Set in a small village in southern Shaanxi Province, the story follows the life of the old man (Lao Sheng), a funeral singer, who has lived through the entire 20th century and witnesses the life and death in the village. Each chapter starts by quoting and interpreting Book of Mountains and Seas, an ancient classic on the geography and species of China. Jia Pingwa wants to do the same thing with this novel: telling the stories of the land and the people whose fate roots deeply in this land. As the narrator of the novel, Lao Sheng, gives us four stories: revolution, agrarian reform, the culture revolution, and economic development. Each story takes place in a different era and together the novel is an honest account of the basic social issues China faced in the last hundred years.
平凹Jia Pingwa is the last of China’s contemporary literary greats to be discovered in English. His influence and reputation within China is on par with that of Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong: he is a regular recipient of most of the country’s top prizes for literature, and each of his books is eagerly anticipated by readers, critics and journalists. Though the English translation of his novel Turbulence won the Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1991, he is better known in other languages, particularly French. His use of Xi’an and its surrounding countryside as a setting in which to examine China’s rural/urban divide gives his works a depth and relevance beyond the spectacle of development limited to Beijing and Shanghai.