Voices from the far East: “Little Aunt Crane” by Geling Yan

aunt craneLittle Aunt Crane is a novel written by the award-winning Chinese novelist and screenwriter Geling Yan, published in 2008 and its first English translation came out in 2015 by Esther Tyldesley.  I didn’t know the author before reading this book but this is not the first novel she wrote and I read that some of her works were adapted for the screen. Her writing comes from real tales of people in war, particularly women; her activism in the People’s Army Liberation during the Cultural Liberation and with the Sino-Vietnamese War, where she serves as a journalist, played an important role in her literary frame.

The smoke of war opens the novel and forebodes a terrible human sacrifice. It is the end of World War II, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria has collapsed and the advanced Chinese Army is pitilessly taking over, destroying and shedding blood upon some  of the Japanese villages. For many of the villagers mass suicide becomes the only way to die with dignity, mothers would rather kill their children instead of leaving them in the hands of the enemies.
The reader starts following the tragic events through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tatsuru, who chooses life and refuses suicide.
At the beginning she is just a little innocent girl, she realised she is not wearing the earring the stole from her mother’s box out of simple vanity. Nevertheless, she senses things changing around her: the entire community is preparing to surrender in front of the advancing troops, the massacre is drawing close.
After escaping death, Tsasuru gets caught into the net of the human traffickers and is sold in a blind sack to the wealth Chinese Zhang family.
At a very early stage in the novel the name Tatsuru needs to be put aside as the young girl start fitting into her new role in this family of strangers, she soon becomes Duohe, a name that is given to her just because it is more acceptable in the regional environment. Her old name will come back just a couple of times in the whole book, and that will carry the sound of a melancholic vestige from a forgotten past.

When the family members open the sack they bought at the human market to let the woman out of it, they behold the harmless body of an exhausted survivor but they don’t know exactly what sufferings have fallen on her. They immediately start feeding her to give back some strength, the least thing they want is to accept having wasted their money over a useless sack. In truth, the reason why the older Zhang couple bought a woman in a sack is because they need somebody to make children for the young family couple, their son Erhai (this is his boy name, he will eventually become Zhang Jian) and his wife Xiaohuan, to continue their family line. There’s a long story that unfolds behind this, the young couple had a baby a couple of years before but severe complications came up and Zhang Jian had the difficult task to choose between the life of his wife and the weak baby inside of her. He did chose to save the woman instead of the baby, with little hesitation, and that choice was not particularly  well taken by his parents, but he was just unable to think his life without his spouse. They could have sent Xiaohuan away, they could have cut her off the family nest once they found out she would not be able to have children anymore, but everybody could see that the it would be impossible to separate the two of them, they are one person altogether. However, Xiaohuan is a strong woman, she is a good speaker and is the perfect match for Zhang Jian, she can stand up for him when he gets into trouble. On the other side, Zhang Jian is not much of a talker, he prefers to wait for things to happen instead of taking proactive actions.
Duohe’s arrival inevitably brings a big change in the family arrangement. Zhang Jian is initially reluctant to lie his body on that fragile and helpless young Japanese girl. They all know her origin but apart from that her story is voluntarily kept locked up in a shrine with no key. However, he ends up accepting the circumstances without opposing any sort of resistance, doing what he is expected to do to, taking over the task as if to fulfil an order imposed by an authority. Duohe’s fertility comes down as a blessing, she soon gives birth to three  children. Her fourth pregnancy is brusquely interrupted by a spontaneous miscarriage, which causes her some problems, but that also seems to come at the right time to tell the family they cannot rely so much on their income that becomes increasingly scanty and that they have enough mouths to feed and could not afford to have more. In fact, Zhang Jian seems to be much relieved by the circumstances, in spite of his concern for Duohe’s health.
Although Duohe remains a delicate and little woman, she gradually becomes the most powerful character of the novel: she recovers quickly, she is the one that makes children and keeps all the pieces of the family together that would have otherwise fallen apart; she is different, still, people are captivated by her peculiar traits. She keeps her Japanese culture and doesn’t seem to merge into the new environment, although her real identity is carefully kept unrevealed. She is obsessed with hygiene, she keeps the peculiar Japanese rites of hospitality and she can cook Japanese food.
She seems to perfectly fit for her new role, she realises that by making little human creatures she can actually recreate the family she was barbarously deprived of. She can even see little features and traits replicating in them, and it seems like this is a bit like bringing back her relatives into life, piece by piece. She feels she may even make the whole village reappear right in front of her eyes, not everything is lost forever. Sold as a piece of meat to serve a Chinese family, Duohe becomes the real powerful leader of the household. She keeps a secret dialogue with children, using a secret half-Japanese language that nobody can understand. This will have important implications in the life of the children, but this is also what makes them different and culturally strong.

In spite of the numerous advises on how to keep a strong hold on the family and to take full ownership of the education, Xiaohuan doesn’t seem particularly interested in interfering with the chemistry that ties the biological mother and her children. Potentially, being a woman herself and detaining her natural maternal inclination, she knows that any attempt to interfere with this natural bond would be vain. She does love the children as if they were her own, in turn they call her mother and call Douhe “auntie”, but deep inside of their heart they know that they owe so much to the latter and they don’t even need anybody to explain anything. The children are the perfect result of this complicated 3-parent relationship, which is constantly changing and shifting but, at the same time, sealing into a strong knot.

Time passing by, Duohe learns to express herself in Chinese language, although she never becomes fluent and keeps avoiding talking too much in public. At some point – but in the novel it is not revealed exactly in what way and how much is disclosed- she tells her story to Xiaohuan and Zhang Jian and this causes a further change in their relationship. She is no longer afraid to show off the heavy burden she has been consistently carrying on her shoulder: her story. Both Xiaohuan and Zhang Jian’s affection towards her turns into something much stronger and they free their feeling from social and conventional constrictions. Xiaohuan ends up loving her like a sister and together they build up the unshakeable bond of motherhood and family. Zhang Jian gives her the key to open his heart and by unveiling his hidden feelings he turns himself into a passionate lover. This is the beginning of a beautiful and prohibited love story between a Japanese woman and a Chinese man. Nevertheless, however passionate his love for Duohe may be, Zhang Jian’s love for Xiaohuan is not impacted by an inch, they continue to have their unshakeable intimacy and reciprocal understanding that makes their relationship unique. Zhang Jian’s heart is just divided equally between the two of them, he is a lost soul, but they know that they must stay together because it is the only way to keep what they have built so far. I am not sure how the story would have continued if Duohe had not revealed her story, but certainly things would not have been the same. Nevertheless, I appreciated this strong eruption of human feelings that breaks out at this point and that pulls down the barriers of social constraints and racial discrimination.

Whereas very little information leaks out and this complicated family affair is kept away from the bunch of curious and gossiping neighbours, almost nothing is left to the imagination of the reader. Not a quick read, this is a voluminous book of little less than five hundred pages, poignant with details and facts. The story is narrated with a lyrical and moving language, nothing is left aside, not even an imperceptible movement. Although Little Aunt Crane is the story of people and not so much an historical novel, political events are always there on the background, we can perceive the presence of the Army, the revolutions, the oppositions, Chairman Mao and the economic changes that are violently shaking the communities in the country. The wealth of the Zhang family gradually shrinks down and they found themselves rummaging for food at the local markets and saving on soap and water. All the family members are pushed into a series of unlucky and challenging events but, especially the three of them, Zhang Jian, Xiaohuan and Duohe will fight till the end to keep up their dignity and their respectability as human beings, regardless what race they are.

I must say I did have to put the book aside for a moment after reading the first hundred pages, I felt I was loosing the grip on this long family saga at some point, but when I picked it up again I could not stop reading it through the end. An educational novel, it makes you want to go in search of some history book pages to know more about the Japan-China wars and political facts. And there was a question that I kept asking myself as I was rushing towards the epilogue: will Tatsuru ever be able to go back to Japan? 

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