In a foreword given by David Wang, he explains the important background for this story, written as an anti-communist story set in the 1950s, just after the Land Reform Movement has taken place in rural China. The Land Reform was meant to liberate local peasant by redistributing land, "giving" each farmer his or her own plot to own. However, what was meant as a way for farmers to produce more in an area that had always been prolific, another threat of famine is on the horizon but no one, not even Communist Party members, are allowed to speak about the "deepening misery" the peasants must face.
What was interesting to me as I read through the story, is that on the surface the novel should be about celebration. There is, after all, a wedding and the impending New Years celebrations which is taken just as seriously, if not more so, than the American New Year. However, Chang has an elegant way of weaving dissent and that feeling of "something's not right," which weighs heavily as the story progresses. I am moved through the story with my questions about the relationship between Gold Root and Mood Scent. It is obvious he loves her, but is it against Chinese behavior or Communist rule to show love toward a spouse? At times, I think she loves him, and again I am left confused about this dynamic. There is so much tension. Also, it is plain that the people of these villages are slowly starving to death, and yet life goes on, as if oxygen were being slowly sucked out of a room and no one realized they were dying; they just felt sleepy. Then there is the illuminating insight to the Communist regime itself when we meet some of the officers in charge of the village meetings, fees, and goings-on. I wanted to hate them, knowing they facilitate the Communist regime, but once again Chang delivers rounded characters who are just as complacent and confused as the newly minted villagers are; and just as guilty of dissent.
I focus now on the complicated dynamic between Gold Root and Moon Scent, the young married couple with a child. There is so much that is not said between these two it literally fills the book. I know they love each other, but from other couples in the novel it is clear that marriage in China is not about love, it is about work. For this particular couple, there is an underlying theme of anger and tension, which is never really resolved. Gold Root feels lucky to be married to her, and yet has so many feelings of deep longing for a woman he already has! In every marriage in this novel, it is clear that nonsexual intimacy between the couple, in public or private is not socially acceptable, and is a source of great embarrassment and confusion. Tensions are made clear when Gold Root is remembering when he went to the city to visit his wife, and then wishes he never went. Conversely, Moon Scent returns to the country after three years away working, and a little over a day goes by before she wishes she never came to the country. In between them, holding them together is their daughter Beckon.
Just when it seems that Moon Scent feels no love or affection for her husband, one small gesture is made by both that solidifies love, even if it is an unspoken love. After a heated and physical altercation, Gold Root goes to bed and shuns sharing the blanket with Moon Scent and their daughter, when it is freezing cold weather. In the middle of the night, when she is sure he has fallen asleep, she tucks the blanket around him; and as she does so Gold Root unconsciously wraps himself around her in an embrace (Chang, 115). This relationship greatly represents that women are not as docile as previous notions of women in China. Indeed, Moon Scent is just as much an important member and contributor to the marriage as Gold Root is, which directly contradicts the idea of docility in Chinese women. Moon Scent is not the only married woman who displays this behavior of opinion and importance in a marriage, and is also not the only one who has inner feelings or confusion about his feelings toward her husband and marriage in general.
However, in most of the relationships the underlying tension is about the increasing awareness of famine and what is to be done. No one in the novel is overtly panicked about it, but hushed conversations do take place in privacy between all members of the village. At least, that is how it seems at first. The wedding is supposed to be a celebration, and yet the feast is meager. It becomes clear that the only thing anybody eats is a thin, watery rice gruel. Sometimes it will have a kind of stringy vegetable included in it, but women are supposed to leave that part for their husband (but will sneak some in later when no one is watching). The major gossip is food and money, who has food (i.e. eating a full bowl of rice instead of gruel; can this be considered a meal? I am still unsure!), and therefore who has money to buy food.
Historically during this point in time, China was still fighting in the Korean War (Wang, xv) which was in fact worsening the shortage of food available. Also during this time Communist leaders were pressuring local leaders to produce more food for their soldiers, which in turn put pressure on the already starving farmers who had nothing to give. A pig is wanted, but no one has a pig to give; money is wanted in place of food, but no one has money either; rice is wanted to make treats, but people are barely surviving on what little rice is left. I equate the famine in the novel as an oncoming hunger pang, which slowly eats through you. It starts out slow, so slow it is barely noticeable. Then, suddenly, some tiredness or irritability sets in, followed by the first gnawing feelings of hunger. Before they know it they are grouchy and angry -- and it only takes one person to set off a riot to raid the food storage unit in the Communist leader headquarters in the village.
Apparently, during this time of imminent starvation villagers began to remember when the Communist regime threatened them with "big pot rice," where they would force all the farmers to pool their harvests for everyone to eat out of one kitchen (Chang, 118). This, of course, when meant to scare citizens into joining the Communist party, but during the second coming of another famine, farmers continually asked about "big pot rice," in hopes that there was a plan to do this so that everyone could just get a meal of more sustenance than gruel.
Interestingly enough, the local leaders of the regime are increasingly confused about how to feel about the starvation of the local people. In one situation, a Comrade comes to the village to live as one of the locals, and finds it shocking that all the villagers are living like this. He finds it shameful that he is losing weight, and begins to hide food that he purchases from the local store in order to sustain himself. He is torn between guilt and the will to live, and only shares his food with his hosts one time. During the raid, when the villagers are being shot at and later tortured for their crimes, the leader Comrade Wong of the village is in shock that the people have rebelled, and is reliving the past torture and execution of citizen when the regime was gaining strength. It is obvious he feels shame, confusion, and dissent. He simply cannot grapple with the fact in his head that the people are starving and the government could have shared food with them, but instead demanded money and food from them. Gold Root and Moon Scent are falsely accused of being revolutionaries and starting the whole riot. Other villagers are being accused as well, but the party leaders know that no one is a revolutionary, no one did this on purpose to wreak havoc and dissent; the villagers were simply hungry and fed up.
It is interesting that Chang gives the reader a good, strong look into the inner minds of the Communist party local leaders, to show that on the outside they are the models of communist principles and rules. But, on the inside they are just as confused, worried, and frightened about the future as the villagers are. Indeed, one of the Communist sayings that serves as a warning and a way out of guilty or miserable feelings is, "Believe, for your own good." (Chang, 166). Evidently in this novel written to intricately by Chang, contains confirmation that the totalitarian state of…