From childhood till now, I’ve spoken many bold words. Publicly or in private, I’ve proclaimed the kind of person I wanted to be, though it never happened in the end. I feel like someone has somehow taken my place, leaving me to become the person I am now.
When I’m around too many people, I lose myself. In an unfamiliar city, among crowds of strangers, I keep having to stand still—not to ask directions, but to find myself. Even when I’ve done that, I’m still lonely, so I head back to my hotel and listen to the sound of rain.
These lines, drawn from the melancholy and poetic Introduction to Ninth Building by acclaimed Chinese writer, poet and playwright Zou Jingzhi, speak to a fragmented sense of self, a “compilation of shadows,” that has long accompanied him, appearing unbidden on the street or haunting quiet nights. This book, originally published in Chinese in 2010 and now available in Jeremy Tiang’s excellent English translation, is an attempt to give these shadows some of the depth, context and meaning distorted by the experience of growing up during the years of the Cultural Revolution. As Jingzhi says in an interview on the site of the 2023 International Booker Prize for which his book has been nominated:
In the early 1990s, my childhood felt like it had been a gust of wind behind the trees. I used to spend my days being lost: What should I write? Whatever I wrote was wrong. It was impossible to get rid of my childhood back then. So I just wrote like that. I wrote for myself. I wrote to let go of my childhood.
Ninth Building is a cohesive work with a common narrator, but it is presented as a series of vignettes or very short stories, set between 1966 and 1977, arranged in a roughly but not strictly chronological order. Time, in its experiencing and remembering, has a somewhat fractured quality. After all, the Cultural Revolution was an unnatural period of disruption and upheaval and, as Jingzhi’s stories so clearly demonstrate, many hours of unstructured tedium. The first section “Ninth Building,” takes its name from the housing complex in Beijing where Zou is living with his family when the Revolution begins. He is about thirteen or fourteen at the time. The first story “Eight Days” is a diary format tale set in November 1966 that describes the eagerness and concern with which a group of boys set out to obtain Red Guard armbands. It is not clear that they understand just what they signify, only that they don’t want to be seen without one. Many of the pieces in this part demonstrate the haphazard way that the adolescents try to make sense the objectives of this movement sweeping the country, rejoicing in the death or humiliation of old women labelled part of the “landlord class,” unaware that many of their own families would soon be suspect. Yet amid the increasing levels of violence among their classmates and peers, there is a lot of idle time to be filled with a variety of friends and neighbours. Boredom had company.
There is a lot of humour in the first part of Ninth Building, some of it rather black, even disturbing, but much also reliant on the innocence of the protagonist and his young buddies (it is the 1960s after all). A wonderful early vignette (“Capturing the Spoon”) describes a night patrol during which the intrepid and enthusiastic guards observe, through a lighted window, a naked couple thrashing around in a bed. Alarmed, they rush to report this obvious, if strange, infraction, but the grown-ups from their compound’s “Attack with Words, Defend with Force” Unit are unmoved by this important information:
Nothing came of our waiting. We’d imagined they’d jump up immediately to stop whatever incorrect action was taking place. This was at the height of the Revolution, and the train we were on had switched to another track. What we’d seem didn’t fit the scenery on this route; red armbands and nakedness didn’t go together. The five of us had three flashlights between us, and for more than half a month now we’d stayed awake night after night, fully alert, wishing something would actually happen. Now something had, but the adults didn’t feel about it the same way we did.
The second and slightly longer part of Ninth Building, “Grains of Sand in the Wind,” opens in 1969 when is Zou sixteen and sent to the Great Northern Waste for “re-education through poverty.” He is one of the millions of “educated youth” sent to work in rural areas and learn from the peasant population. He will not return to the city until after the Revolution comes to an end in 1976. These are years filled with long days of back-breaking labour under harsh conditions, yet no more immune to extended periods of boredom than he knew in Beijing. But here the distractions, apart from the required performances of patriotic operas, were limited to gambling, drinking and practical jokes. Innocence is gone; the underlying tone is now one of resignation. Zou and his peers have come of age in a time when their lives and dreams of the future are suspended:
Youth is a concept whose meaning isn’t easy to grasp. You might as well try to wrap your mind around every era, every event. The word doesn’t really evoke any special memories for me. Perhaps I’ll have to wait till the age when every other sentence begins with “back then” before I truly understand it.
The vignettes set against the vast rural landscape are harsher, with more tragic elements. They are not devoid of humour or eccentric characters, but illness, injury and death feature regularly. Life is cheap. However, poetry and increasingly astute observations are woven into Jingzhi’s anecdotes and tales. As his narrator matures and grows more cynical, he also begins to recognize the seeds of his future as a writer that have been sown during these long years.
The Cultural Revolution was a period of great turmoil during which the power of radicalized youth was harnessed against the Communist Party hierarchy, but as illustrated by Ninth Building, the impact on many young people during this time was marked not by heroism or the glory of conflict, but by years of boredom, dislocation and numbly tedious labour. With its brisk pace and refusal to succumb to despair in spite of the countless temptations, this collection of brief vignettes makes for an entertaining and powerful read.
Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi is translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang and published by Open Letter in North America and Honford Star in the UK.