Blood is donated in Taiwan, as it is in Western democracies. But in China in the 1950s, when the bulk of this grimly farcical novel is set, it was sold, at a series of blood-plasma collection stations in public hospitals. We now know that the particular way this was done led to the widespread contamination of blood reserves with the HIV virus in the 1990s. This tragedy doesn't feature in Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, which was published in Chinese in 1995 and is this month appearing for the first time in English. Nonetheless, the horrors of this scheme are the book's main subject.
Xu Sanguan is a worker in a silk factory, though before long he's also working at smelting iron under Chairman Mao's orders for the establishment of back-yard foundries. He's married to Xu Yulan and they have three sons, Yile ("first joy"), Erle ("second joy") and Sanle ("third joy"). The last two look just like Xu Sanguan, but strangely Yile doesn't resemble him at all. Soon the truth comes out -- Yile's father is a neighbor with whom Xu Yulan briefly lost control of herself in what she calls a moment of madness.
To begin with, Xu Sanguan refuses to have anything to do with the boy. When at school he beats a classmate almost to death with a rock, Xu refuses to pay the hospital bill and instead insists the boy's real (or "blood") father should do so. But then gradually a bond begins to grow between them. By the end of the book, helping Yile -- and in fact saving his life -- becomes the driving force behind Xu Sanguan's existence. As with Bloom and Stephen in James Joyce's Ulysses, the older man acquires a spiritual son almost in spite of himself.
Stark poverty stands behind most of this story. Following the Great Leap Forward of 1958, famine ensued in much of China, and for many people selling their blood was one of the few available ways to survive. It so happens that this novel has a happy ending, with both father and son living into less impoverished times. But even so the situation of a family subsisting on corn gruel for months on end is the gaunt background to most of the tale.
And yet it remains a comedy, albeit one of a bitterly absurdist kind. The survival of most of this group of low-life characters is actually a heroic one, a testimony to their resilience and stubbornness. Like a bunch of Charlie Chaplins, they're knocked this way and that, barely understanding what's hit them, but carrying on despite everything. Just as the big guys constantly push Chaplin aside, so fate deals these characters a string of hard blows. But, like clowns in all eras, they get up again, dust themselves off, and carry on as best they can with their lives.
Other parallels that come to mind are the knock-about 18th century novels of the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett, and the antics of the traditional Italian theater known as commedia dell'arte. Speeches are short and to the point, action is fast and unrelenting. No one is defeated for long, and the guys who do the pushing remain abstract caricatures, suggesting that life will always be like this and that the forces that make it are beyond imagination, and so beyond understanding.
Nevertheless, some things are understood. The real cause of the long line of tragedies is actually Chairman Mao and his policies. He's mentioned a few times in the narrative though not explicitly blamed. The political forces exerting pressure on this novel are hazy at best, though by the 1990s a lot could be said that couldn't be said earlier. And of course the largely happy outcome is not without its political dimensions either.