Struggle is ruthless, with no room for such bourgeois weaknesses as human kindness.
I don’t remember where I first picked up A Small Town Called Hibiscus, but I think it was for a college class on twentieth century China. Assuming I read it then, ten years have passed and I approached the novel without any memory of it. I both liked and am conflicted by the story, which follows several families in a rural town in southern Hunan province over the course of two decades between the 1960s and 1980.
A Small Town Called Hibiscus consists of multiple overlapping stories. First and most plainly it is a portrait of a small, out of the way town that must cope with the changes beyond its power. In this way it is analogous to Ivo Andric’s Bridge on the Drina. Modernity comes with its sterile hospitals, high walls, and polluted rivers, but the the worst suffering is at the hands of familiar faces, not this anonymous leap forward.
Second, there the story of the condemnation and eventual vindication of Hu Yunan, Sister Hibiscus, who is beloved in the town for selling beancurd at a stall at the market. Hers is a story of a happy marriage and how hard work and aroused envy and thus hatred, causing her fall. And yet, amid the pain and suffering, there is love and there is hope.
While Hu Yunan’s specific story is given the place of honor since she is shown as nearly without fault, it is also representative of most people in the town. The citizens of Hibiscus for the most part want to live as a community and love their neighbors, to eat well, laugh, and grow old. The changes in the world make this idyllic vision just a fantasy and make Hibiscus a grim and frightful place.
Third, A Small Town Called Hibiscus is a moral parable about capitalism and communism, and this is where I was conflicted. Hu Yunan is what might be termed a petty-capitalist Mary Sue—she is perfect. Beautiful and charming, she has both a husband and a small business that succeeds through her hard work. She and her husband make enough money that they can purchase a plot of land from Wang Qiushe (a lazy “activist” who makes his living by mooching off land redistribution rather than by working) and build a house. Out of jealousy and thinking he should have charged more dor the land, Wang conspires with Li Guoxiang, a petty party member who is jealous of Hu Yunan’s looks and business success (it cuts into her state-owned business’ margins), to have the couple declared “Wealthy Peasants.” The devoted “communists” are largely revealed to either be envious of the couple for the success of their hard work or too fearful to push back against the elements destroying the town. Presented with these stark alternatives, capitalism is shown favorably.
I suspect, however, that Gu Hua is primarily critical of the Chinese communist party in this time period since political repression became the weapon of the vindictive and he shows it operating with no real sense of what it stood for other than the power of the party itself. These same mechanisms are easily turned on those who once wielded them. Gu Hua honors characters who live their lives humanely and generously, whether they do so by farming, selling bean curd or looking after children in the neighborhood. They suffer, but they persevere. Hibiscus is a small town and this is above all a story of survival.
One final point: I read the Gladys Yang translation, which is perfectly adequate, but by her own admission misses some of the richness by her deficiencies. I didn’t like some of her choices, such as translating Chinese to American currency, which both felt out of place and loses something in that the translation itself is thirty-five years behind in terms of inflation. The translations also erred toward the literal and were at times choppy in ways that lost the force of a scene.