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Jin' s Under the Red Flag is a book of short stories set
in China during the Cultural Revolution. A unifying theme appears
to concern how individuals negotiate between two worlds, the old
and the new, and how these worlds come into conflict. Set in the
small town of Dismount Fort or in surrounding rural villages,
the stories are full of compelling action and wonderfully drawn
characters: peasants, members of street gangs, village bureaucrats,
military officials, and the occasional professional.
Motivated by powerful
emotionsambition, loyalty, love, sexual desire, shame, anger,
jealousy, greedthe characters act in big ways, and often
violently. Two farmers watch while their boars battle for mating
territory; a man, denounced for having an affair with his sister-in-law,
manages to resurrect himself through self-castration; a father
murders his son because a fortune teller has told him that the
boy stands in the way of his becoming a general. There is gang
violence, the destruction of a wedding feast by the local military,
and the violence of crowds egged on by Red Guards attempting to
purge the country of "bourgeois demons".
There is also
violence done to the human soul. The decision about whether to
bury or cremate a loved one becomes frought with political peril.
Private sexual indiscretions are treated as perversions and find
their way into becoming village gossip in the name of the public
good. Children are used as informants and as a means of punishing
adults for their "crimes," and, to the reader's horror,
joyfully take part.
While these are
all heady themes, the author manages to deal with them in a way
that is not at all off-puttingrather, by deftly changing
between a satirical viewpoint and a sympathy for the humanity
of his characters, he draws us into a world very unlike our own.
Once there, we are confronted with unpredictable plots that keep
us wanting to find out what happens next. And as we read, we are
struck by the vulnerability of these characters as they swim,
tread water, or flounder between the waves of the political system
and the undertow of tradition, at any moment apt to be broken
upon rocks or dragged under the swell.
First appeared in the High Plains Reader,