The ‘once-powerful old figure in a changed world’ is a common trope, and can be played to quite poignant effect when used well. In this story the figure is Huang Huizhen, who has just reached sixty-six years. There is an old peasant practice of eating sixty-six pieces of pork on such a day to prolong life.
On this morning, people who had survived sixty-six years would all wait anxiously for their daughters to come by. Those who had no daughter of their own would make arrangements for a stand-in, who would chop pork into the requisite number of pieces, and carry it ostentatiously through the village.
Huang Huizhen would not, however, copy the practices of ignorant villagers. She was a woman of status and high revolutionary consciousness who had always despised such customs as adopting stand-in daughters and eating sixty-six pieces of pork. She also knew some science, and realized that for older people, eating so much meat at a single sitting could be hard on their systems and would certainly not prolong their lives. Besides, there was the cost to be considered! Yet somehow this cogent reasoning did not completely reassure her.
Huang Huizhen lives alone. She has a daughter-in-law, and hopes that she will surprise her with the pork today. But they have not seen each other in a long time. Her daughter became pregnant for a second time in defiance of the one-child policy. Huang Huizhen, as the Director of Women’s Affairs, felt that she should not be seen to be making an exception to her family, orders she pay the fine, then that they abortion be carried out anyway. At seven months the baby is removed alive, and briefly placed in an incubator, before Huang Huizhen orders it to be removed.
It wasn’t that there was any bad blood between her and her daughter. She was acting for the Party and the State, for the public good!
But the daughter does not come, and in the afternoon she goes to the government office compound. But she is no longer a Party Secretary, and whenever she tries to wield power she is ignored and tacitly mocked. She does not respect the Deputy County Head, believing him far too lax in discipline and ideals, and unworthy of his position. None of the other officials there are even better. The absent County Head, of a similar age to her, is the only one she respects, but she knows that in three years the County Head will leave and the Deputy assume his position.
Let me be clear: this story is not about the politics of the more affluent China in which it is set, or of Huang Huizhen’s era of greater Communist control. It is focused solely on her and what she has lost, and as such makes her an affecting and sympathetic figure. That her values are uncomfortable to the reader provide a tinge of dissonance that nevertheless do not deny her personal unhappiness. All her life she has acted as she thought was right; but what is right has now seemingly changed, and nobody around her respects what she once lived for.
The Festival of Graves by Zhu Lin, translated by Richard King
Availability: print, free online if you or your library has a JSTOR subscription to this publication
Word count: 7,000
First published: 1984(?)
First English translation: Manoa, vol 1, No. ½, 1989. University of Hawaii Press (available on JSTOR here)
Where to find it: Snake’s Pillow and other Stories, collection, 1998, University of Hawaii Press
The Colors of Heaven, edited by Trevor Carolan, 1992, Vintage Press