Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

ethnic china

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

One of the best Chinese novels of the 20th century. Without the apparent search for big ideas, it seduces the reader by its simplicity, and ends up entangling him in its plot.

Chronicle of a blood seller, in reality, it is only partly that chronicle, as its Chinese title shows: «Xu Sanguan sells blood» because the story is that of Xu Sanguan, an orphan peasant who at a very early age learns from two neighbors the economic possibilities that selling blood can bring, and in the most desperate moments of his existence resorts to this activity to get ahead.

The story of Xu Sanguan goes from the first time he sells blood and gets the money to marry the beautiful Xu Yulan, until he tries to sell blood for the last time at the age of 60. In between, a lifetime and the entire history of China from 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Xu Sanguan marries Xu Yulan and they have three children. When the eldest, the most beloved by the father, turns 9 years old, rumors begin to be heard that he resembles Mr. He, a former suitor of Xu Yulan. Overwhelmed by the continuous rumors and accusations Xu Yulan confesses that He forced himself on her after severing their relationship and that the eldest son may indeed be his son. Much of the novel describes the contradiction of discovering that his beloved son is not from his same blood, and in an environment where the family income is barely enough for the survival of each member of the family, the contradiction takes on an incomprehensible character with the demand to his natural father to take care of the expenses caused by a child’s fight.

These small family dramas are overwhelmed when the family is immersed in the great tragedies that shook the whole country. The first, the great famine of the Great Leap Forward, is barely overcome by making the greatest economies, rigorous rationing of the last food, and at the end of all, the income generated by a new sale of Xu Sangguan’s blood.

The insanity of the Cultural Revolution hit them full force when an anonymous accusation claimed that Xu Yulan was a prostitute. Since then, and for months, she becomes a necessary companion in all the sessions of reeducation of some «enemies of the people» of more than dubious danger. The first part of chaos only gives way to the march to the camp of the young people.

Yu Hua does not have to say anything to show Mao as the master of the life or death of every person in China:

“In the end, Chairman Mao spoke. He spoke every day. He said, «The struggle must be verbal, not armed.» That’s how everybody put down their knives and sticks. Chairman Mao said, «The revolution must be made by going back to class.» That’s how Yile, Erle, and Sanle went to school with their briefcases over their shoulders, and classes resumed. Chairman Mao said, «We must devote ourselves to the revolution by increasing production.» So it was that Xu Sanguan returned to daily work in the silk factory, and Xu Yulan in the frying shop.”

And the efforts to alleviate the precarious situation of his two eldest sons in their respective work units show how favoritism and corruption were as important in that era as at any other time in Chinese history. In the end, the resilience of Xu Sanguan and his entire family will be tested once again before reaching the end of the novel. 

The novel presents the reader, both the Chinese cosmopolitan and the Westerner, with a description of a society that is not idealized. In a precarious balance to ensure their own survival and that of their loved ones, each one is both sender and receiver of misery and tenderness. There are times when there is room for tenderness, others when all love is excluded. The difficult contradiction in which the relationship between father and son moves during a large part of the novel presents us again with the crudeness of some situations as they were only a few decades ago.

Although Yu Hua adopts a chronological narrative strategy, downplaying the importance of history as shown by the fact that there is no mention of politics before the Great Leap Forward, history is decisive in shaping what his life will be like. And in fact, the blood sales that mark as milestones the most difficult moments in Xu Sanguan’s life, accelerate with the Cultural Revolution, where successive crises make him become a continuous donor, an activity that only ceases when he himself needs to pay for the blood of others.

For some critics, this is one of the 20 best novels of the 20th century. I don’t usually realize if a novel really stands out among other readings until years later, when its trace, possibly distorted, is still there, with a sweet, or bitter, aftertaste in my memory.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua," in Ethnic China, 27 mayo 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/chronicle-of-a-blood-merchant-by-yu-hua/.

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