Blood is certainly one of the most graphic and potent of literary symbols: a life-sustaining fluid, a product of injury or death, a signal of feminine fertility and virginity, a salable commodity, a gift of life via transfusion, and a genetic and metaphorical bond among children, parents, their extended families, and prospective descendants. Each of these meanings plays a significant role in CHRONICLE OF A BLOOD MERCHANT, Yu Hua's harrowing tale of one father's relentless efforts to survive and provide for his family under the most difficult of circumstances.
Set in a small town in mainland China, CHRONICLE OF A BLOOD MERCHANT follows three decades in the life of Xu Sanguan, a cocoon deliverer in a local silk factory, as he marries Xu Yulan, fathers three children (more of less named One, Two, and Three), learns that he has been cuckolded, is in turn unfaithful to his own wife, and helps his family survive the Cultural Revolution, ruinous famines, the "sending down" of two sons to the countryside, and the critical illness of his oldest son, the one he has long known is not his own. Along the way, Xu Sanguan learns to sell his blood at a local hospital as a way to raise emergency funds. Symbolically, of course, Yu Hua is portraying the burdens and hypocrisies of a system in which the lowly and honest can only barely survive by resorting to the extreme measure of selling their energy, their strength, and in some cases, their very lives.
This novel works for several reasons. First, the language is simple and direct, almost choppy and childish at times, a reflection of its uneducated protagonists. Second, the author has created a small cast of characters whose fates are inextricably linked to one another, and among whom actions both good and bad eventually create unplanned or unintended consequences. In particular, the relationship between Xu Sanguan, Xu Yulan, their son Yile, Yile's blood father He Xiaoyong, and He's wife, creates a series of alternating and humorous interdependencies. Third, Yu Hua has skillfully recreated the peasant atmosphere of Chinese village life, complete with gossiping and public lamentations, traditions and superstitions, the importance of connections (guanxi, as the Chinese call it) with higher-ups, and horrific misinformation about human health and personal care.
Finally, CHRONICLE OF A DEATH MERCHANT is a story of fatherly devotion and filial piety. Xu Sanguan is so devoted to his family that he nearly sacrifices his own life to ensure theirs. The last fifty pages describe Xu Sanguan's horrifying physical descent to the edge of death, slowly yet so inevitably that I wanted to shout at him to stop. I was reminded of the similar, sick to the stomach sense of dread I felt watching Morgan Spurlock's SUPER SIZE ME. Curiously, one is about eating and intake, while Xu Sanguan's danger arises from the blood he is selling to raise money.
While I would not classify this book as one of China's great novels, CHRONICLE OF A DEATH MERCHANT is an engaging story, sometimes sad and sometimes humorous, filled with memorable characters. Perhaps more important, it offers a biting critique of an ineffectual and often capricious government system, told from the viewpoint of those who understood it least and suffered at its unfeeling hands the most. Intentionally or otherwise, Yu Hua traces the roots of a rampant blood-selling practice in China's poorest provinces that has created an epidemic of HIV and AIDS cases. This is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in Mao's era, in China's current day HIV health crisis, or simply in a heroic family saga.