A soaring literary achievement from internationally acclaimed writer Yu Hua, whose novels are now appearing in English for the first time, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant provides an unflinching portrait of China under Chairman Mao, as a factory worke must sell his blood to overcome every crisis.
Xu Sanguan is a Chinese everyman--a cart-pusher in a silk mill struggling under the cruelty and hardships of Mao's leadership. His meager salary is not enough to sustain his family, so he pays regular visits to the local blood chief, followed by stops at the Victory Restaurant, where he pounds on the table and demands his ritual meal: "A plate of fried pork livers and two shots of yellow rice wine. And warm the wine up for me."
But fried pork livers and yellow rice wine are not enough to restore Xu Sanguan. With the country in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, his visits to the blood chief become lethally frequent and his obligations to his family press against him mercilessly. At the height of famine, the Xu family lies motionless in bed, rising twice a day to consume increasingly watery rations of corn gruel. Xu Sanguan's wife is forced to stand on a stool in the center of town wearing a sandwich board that reads "prostitute." Yile, his wife's bastard son, forever haunts Xu Sanguan's sense of honor. And when Xu Sanguan sells his blood so he can take his family out to a proper meal, he does not invite Yile, who paces the town, famished and in tears, offering himself as a son to any man who will buy him a bowl of noodles.
In a series of heartbreaking reversals, Xu Sanguan decides to risk his own life to save Yile and comes to understand that in a society ravaged by suspicion, hostility, and poverty, blood money not only pays debts, but forgives them as well. With rare emotional intensity, grippingly raw descriptions of place and time, and clear-eyed compassion, Yu Hua gives us a stunning tapestry of human life in the grave particulars of one man's days.
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November 08, 2004
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Excerpt from Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua
Xu Sanguan worked in the silk factory in town, distributing silkworm cocoons to the spinners. But today he was out in the country visiting his grandpa. His grandpa's eyes had dimmed and blurred with age, and he was having trouble making out who it was standing by the door. He called for Xu Sanguan to stand a bit closer, looked him over for a moment, and then asked, "Son, where's your face?"
Xu Sanguan said, "Grandpa, I'm not your son, I'm your grandson, and my face is right here in front of you." He pulled his grandpa's hand over to his face, let him pat it, and then put it back in his lap. His grandpa's palms felt like raw silk yarn.
His grandpa asked, "Why doesn't your dad come and see me?"
"Dad died a long time ago."
His grandpa nodded, and a string of saliva slipped out from between his lips. He tilted his head and sucked until some of it came back in. "Son, how's your health?"
"Good," Xu Sanguan said. "Grandpa, I'm not your son."
His grandpa continued, "Do you sell your blood too?"
Xu Sanguan shook his head. "No, I've never sold my blood."
"Son," Grandpa said, "you're telling me that you're in good health, but you've never sold your blood. I think you're trying to make a fool of me."
"Grandpa, what are you trying to say? I don't understand. Grandpa, are you senile?"
Grandpa shook his head.
Xu Sanguan added, "Grandpa, I'm not your son. I'm your grandson."
"Son," his grandpa continued, "your dad wouldn't listen to me. Fell for some 'flower' or other in town."
"Golden Flower. That's my mom."
"Your dad said he was old enough. He told me he wanted to go into town and marry some 'flower' or other. I said, 'Your two older brothers haven't gotten married yet.' If the eldest hasn't even gotten married yet, how could I let the youngest go ahead and take a wife before him? Around here, that's not how you play by the rules."
xu sanguan sat on his fourth uncle's roof gazing at the horizon. The sky was a wash of crimson that seemed to emanate from the muddy paddies in the distance, shining across the fields, transforming the crops into a vast tomato-red expanse. Everything was bright red--the little streams and paths that crawled across the land, the trees, the thatched cottages and the fishponds, even the streams of smoke that poured crookedly out from village chimneys.
Xu Sanguan's fourth uncle was spreading fertilizer across the melon patch beside the house as two women, one older, one younger, walked past. Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "Guihua looks more and more like her mama."
The younger of the two women smiled, and the older one caught sight of Xu Sanguan sitting on the roof. "Who's that sitting on your roof?"
Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "That's my third brother's son."
The three people below all glanced up at Xu Sanguan. Xu Sanguan chuckled as he looked down toward the young woman called Guihua. Guihua lowered her eyes to the ground. The older woman said, "He looks just like his dad."
Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "Guihua's getting married next month, isn't she?"
The older woman shook her head, "Guihua's not getting married next month. We've broken off the engagement."
"Broken the engagement?" The fertilizing trowel in Xu Sanguan's uncle's hand dropped to the ground.
The older woman lowered her voice. "The boy's health is no good. He can only eat one bowl of rice at a time. Even Guihua can eat two bowls of rice at a time."
Xu Sanguan's uncle lowered his voice as well. "How did that boy go and ruin his health?"
"I really don't know how it happened. First I heard people say he hadn't gone to the hospital to sell blood for almost a year. That got me wondering if maybe he had some kind of problem, so I sent someone to invite him over for dinner, just so I could see for myself how much he could eat. If he could eat a couple big bowls of rice, I figured I could set my mind at ease, and if he could eat three, well, Guihua would have been his. He ate one bowl, but when I went to get him some more, he said he was full, said he couldn't eat any more. Imagine a big strong man like that not even being able to eat a little more. Well, I figured there's something wrong with him for sure."
Xu Sanguan's uncle nodded his approval. "You're a thoughtful mother."
The older woman said, "That's what mothers are for."
The two women glanced up once more toward Xu Sanguan, who was still chuckling as he looked at the younger woman. The older woman said once again, "Looks just like his dad."
The two women walked away, one in front of the other. Both of them had big rears, and as Xu Sanguan looked down on them from above, he had trouble distinguishing where their buttocks ended and their thighs began. When they were gone, Xu Sanguan watched Fourth Uncle continue to spread fertilizer across the melon patch as the sun set and his body grew increasingly indistinct in the haze of dusk.