The narrator’s recollections throughout Palace of Sun encompass both life in the countryside and life after moving to the city. The first section of the work is about the narrator’s trips to the village of Palace of Sun with her mother. During this time, they meet Ritou and spend memorable time there. The second section describes how Ritou and his father come to the city for a show in the Yonghe Palace, which triggers the series of unfortunate events his family suffers. The author uses the disappearance of a countryside family and the disappearance of countryside lifestyle to express her deep concern over modernization and development.
Regarding the novella, the author once said, “we are genuinely pulled into the city and integrated into its population by our memories of its places. The Palace of Sun’s disappearance was a historic inevitability, but the ubiquitous atmosphere of the city still ripples in the air around its current population.” Ye Guangqin uses a prose writing style to give an account of the Palace of Sun according to her memory; this account is filled with exquisite portrayals of the feelings and thoughts of the time. This account gives the reader a glimpse of the “love and warmth amid suffering, respect and reverence amid poverty, and honor and integrity amid loss. Thus we are shown the tenacity and optimism of the city.”
Ye Guangqin was born in Beijing in October,1948. Ethnically Manchu, her family name is Yehenara in the Manchu language, a prominent family name. In 1983, she began to work for the Shaanxi Worker’s Paper and started studying Journalism at the Correspondence School of Renmin University. Between 1990 and 1992, she studied at the Law and Economics Department of Chiba University in Japan. She then joined China Writers Association in 1993, became a professional writer at the Center of Creation and Research of Xi’an Federation of Literary and Art Circles in 1995. Currently, she is a member of the China Writers Association and she also serves as the dean of Xi’an’s Peihua School for Girls.
Ye Guangqin began publishing in 1979. She has published novels, novellas, short story collections, an autobiography, prose essays, and has done translations. Her novella Have Dreams Ever Made It to Xieqiao was awarded the second Lu Xun Literature Prize and Luofu River Has No Diary received the fifth National Ethnic Minority Literature Fine Horse Prize. Many of her works have been adapted into films.
Palace of Sun is told from a first-person perspective. During the narrator’s childhood, the area around the Palace of Sun, a village actually, was not as economically flourishing as today. Sometimes, the narrator’s mother takes her to stay at the village for a few days to see a childhood friend of hers who moved there after marrying into a Cao family. The friend has become a country woman; she tills the land and rears sheep. The narrator’s mother has no sister of her own, so she asks the narrator to call her friend “auntie.”
Auntie gave birth to a son in the village and she named him Cao Taiyang (Taiyang is the Chinese word for the sun). Her husband complains that the name is too grandiose, important, and official, so he always calls the child by a nickname, Ritou (a colloquial word for the sun). The nickname sticks, and the whole village refers to him by it; very few people actually know his real name. Ritou likes drawing and is always interested in the scrap paper the narrator gives to him every time they visit. The narrator saves up all kinds of paper for him such as tealeaf wrappings, the packaging of medicines and ointments, and unfinished notebooks. Ritou carefully keeps all of these pieces of paper on his bed beneath the sheet. He never takes another piece out until he has completely covered the one he has been working on. He never wastes.
Ritou sometimes takes the narrator fishing at a pit. He is a brave swimmer and makes her feel happy. They make a deal that he takes her to the Palace of Sun and she will take him to the Yonghe Temple. The narrator is disappointed to find that the Palace of Sun is not as glorious as she imagined; it is not a palace with red walls and yellow tiles but rather a derelict compound. The screen wall is broken with its mud-bricks exposed; no one can tell what it originally looked like. What remains of its walls is covered with a washed-out painting of a crooked tree. The narrator wonders if this is the mulberry tree her father told her, which the sun inhabits according to legends. In the entranceway, there are two elm trees, and behind the building are one sick willow tree, three dilapidated one-story houses and a half-buried bell. All of it is old and in disrepair.
Later, auntie’s husband brings Ritou to the narrator’s house specifically to see a demon exorcism at the Yonghe Temple. That day, Ritou becomes ill with an acute case of scarlet fever. He stares off blankly and his whole body shakes due to the illness. His father says that his soul is stolen by the white ghost. Half a year later, his father dies. While the narrator was not infected by the scarlet fever, Ritou’s father caught the illness and died from it. The auntie remarries later to a man named Xia. She dies shortly after they marry. Her death is sudden: it is said that she carelessly falls into the pit and drowned. The narrator’s mother says that when they took her body out of the pit she was entirely dressed in new clothes. Ritou has neither father nor mother now.
In 1952, the country begins providing aid for Korea in its war against the U.S. and Ritou joins the voluntary army. The narrator suggests that his choice to join is influenced by a desire to escape and run away. From his lips, the slogan “Resist the U.S. and Support Korea; Defend Family and Country” seems impure and insincere. For three years, the narrator receives no news of him. Soldiers gradually return in groups, but the narrator still doesn’t see him among any of the groups. At the end of 1958, all volunteer troops have returned, but there is still no sign of Ritou. The narrator later learns he was taken prisoner the first year in Korea and afterward was sent to Taiwan.
Several decades pass and Beijing changes significantly. The surroundings often seem unrecognizable. Every day, the narrator takes the bus three stops to the morning market to buy vegetables. Beside the market is a subway station for the subway system’s tenth line called palace of sun. With a bag of vegetables in hand, the narrator stands between the station and the tall buildings and wonder about Ritou’s fate.