Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 18 News List

A tale of the Three Gorges Dam project

`Peacock Cries' by Hong Ying is an insider's view of today's China, from a psychological, political and even spiritual angle

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Peacock Cries
By Hong Ying
341 pages
Marion Boyars publishers

This is the paperback edition of the latest novel by China-born Hong Ying, the young author whose K: The Art of Love, featuring Bloomsbury Group off-shoot Julian Bell's life and loves in 1930s China, was reviewed in Taipei Times on Nov. 21, last year.

Though Hong Ying now spends much of her year in London, Peacock Cries is a unique insider's view of modern China, on psychological, political and even spiritual levels. Set in the context of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam project, its doubts and general angst rumble on until the closing pages, which then finally offer some possibility for peace.

The female narrator, a high-flying geneticist, leads a privileged life, but she also has a troubled marriage to dam project director Li Lusheng. His massive responsibilities provide headaches to accompany his status. Besides the technical aspects of the project -- electricity generation, flood and subsidence prevention -- his remit is also to organize resettlement funds for communities whose homes are to be lost as a result of the flooding of the Yangtze. He is therefore not only a man with little time to spare, he's also more than usually dependent on his wife's support, including her presence at banquets and prestigious conferences.

Initially suspicious of her husband, the narrator disdainfully endures the deference and protocol-observation required by the cadres as she takes in their propaganda in a state of silent disenchantment.

Once in Liang County, site of the project, she notes the contrast between the Old City and the New City, the one filthy and ramshackle, the other modern, pristine and sanitized. Taking in the volume of garbage, much of it already in the Yangtze -- the floating plastic and chunks of foam, even the occasional discarded mattress -- she imagines how much more there will be when the reservoir is finished, and how long it'll remain there before it finds its way to the sea. Feeling that her husband should have done something about this before proclaiming his much vaunted "environmentally friendly beautification" policy, her sense that things in life are not always what they seem starts to seep into every aspect of the book.

The rumor, for instance, that certain officials have been lining their pockets with embezzled dam project funds serves to transform her personal mistrust, plus her insecurity about the future of her marriage, into something more universal -- outrage at the fate of the people whose lives are to undergo such a radical upheaval.

An overnight stay with her mother then yields vital insights into elements of her past. She learns that her mother and Auntie Chen, a family friend, gave birth at around the same time, just as a notorious prostitute, Red Lotus, was found in the act of fornication with a monk and both were executed. Auntie Chen's son, Yueming, is nowadays struggling to make a living as an artist, but his main source of income comes from producing formulaic paintings for the tourist market, whereas his other work, which he does secretly and purely for love, impresses the narrator with its genuine artistic vitality. She experiences a moment of revelation when it strikes her that the executed lovers have perhaps been reincarnated as herself and Yueming.

They meet again, at a time when Yueming is trying to present a petition to an official about provision for the education of resettled families. The animated crowd grows more vocal and before they know it everyone involved is placed under arrest. It's at this point that the narrator's anger finds a new purpose. Now aroused and furious, she demands to know the officials' definition of "troublemakers" and their grounds for beating up such supposed miscreants. When she discovers that the police cell that held them overnight was the same place where the doomed lovers were incarcerated a generation before, she feels there's an even stronger bond between her and Auntie Chen's family.

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