Two boys are sent to a mountain at the age of 17 and 18 during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970s for re-education. The narrator, a violin player, and his best friend Luo both have parents that are doctors and therefore classed as enemies of the people, which is the worst thing that can happen to an intellectual. The chance of going home from this remote village 500 kilometers away from their hometown, the big city Chengdu, is less than three in a thousand.
At the mountain Phoenix of the Sky, which is just a poetic way of suggesting its terrifying altitude, they are put into a house on stilts with a sow underneath in the poorest village perched on a summit. Their re-education consists of working in a coal mine and carrying buckets of excrement up and down a mountain. With them in another village is an old friend called Fore-Eyes, because of his glasses. Soon the two discover his hidden suitcase that contains a large number of Western literature translated into Chinese. And when they meet the Little Seamstress, the beautiful mountain girl in need of culture, they decide to steal the suitcase.
This partly historical novel tells the amusing adventures of a teenager during his re-education in a humorous, and sometimes sarcastic way, with a lot of black humor in between. A funny example is the day of their arrival. When the narrator played a sonata by Mozart on his violin to convince the villagers that it was a musical instrument, not a toy, he had to call his piece Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao to wipe out the headmans suspicion. Another example is Fore-Eyes collecting authentic folk songs from the peasants to publish them in a journal, in order to get out of the village: he adapted and modified them to communistic songs because the text was a little indelicate. The irony behind this is that songs from peasants, who are the actual communists, had to be altered in order to be published in a communistic journal.
The characters are all extremely realistic, whether it is the vigilant, coarse, and harsh village headman who is an ex-opium grower turned Communist saying that spreading out reactionary stories of western Counts (Count of Monte Cristo) is a crime, regardless of the Counts nationality because our revolution will triumph the world over, or the poor Old Miller eating pebbles dipped in salt water with his liquor, which he calls jade dumplings with miller sauce. My favorite character is the superficial and sycophantic Fore-Eyes with his smiling mask: he is the son of a poetess and a writer and therefore also classed three-in-a-thousand. He lives in constant terror of the peasants opinion, hoping that they might give him a chance to go back home: Ive got to work, thats what Im here for. At least thats what the headman says, he says.
The Cultural Revolution has not only changed Fore-Eyes. Towards the end of 1968, Chairman Mao launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Schools and universities were closed and hundred of thousands of young intellectuals were forced to go to the countryside for re-education, meaning working with poor peasants to change their bourgeois minds, to have western decadent ideas re-educated out of them. This book is one of the few that personally describe the suffering of teenagers at the age of growing up working in villages without any culture or civilization, completely blocked from the outside world.
The little coal mine already became a threatening word in the two boys vocabulary. Luo once said: I dont know why, but from the moment we got here Ive had this idea stuck in my head: that Im going to die in this mine. As the narrator said, hes heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life. Therefore, a suitcase with Western literature that was discovered by chance totally transformed him and his friend in a way that being in the city could never have done because any art or literature that is Western were banned for years at that time. So even though they were supposed to be re-educated, they did read something else than Maos Little Red Book, the only book that was allowed to be read.
Besides manifesting the impact of the Cultural Revolution, the story reveals the importance of storytelling. Early in the book, the narrator says: The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers”mores the pity. The fact is this story is based on telling stories from revolutionary movies to Western forbidden books and at that certain time and place, storytelling brought culture and civilization.
The narrator was completely changed when he opened the thin book of Balzac, realizing that subjects like awakening desire, passion, impulsive action had all been hidden from him. Like he said: Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives. Somehow, the way he identifies characters and situations that he has never experienced so strongly can be compared to the way this book presents itself: through excellent descriptions the reader is led in a world so new, so different, and so impressive.
This wonderful story combines ancient and modern, superstition and civilization in a village, demonstrating an entire contrast between the two cultures. An interesting scene in the book is that sorceresses who came to heal Luo from his bout of malaria were fascinated by the story the narrator told. He said: I embarked on the strangest performance of my life. In that remote village tucked into a cleft in the mountain where my friend had fallen into a sort of stupor, I sat in the flickering light of an oil lamp and related the North Korean film for the benefit of a pretty girl and four ancient sorceresses. Although this book essentially suggests that Western culture is welcomed, the plot hints a drawback. If everyone in China or elsewhere would be educated in a Western way, meaning to leave superstition, religion, tradition and maybe even culture and history behind, what would then the world look like?The book is not only a story about cultural differences; it is also a love story.
The Little Seamstress is by far the prettiest girl in the whole region. The moment the narrator and Luo saw her, the beauty of this simple, kind, and genuine daughter of the tailor fascinated them. The narrator asked Luo whether he was in love with her or not, and he replied: Shes not civilized, at least not enough for me! The story deals with teaching a mountain girl (who is now Luos girlfriend) by telling her Western stories about love and passion. At the same time, it deals a lot with friendship, because the narrator is also in love with the Little Seamstress, who isnt aware of that. He calls himself her secret agent when he goes to protect the Little Seamstress from other admirers following Luos wish when he was gone for a month.
He teaches the Little Seamstress and helps her at her daily work, but wasnt supposed to show any kind of affection or jealousy. That is true friendship, in other words. In the end, the story takes a surprising turn with the Little Seamstress leaving them with Balzacs words: A womans beauty is a treasure beyond price.After all, it is a very powerful and convincing book that allows readers to think about this dark and ugly period of Chinese history and at the same time see how hope and optimism never vanishes in times of despair, fear and loneliness, or any kind of terrible situations one might get in.