “Vernacular China”, “Modernity”, and “Democracy in practice”. Moreover, it touches upon the intricate daily routines, and challenges the tradition of vernacular narration prevalent since the inception of modern literature. In this sense, it has shifted the status of “vernacular” away from being the object of imagination and presentation, instead making it the agent by which these two are achieved. It has restored the confusion and chaos of vernacular China, as well as its indefinable reality of infinite possibilities.
A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree was not only well-received by domestic readers following its publication, but has become a must-read book for anyone interested in Chinese literature and current Chinese society.
作者 | 张颐雯
译者 | 李欣
审校 | Damien Liles