Educated Youth opens in Shanghai in the mid-to late 1980s, some 10 years after Mao’s death. Most of the 14 million zhiqing, “educated youth”, whom he condemned to indefinite rural exile during the Cultural Revolution, had made their way back to the cities they’d come from, among them Mancheng, Leying, Yang Shaoquan, Ruocheng and Zhengqi.
The five Shanghainese, three men and two women, had served their time in the isolated and poor but lush and beautiful region of Xishuangbanna in China’s south-west. Back in Shanghai, their lives revolve around marriage (happy or less so), work and family. Some have flourished, others not so much. But for better or worse, all have put their history in the countryside behind them. Now that history is about to catch up with them in the form of five children, whom they had abandoned (along with, in most cases, local spouses) in the post-Cultural Revolution scramble to return to the city. The kids, now in their early teens, have banded together and are travelling across the country to search for the fathers and mothers who went AWOL all those years ago.
The news of their arrival sparks panic. The narcissistic Yang greets the news of her half-forgotten son Yonghui’s arrival in Shanghai with a curl of her lips and the (frankly incredible) question, “What has he come here for?” Leying, struggling to cope with her rich husband’s infidelity, frets that her rural son has picked a “bad time to turn up”. None of them, astonishingly, had thought to tell their current partners that they had left a child on the other side of the country. Even where they manage to overcome their own shock and their partners’ fury to open their hearts and homes to the poor kids, they seem to share a hope that, following a bit of shopping and sightseeing, they can pack them off again onto the train and into familial oblivion.
The Shanghai of Educated Youth is a giant fishbowl, a surveillance society in which the Communist ethos of Big Brother vigilance is in a happy marriage with the human propensity for gossip and minding other people’s business. Most people have no choice but to live pressed up against one another in crowded dwellings surrounded by nosy parkers. One couple “couldn’t talk much on the balcony because the neighbours would watch them, trying to figure out what they were talking about by watching their facial expressions.” Even Leying, who lives in a mansion, has to cope with the prying and spying of her hostile stepdaughter and mother-in-law. The real problem here, however, is that with a few kind and outstanding exceptions, most everyone, from the parents to extended family, neighbours and employers, considers the very existence of these children to represent a kind of disgrace, “illegitimate” despite the fact they were born in wedlock.
As a reader, I craved more context, more background on the politics that created the problem in the first place. Author Ye Xin, himself a former zhiqing, is the vice-chairman of the official Writers’ Association of China and the director of the Literature Institute at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. He leaves it to the reader to connect the dots. I’m guessing a more frank discussion of the political background to the story might have got the novel banned in China. Yet it would have shed some light on, or at least contextualised, the characters’ frankly gobsmacking lack of compassion for their own children.
Early into his Shanghai adventure, Yonghui reflects that before coming to Shanghai, he’d heard that Shanghainese were “shrewd, calculating and cunning, tight, would break up with friends or family because of money, were unwilling to help others, and always put their own interests before anyone else’s”. Touched by the warm welcome given him by his paternal grandfather (Yang’s ex-husband, his father, was also a Shanghai zhiqing), he is happy to conclude that was just a mistaken stereotype. Less than 40 pages later, however, he begins to think that Shanghai people really were “calculating, cunning, cold, arrogant, superficial, stingy and even ruthless”.
By contrast, Ye Xin portrays the ethnic Dai people of Xishuangbanna as good-humoured and open-hearted, including towards the zhiqing who had landed on their doorstep by political fiat. The Xishuangbanna of Educated Youth is a frangipani-scented paradise where life is lived simply but full of grace, sensuality, kindness and love. He juxtaposes the gentle romanticism of life there with the ruthless pragmatism of Shanghai. There’s almost a whiff of – dare I say – Orientalism in the novel’s feminising descriptions of Xishuangbanna, as well as how it portrays it as almost outside history. Nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there: “… away from this beautiful, natural place, there was a cosmopolitan world where life was more colourful and exciting.” A cosmopolitan world where, for example, Yang’s ex-husband took his second wife on their first date: “A disco ball threw multicoloured stars around the dance hall as the music played. The singing was exhilarating. The men and women were all very glamorous …”
It’s a bit startling to read in a book published in 2016 lines like that explaining, without irony, that one of the male characters “didn’t expect a plain girl like Yani to be so eager for romantic love”. Similarly, it’s hard not to want to pull Leying aside and explain that her businessman husband, who insists that all the young virgins he hires from the countryside have sex with him, is not a philanderer but a rapist or sexual abuser.
For all its flaws, Educated Youth remains a very interesting novel. Ye Xin allows for the possibility of redemption, but he refuses to supply any easy, happy endings for his five interwoven stories. Nor does he sentimentalise the children; they are not all angels, and far from mere ciphers in their parents’ morality tales. Everyone, old and young, has to face up to their history, and learn a few hard lessons about themselves as well as the people they love and trust. CG
Giramondo, 352pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Ye Xin, Educated Youth". Subscribe here.