THE DRAGON'S VILLAGE, which is called an autobiographical novel, covers approximately two years in the life of a young girl, Guan Ling-ling, who had just graduated from high school in Shanghai. It provides a glimpse into the life of prosperous merchants and their families in Shanghai just before the communist takeover, and then of life in a land-reform cadre in a small village in Gansu province in northwest China.
By concentrating on the story of one young girl, the book focuses on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a political subject like land reform. Many readers have probably never really considered what is involved in the expropriation of land and its redistribution to the poor peasants, perhaps assuming that it is done systematically with a contingent of soldiers for example, rather than by sending a pair of relatively untrained individuals to a village and expecting them to see that everything goes smoothly.
The book gives a very convincing account of what it was like to go to the country as an educated young person, to try to win over the peasants, to teach them about politics and their rights, to counter the actions of the landlords and to improve the position of the women, while at the same time confronting a way of life that had not changed for hundreds of years and which was in contrast to the comfortable sem-westernized way of life in a large city. The author lets us see how various people changed over this period of time -- not only ther heroine, but also the villagers and the other cadres. The characters are by no means stereotypes. Some of the cadres are represented as intolerant and doctrinaire, others as being unequal to the task that has been set them. Similarly, some of the villagers are hardworking or unfortunate while others are lazy or scheming. Even the landowners are not painted uniformly black and some sympathy with their plight is shown. The difficulty of differentiating between "landlords," "rich peasants" and "middle peasants" is described, together with the significancance of the fate of these families.
The apparent faith that the government had in educated youths, that they would be able to reform almost a whole country's agricultural base, is amazing. One wonders why the peasants listened. After all, these city residents knew nothing about farming, especially under these semidesert conditions. The city dwellers must have had a hard time just surviving and not getting sick from the poor food, cold climate, and lack of sanitation.
Early in the book, there is a very interesting account of a meeting attended by many of the leading literary figures of the day. In view of the fact that this is called an autobiographical novel, one wonders whether such a meeting actually took place, and whether these people, who are real, actually expressed the views attributed to them. For example, Mao Dun, a renowned novelist who is still active in China today, tells an anecdote about how he came to write the novel Midnight , saying that it was because he needed the money rather than for ideological reasons. This sounds true, but is it?
Overall, this is a well-written book about a crucial period in China's modern history. It gives valuable insight into how China made the transition to communism, at leat in the deep countryside. It raises, however, a number of questions that I hope will be answered in the future, perhaps by a sequel showing Ling-ling's life after she returned to the city. It would also be interesting to know whether the peasants in Longxiang (Dragon's Village), were in fact better off after the changeover, or whether their lives were just as precarious.
It would be interesting to know more about the author. The jacket blurb tells us that Yuan-tsung Chen arrived here in 1972, but there is no indication of where she learned English. The book is written in a remarkably readable style and is also surprisingly free of the political overtones that would be expected from someone who had spent 20 years "going down to the countryside" to help the peasant farmers in their cooperatives and communes.
The Dragon's Village may be considered in various lights: It may be viewed as "an adolescent's painful path to maturity," but it would seem to me that most of the changes in Ling-ling would have been the same even if she had been older. The analogy with And Quiet Flows the Don, which Harrison Salisbury makes on the dust jacket, is only valid to a certain extent, since Sholokhov was giving a much more panoramic view of an earlier stage in a communist revolution. However, the experiences in Russia undoubtedly led the Chinese communists to plan their land reform somewhat differently, and may have suggested to them that a different approach, with a more peaceful attempt to encourage peasant participation rather than superimposing reforms from above might be more effective. In both cases, however, the plight of the landowner was disastrous. Chen seems to have more sensitivity to the gradations of presumed wrongdoing by "landowners" at different levels, possibly explained by the fact that she now lives in this country.
It is difficult to treat this book as a novel, because the author provides a tremendous amount of information while creating few genuinely fictional characters. Like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms , a 14th-century Chinese historical narrative. He Dragon's Village is not sufficiently imaginative to be accepted as creative fiction nor sufficiently truthful to be considered an authentic historical account. However, it does attain the level of good literature precisely because its slight fictionalization injects vitality and vividness into recent history.
The book is well edited and free of serious typographical errors for the most part. One unsual mistake is that the author's name is Chinese characters is printed upside down in the forword.
Otherwise, the novel, which reflects the conditions of China's countryside in the early days of the People's Republic, is compelling, candid and extremely personal. Acts of violence, plots and counterplots, as well as personal experience in love and family life, are all set against a canvas of revolutionary upheaval. The faces of revolution and China's physical and social landscapes are vividly presented. For the author, her abandoning the comforts of a middle-class life to join the revolutionary movement by organizing the peasants in China's remote interior is a dramatic, soul-wracking endeavor, which is described in human, poignant and enthralling terms. In describing a world of conflict, clashing loyalties and selfish interests, the author shuns ideological and propagandistic emphases in order to present a vivid, perceptive account documenting China's trasition to communism from rural feudalism. It is more dramatic and revealing than most other recent novels on the same subject.