Trees Without Wind

  • Li Rui, translated by John Balcom
  • Columbia University Press
  • 208 pp.

First published in 1996 in China, this novel is a spare, elegant and daring satire of the Cultural Revolution.

Read our interview with John Balcom, the books’ English translator.

Some of the world’s greatest literature comes from examining humankind’s darkest deeds. We need literature to help make sense of the dehumanizing brutality and depthless depravity that lurks in the human soul. For the People’s Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), an era of senseless persecutions, anarchic disorder and mass hysteria, is a warning and a rebuke that haunts many of today’s greatest Chinese-born writers. From Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian to Chinese-born-but-writes-in-English bestseller Anchee Min, the Cultural Revolution is the grit around which lustrous pearls are formed. 

Published in 1996, only 20 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution (and five years after Tiananmen), Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind is available in English for the first time from Columbia University Press’ Weatherhead Books on Asia series. Written in Chinese, for a Chinese audience, subject to the wary and censorious eye of the Communist regime, the book offers an authenticity that distinguishes it from novels like Ha Jin’s Waiting or Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, both published outside of China in languages other than Chinese. 

Maintaining the straightforward language and linear plot of traditional Chinese literature, the simple tale of Trees Without Wind takes place over a matter of a few days in November 1969, in a rural village in Shanxi province called Stunted Flats. However, this is not your Uncle Mao’s socialist utopian novel. Narrating in stream-of-consciousness from multiple viewpoints, including a donkey and a deaf mute, Li Rui emerges as a bold literary voice after decades of dull, earnest proletarian stories. 

The villagers of Stunted Flats are afflicted with Kashin-Beck disease, a mysterious malady that occurs only in China, Tibet and parts of Siberia. The author does not delve into the specifics of the disease or its effects, other than to note that those who suffer from it are extremely short and are regarded as cripples. Standing, they reach a normally statured person’s waist, and must crane their necks to look up at faces (“When I talk with you guys, I have to keep my head raised till my neck hurts.”). Three of the characters were not born in the village, and so are of normal height: Commune Director Liu, who sweeps into the village every so often to “pass on the official documents”; Kugen’r, a Red Guard who has volunteered to bring his revolutionary ardor to “the farthest black dot on the map”; and a woman named Nuanyu. For the price of some noodles, a bag of corn and a donkey for her starving family, Nuanyu was bought to serve as a sexual partner for the unmarried men of the village (though during the course of the story, she seems to sleep only with Director Liu and Tianzhu, a villager who is “head of the production team”). During the Chinese Revolution, Japanese invaders slaughtered the women of the village, and since then “all the village men, young and old, are poor bachelors.” The only two married men in the story, Tianzhu and Director Liu, are both in love with Nuanyu. The story shows what happens when Liu plots to divorce his wife so he can marry Nuanyu.

Completing this love rectangle is Uncle Gimpy, a kindly older man who, because his family used to be landowners, is the designated class enemy of the village, brought out at every struggle session to be criticized and vilified. He also loves Nuanyu, but in a less covetous and proprietary way than Director Liu and Tianzhu. 

Kugen’r, who imagines himself as “son of the Party” and “the successor of the revolution,” despises Director Liu for his lack of commitment to Maoist ideals, class struggle and Party loyalty. Acting in his capacity as “head of the political team,” he and Tianzhu confront Uncle Gimpy, asking him to confess to an improper relationship with Nuanyu. Knowing the accusation is not true, Tianzhu nevertheless urges Uncle Gimpy to go along with it, as Director Liu will then be ousted for “confusing class ranks” by sleeping with a woman who has slept with a rich peasant, and won’t be able to take Nuanyu away. In response to Uncle Gimpy’s refusal to insult Nuanyu, Kugen’r threatens to “mobilize the dictatorship of the proletariat … and convene a mass struggle meeting to struggle against you!” Uncle Gimpy chooses to resolve his quandary in the only way left for him. “In the final moment of his life, Uncle Gimpy summed up the world with one word, which was actually the sound made when the stool he had used for so many years tipped over: clunk.”

Though the helpful preface by the translator, John Balcom, does not classify it as such, Trees Without Wind is a satire, peeling away the lofty ideals of the proletarian movement to reveal the baseness of people’s motives. The stunted peasants cannot talk to their Communist party overseers without crooking their necks until they hurt. The Red Guard Kugen’r is the only character whose story is not told in the first person because “from the very day he arrived in Stunted Flats, he decided to make his novel and his diary one and the same.” What need have we for truth if we can make everyone believe the fiction? Director Liu covets the communal property of the village, Nuanyu, and plots to take her away, all for himself.

Elegant and spare, Trees Without Wind is a valuable, authentic work that lays bare the corruption of the Cultural Revolution. A wonder that it was ever approved for publication in China, it is our good fortune that it is now available in English.

Alice Stephens is a regular contributor to The Independent.

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