Banished! A Novel

By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman

Reviewed by Mingwei Song
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2009)

Han Dong. Banished: A Novel. Tr. Nicky Harman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008. pp. 264. ISBN 978-0-8248-3262-9(Cloth); ISBN 978-0-8248-3340-4 (pbk).

Han Dong. Banished: A Novel. Tr. Nicky Harman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008. pp. 264. ISBN 978-0-8248-3262-9(Cloth); ISBN 978-0-8248-3340-4 (pbk).

“We’re going to Hongze Lake to eat fish!” Thus announces the intellectual Tao Peiyi at the beginning of Han Dong’s novel Zhagen, when the Tao family is about to be banished by the Party authorities from their home in Nanjing and move into a small village in the poverty-stricken Subei area (northern Jiangsu). Nicky Harman translates the title Zhagen, which literally means “striking root” or, metaphorically, “settling down,” into Banished! The English seems to present a meaning opposite to what the original title signifies, but it nevertheless lays bare the poignant irony the latter connotes. “Zhagen” is a political term used to sugarcoat Mao’s infamous policy that aimed to have millions of intellectuals, “liberal-minded” cadres as well as educated youths uplifted from their urban homes and exiled permanently to China’s rural area. It is a policy that Mao first adopted to punish his political challengers during his reign in Yan’an, and it was executed on a much larger scale in the late 1960s when Mao desired to reorganize the sabotaged social order after the Cultural Revolution swept the entire country. By calling it “zhagen,” the communists put a varnish on this punishment by making it look like a voluntary act that the punished enjoyed doing out of their own will.

Han Dong’s protagonist, Tao Peiyi, appears to be one of those who would voluntarily turn his banishment into an opportunity to start building a new home on the “virgin soil.” Tao’s profession as a troubled writer and his experience of being banished are identical to those of Han Dong’s father, Han Jianguo (1930-1979), better known as “Fang Zhi,” the pseudonym with which he published around two dozen short stories. Fang Zhi became famous during the Hundred Flowers movement (1957), when he followed the then literary trend “to intervene in life” by playing out a youthful wish to edit a literary magazine outside the official system. The title of the magazine is Tansuozhe (Explorers), a name that, together with Wang Meng’s audacious portrait of the challenge of a “young man” newly arrived in the “organization department,”[1] remains in PRC’s intellectual history a testimony to the short-lived liberal trend of the Hundred Flowers. However, Fang Zhi’s magazine never saw publication. When Mao suddenly launched the Anti-rightist campaign in the autumn of 1957 to retaliate against the young challengers that emerged in the Hundred Flowers, Fang Zhi, as well as his co-editors and fellow writers Ye Zhicheng, Lu Wenfu and Gao Xiaosheng,[2] was criticized and required to stop all literary activities.

Han Dong does not even bother to fictionalize; he presents a straightforward account of his father’s past experience in the life history of Tao Peiyi,[3] who is the most vividly depicted character in Banished!. On the surface, Tao displays a strong sense “politically correctness.” He does not complain about being expelled from the city or from his work unit, and from day one of his new life in the shabby village ofSanyu he seems to be fully committed to the cause of “settling down.” The first two chapters describe in great technical detail how Tao overcomes all kinds of difficulties to build a new home for his family and “merge” with the peasants–the local villagers. However, as a good satirist, Han Dong makes the plain words sound parodic, the realistic depictions appear ironic, and the straightforward looks crooked.

Han Dong, born in 1961, first gained fame as a leading poet of the avant-garde “Third Generation,” which sought to revamp China’s poetry scene in the middle of the 1980s with their unconventional poems. Han Dong revived his father’s old dream by launching an unofficial poetry magazine, Tamen (Them, 1985-1995), and his own poems caught the attention of critics for their adept use of the colloquial style, unique way of metaphysicizing ordinary scenes from life, and subtle handling of irony and parody. He started writing short stories and novellas in the 1990s, and his fiction tends to enlarge his poetic vision in a more objective and realistic way. Banished!, Han Dong’s first full-length novel, epitomizes many characteristics of his earlier poetic and fictional writings.

Although the novel spares no effort to describe Tao Peiyi and his family members’ enthusiasm for beginning a new life in exile, its densely detailed portrayal of their mental and physical activities often works to create a contrary effect. In the first two chapters, a lengthy account of nearly every aspect of their life in Sanyu Village, though wrapped in an overall optimistic outlook, nevertheless brings to light many minute details that indicate the existence of a bleak, harsh reality as well as the unthinkable inconveniences it produces. A major project for the Taos is to build a solid house so they can move away from the cowshed where they have “temporarily” lived for a year. The narrator tells us: “The project had been in the planning for some time. There was to be no skimping since, as Tao put it, they were to ‘dig in’ here for many generations” (20). The narrative, too, does not skimp in its depictions and explanations of the planning and construction process. The narrative of the house-building process is full of technical information, paralleled by the recounting of the corresponding cautiousness of every member of the Tao family: Tao, his wife Su Qun, his son, and his parents. Here, it is Tao’s father’s obsessive pursuit of perfection in the mundane affairs–not limited to building the house–that gives away the “secret” of this family: they are optimists not without principles, and their principles are to use every means possible to adjust to their new reality.

The irony in the novel lies in Tao Peiyi’s tendency to give every difficult situation a positive skew, as illustrated by his announcement at the beginning of the novel that they are going to Hongze Lake to eat fish, which serves as a tactic to sooth the psychological uneasiness of his family, and himself, at a time when their fate seems to have been sealed by the banishment. Furthermore, Tao even plays the trick of the “spiritual victory” with his family members by making them believe that they have maintained a friendly relationship with the villagers, have served the people by providing scientific and medical help, and have built their home on fresh virgin soil; in fact, however, his father has to keep bribing the villagers with cigarettes, food, and money, he and his wife are working extra hard to study agriculture and medicine books in their spare time, and his vision of the “virgin soil” is actually based on faint memories of the nineteenth century Russian novels he read before his downfall. The reality is that none of his family members could stand the suffocating smell of the pig bed.

Tao tries to raise his son, young Tao, to become a peasant. He feels worried when he sees his son intimidated by the challenges of village life, but later he finds joy in young Tao’s addiction to cruel, abusive killings. Chapter Five presents a brutal depiction of young Tao’s abuse of small animals and his indulgence in killing off chicken and fish: “Tao, whose opinion counted most to the boy, believed that these killing sprees showed the kind of courage that a boy ought to have and that would serve him well in his future in Sanyu” (90).But a rather touching part of the novel is its chronicle of the “dog years” that seems to serve as a contrast to young Tao’s cruelty in killing, but may well be read as a supplement to it. During their decade-long stay in Sanyu, the Tao family raises four dogs one after another. The villagers succeed in plotting to kill and eat the first two, Patch and Snowy, who are unusually plump because of the Tao family’s residual habit of feeding them with human food. In order to avoid the sadness of seeing their beloved dogs killed, the Tao family learns to treat the next two dogs, Brownie and Blackie, “badly,” like the villagers normally do; as a result, they do not grow into nice, fat dogs, and they survive. The way the author portrays the Taos’ care for their dogs, concerns with their fate, and grief over their death injects the novel with some of its most humanized moments. Probably for this reason, the narrator prefers to use the names of the different dogs to mark the passing of the Taos’ years spent in Sanyu:

You will often read in the pages that follow, “When the Taos had Patch . . . “; “When Snowy was still alive . . .”; “Not long after they got Brownie . . .”; or “During Blackie’s time . . .” My readers may find this strange, but young Tao would definitely have approved. (86)

One of the saddest and most gripping episodes in the novel is not about the suffering of the Taos, who work step by step to adjust to the inhumanly harsh environment; it takes place instead after the castration of their second dog Snowy, who, as an animal, has no way of consoling himself:

The vet took out a knife, felt gently between the dog’s legs, and suddenly there was a gush of blood. Snowy yelped loudly, and young Tao, who was holding his back legs down, nearly jumped out of his skin.

When released from the garden fork, Snowy jumped up and ran off toward the production team fields to the south of the house, hopping on three legs. He yelped as he ran and left drops of fresh blood behind him that made a dotted trail on the ground. Young Tao followed his tracks as far as the banks of the Yanma River. Snowy had stopped by then but still stood with one leg raised. His crotch was all bloodied, and the hair on his legs was all red too.

Young Tao made several attempts to get near Snowy, but each time the dog jumped away. When the boy stood still, so did he, looking at young Tao with eyes full of fear. Intermittently he whimpered. This scene on the riverbank continued until it grew dark.

Young Tao stayed with Snowy because he was afraid that if he left him, the dog would not get home on his own. He remembered that when they had moved to the new house, Patch had refused to leave the cowshed with similar obstinacy. And Snowy of course had good reason to be upset. In the growing gloom, Snowy’s white coat faded away until only a pair of dog’s eyes and the ripples on the surface of the water glittered in the darkness. Young Tao crept closer and closer until finally he succeeded in touching Snowy’s damp head. (81)

Without the set of fully developed psychological tactics the Taos use to keep themselves immune from tragedies and sufferings, Snowy, with his yelps, strips naked the truth of being punished, abused, and banished. Another intriguing moment in the novel is when the narrator reveals why young Tao loves dogs so much but never hesitates to abuse the cat and some other small animals. The cat does not have a name, and young Tao uses every means to mistreat her. But even the chicks evade the fate of being turned into food after receiving names from the Taos:

One day Tao had time on his hands and had the bright idea of giving them names. One was molting and had patches of thick and thin feathering. Tao called him Tattered Jacket. Another had a great tuft of tail feathers that swayed as he walked, and Tao called him Palm-Leaf Fan. And that was that. When they had grown enough to be killed, the Taos could not bring themselves to do it because they would be killing not just any young cockerels but Palm-Leaf Fan and Tattered Jacket. Protected by their names, the cockerels grew up and began to crow and to rape the hens. (33-34)

The stirring power of this paragraph is its penetrating observation of a seemingly normal type of human psychology that appears to be so fragile, and yet so easy to maintain–just by humanizing the things around, even if this is acted out by a most childish wish. But we cannot overlook the fact that that same childish wish drives young Tao to kill hundreds of fish and some chicks who lack the luck of Palm-Leaf Fan and Tattered Jacket–probably because they do not have a name!

Compared with Han Dong’s shorter fiction works and his more recent novel–Xiaocheng haohan zhi yingtemaiwang (The heroic deeds of the bandits in a small town, 2008), Banished! achieves a better balance between realism and irony, sincerity and cynicism. The narrator displays a well composed style, which Nicky Harman’s translation successfully renders into English, as the well-paced narrative of a family’s adventure unfolds taking readers through a multitude of small events that turn their life story into a small part of a larger tragedy staged across the entire nation. The Tao family’s story sounds especially tragic when Tao Peiyi’s wish for the family to “settle down” as peasants seems to have been realized. But contrary to his original plan, the family “settles down” only after its older members start dying one after another: “So it seemed they had to continue Striking Root; only the result would not be young Tao’s settling down in Sanyu, but Tao and Su Qun growing old [and dying] in Hongze. Going home was possible only when there was a home to go to. Home was where your roots were. Su Qun and Tao would be those roots for young Tao, would plunge them deeply into the earth, so that one day, when their son was old and gray-haired, he could return home” (223).

Tao Peiyi dies one year after his rehabilitation. When he’s dying, his son is studying at a university in another city. Unlike Han Dong, Young Tao never returns to Nanjing after his graduation.[4] When he thinks of “home,” he dreams of the bleak house his father built in the village. But he does not feel sure about it, so he is never able to speak out the location of his “old home” confidently. We may borrow Ch’u Tien-hsin’s famous phrase to say: “We cannot call a place home if no family member dies there.”[5] In young Tao’s case, home becomes a ghostly place when the family members have died.

Mingwei Song
Wellesley College


[1] This image of the “newcomer” is found in Wang Meng’s short story “Zuzhibu laile ge nianqingren” (A young man arrives at the organization department), which was published in Renmin wenxue (People’s literature) in September 1956. It first received wide praise from critics but soon became the target of criticism when Mao launched the Anti-rightist campaign.

[2] Lu Wenfu and Gao Xiaosheng later became important writers during China’s reform era. Ye Zhicheng worked as a literary editor, and he’s the father of the novelist Ye Zhaoyan.

[3] Han Dong uses the title of his father’s magazine Tansuozhe (Explorers) to name Tao Peiyi’s planned literary magazine, which later causes him trouble (p. 167).

[4] The author, after teaching Marxist philosophy in a university in Xi’an for a few years, returned to his hometown Nanjing in the late 1980s, and he has lived there ever since.

[5] Zhu Tianxin, “Xiang wo juancun de xiongdimen” (Thinking of my brothers in the military residence). In Zhonghua xiandai wenxue daxi (Compendium of Chinese modern literature). Taipei: Jiuge, 2003, vol. 9, p. 996.