Baotown was published during the flourishing of “Root-seeking Literature” in China. This novel is an attempt by the author to probe and also express the roots of the nation’s culture. It expresses the most fundamental element of traditional Chinese culture: a spirit of virtue. Through the writing of virtuous parables, Wang presents the state of existence of her native land: closed-off and stagnating, while still growing and thriving. The author uses a calm, meticulous, and objective writing style to depict the concept of virtue and the living conditions of the villagers. Although this novella was written in an effort to search for cultural roots, the author does not praise the roots that she finds, nor does she condemn them. She simply morphs her passion for life and for her nation into in-depth exploration and stony enlightenment.
Artistically speaking, Wang is influenced by the magical realism of South American literature. She layers the structure with many intersecting plots and characters. Once assembled, this very flexible structure overflows with rich content. The novella has no single primary plot or character, but many of its characters are portrayed extremely vividly. By presenting these characters’ inner worlds and depicting the details of everyday life, she shows her readers the true lives of the villagers of Baotown. The famous writer Bing Xin expressed the following comments regarding Baotown, “Every character, such Fifth Grandfather, Dregs, and even the couples featured in the novel—like Little Jade and Culture, Picked-Up and Second Aunt—leaps out from the page.” The author’s calm, passive narration brings forth defamiliarization, which provides the novella with a strong and modernist narrative style though it is in essence a work of realism.
Wang Anyi was born in Nanjing on March 6, 1954. She became an editor at Childhood, a Shanghai-based magazine affiliated with the China Welfare Institute, in 1978. In 1987, she joined the Shanghai Writers Association as a professional writer. She began working at Fudan University in 2004 as a professor in the department of Chinese Language and Literature. She is currently the vice-chairperson of the China Writers Association and the chairperson of the Shanghai Writers Association.
She began publishing her writing in 1976. Among her written works are the short stories and novellas And the Rain Patters On, Lapse of Time, Baotown, Coda, Love on a Barren Mountain, Dreams on the Sea, and Utopian Verses. Her novels include People of the Yellow River, True Reports and Fabrication, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Heroes in Every Corner, Age of Enlightenment, and Anonymous. Wang’s works have received multiple awards. Among them, Baotown received the 1985-1986 National Novella Prize.
Wang’s works have been translated into many different languages, including English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Dutch, Vietnamese, and Thai. In 2011, she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. She was admitted to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2013.
This novella is set in the eponymous “Baotown,” a small village in northern Anhui. This village’s history traces back several millennia, and legend has it that the residents of this village are the descendants of Yu the Great, the mythical Chinese leader who tamed the floods ravaging the Chinese heartland and founded the Xia Dynasty. In this hamlet is a man by the name of Bao Yanshan, who has no shortage of sons. Little Jade stumbles across this village as she flees the famine that has laid waste to her home, and she is initially taken in and cared for by Bao’s family. At first Bao Yanshan intends to marry Little Jade to his eldest son, Construction, but she later has feelings for the family’s second-oldest son, Culture, who is only slightly older than her. At the age of seventeen, she flees Baotown.
Bao Yanshan’s wife gives birth to the family’s seventh child. Bao names this son Bao Renping; the boy is nicknamed “Dregs” by the family. Just as Dregs is born, Fifth Grandfather’s sobbing can be heard over in a small straw cabin to the east. Packed among a crowd of old women, he wipes his eyes and sniveling nose. Fifth Grandfather’s only grandson, Society, lies stiff as a board, his face sallow. In the previous year, the young man had fallen ill with tuberculosis. He began vomiting blood, and he did not stop until he was dead, his body depleted of blood.
Dregs grows older. He has a pleasant smile, a pair of smiling eyes and warm words. The child is very kind, and adults say that he is a boy with strong morals. All the villagers take a liking to him, but the very sight of him makes Fifth Grandfather’s blood boil. Fifth Grandfather believes that the reason why his only grandson took his final breath at the same moment that Dregs was born is that Dregs took the place of his grandson’s soul.
Dregs is able to totter around, and he is starting to speak. As Bao Yanshan’s family is eating dinner, Fifth Grandfather hobbles into their home. Bao calls out to him: “Come eat with us, Fifth Grandfather.” Dregs mimics his father’s speech: “Come ‘eap.’” Fifth Grandfather pretends not to hear them, and he ignores Dregs. He sits down on the threshold and watches a line of ants scuttling to their new home. A moment later, something bumps his mouth. Fifth Grandfather looks up and sees that Dregs is now standing in front of him. Clutched in his little hands is a jianbing, a thin pancake, which he has rolled into a ball and held up to the old man’s mouth. Fifth Grandfather looks at Dregs, and Dregs smiles at him. The old man feels something stir inside him.
Over time, Dregs and Fifth Grandfather develop a close relationship. Fifth Grandfather is so old, and so weak that he cannot even make strings to sell. He spends each day lounging in the sun, leaning against a wall, only lazily walking home at noon to cook for himself. One day, Dregs does not let him go back home. “Come eat at my house!” he exhorts. Fifth Grandfather does not decline this invitation. This goes on for some time. Eventually Bao Yanshan teases Dregs: “You always ask Fifth Grandfather to come eat with us. What if we start running low on food?” Dregs earnestly answers, “I’ll eat one jianbing and one bowl of porridge less. How about that?”
Dregs is now seven years old, and he is old enough to attend school. However, his brother Culture is already attending high school at the commune. The family simply cannot afford to send two children to school. “Let’s let Dregs go to school instead,” Bao Yanshan says. “Culture just needs to know how to write a letter and keep accounts. If he comes back now, he’ll be able to take care of a lot of the labor that needs to be done around here.” Culture is unwilling to leave school. In between sobbing and throwing tantrums, he refuses to eat. “Let my brother go to school. I won’t go,” Dregs says.
Now that he is not attending school, Dregs spends each day husking herbs down by the lake. A group of children have taken a liking to him, and they enjoy being in his company. Dregs will always wait patiently for anyone who walks more slowly than the others. If one of the children hasn’t husked enough and is afraid to return home, Dregs will definitely give the child some of his own husked herbs. If the other children get in a fight, Dregs will be the first to break it up. The adults can rest easy when the children are with Dregs. Everyone says that Dregs is a very moral boy.
One day a guest comes to stay at the Bao house, so Dregs goes to stay at Fifth Grandfather’s house, and the two of them share the same bed. As Fifth Grandfather snuggles up to Dregs’ warm body, his heart is warmed as well, and the words bubble out of his mouth: “Do you want to go to school, Dregs? I’ll pay your tuition.” During his first semester of school, Dregs earns himself the honor of a “Merit Student.”
A once-in-a-century flood descends upon Baotown. The villager chief runs about in a hurry, and takes a group of villagers with him to set up tents on a mountain. While eating lunch, they hear a booming noise from the west. It does not sound like thunder, but rather the breaking of a dam. “Run!” the villagers yell. They set down their bowls and run towards the eastern side of the mountain. Bao Yanshan and his family run along a stone road. As Bao Yanshan turns around and counts the people with him, he notices that Dregs has gone missing. Suddenly Culture remembers: “Dregs took some jianbing to Fifth Grandfather. Maybe he’s at Fifth Grandfather’s house.”
Taking a raft to search for Dregs, they find Fifth Grandfather clinging to the branches of a great willow. Fifth Grandfather points down towards the ground. “Dregs! Dregs!” he murmurs. The men all dive into the water. They find Dregs two whole hours later, but the boy has long since breathed his final breath. The boy’s eyes are shut, and his lips are curled as if he is still smiling. “If Dregs climbed onto the tree first, he wouldn’t have died,” they say, sighing. “He died for Fifth Grandfather!”
This flood took the lives of three villagers: a mentally ill person, an old man, and a child. This child did not have to die, but he died in order to save that old man. However, that old man passed away only shortly afterwards. The entire village turns out for Dregs’s funeral; 200 more people attend the event. They had all heard that Baotown had produced a virtuous child. The people of Baotown do not place importance in wealth or status; rather, they value morals.
This tragedy brings some changes to the peaceful lives of Baotown’s villagers. Bao Renwen, an educated aspiring writer, has submitted manuscript after manuscript, but none have been selected for publication. He once pesters Bao Yanrong, the old revolutionist, as he wishes to write about the man’s wartime experiences. However, Bao Yanrong is not interested. After Dregs passes away, however, Bao Renwen writes a report about Dregs’s death. Not long after, the provincial newspaper publishes the article, titling it “A Sprouted Sapling: Remembering Bao Renping, the Young Hero Who Sacrificed His Life for the Sake of Another.” Having received approval and recognition of his self-worth, Bao Renping is overjoyed.
After fleeing the famine that struck her home several years earlier, Little Hui from nearby Fengtown, returns home with a child named Picked-Up. Picked-Up calls Little Hui “aunt.” The two share the same bed at night. Over time, Picked-up, who is now a young adult, develops a deep psychological attachment for his “aunt.” Refusing his aunt’s attempts to find him a wife, he leaves home and wanders the streets and alleys as a peddler. Picked-Up comes to Baotown on several occasions, and he meets a widow in her forties named Second Aunt. The two gradually fall in love. However, the people of Baotown are not tolerant of outsiders, and the villagers attack Picked-Up. Second Aunt is also discriminated. Although the two get married with the support of the township government, the people of Baotown are still unable to accept them, and they are unable to look the other villagers in the eye. When the flood comes, it is Picked-Up who finds Dregs’s body, and he is commended for this. Picked-Up has finally established himself in Baotown.
On the one-year anniversary of Dregs’ death, the county moves his grave to the center of Baotown. The phrase “You Will Never Be Forgotten” is engraved on his tombstone. Around this time, Bao Yanshan’s family has a new home, thanks to the support they have received from the county. Construction, who is twenty-seven, starts working at an agricultural machinery factory, and he is about to be married. Little Jade returns to Baotown, which she had previously fled. When she meets Culture, her joy is intermingled with grief. The village also begins widening its roads…