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Dong Xi: 后悔录 (Record of Regret)

(Note that the book writes the names in conventional Chinese order, i.e. surname first, first name second so I shall follow suit. Our hero, Ceng Guangxian, therefore has the surname Ceng and first name Guangxian.)

The book starts during the Cultural Revolution. Ceng Guangxian is descended from a capitalist family. His grandfather sold Western medicines and was quite well-off. However, his warehouse is now where not only the Ceng family live (Guangxian, his younger sister, Fang, and their parents Ceng Changfeng (father) and Wu Sheng (mother)) live) but also the Zhao family (Laoshi, former servant of the Ceng family, his wife Chen Baixiu and their adult children, Shanhe and Wannian, the latter headmaster of the school Guangxian and Fang attend) and the Yu family (their son Bajjia is Guangxian’s friend).

The book starts with some of the residents having a good laugh at two dogs copulating and unable to physically separate. Dong Xi gives this simple event multiple roles. Firstly, he points out that the only thing people could look forward to was a good laugh, as there was no money around. Then Zhao Wannian berates them for immoral behaviour, showing the strict moral code that the authorities have to follow, even though the people do not always follow it. It is Guangxian, always willing to kowtow to authority, who gives Zhao a stick to beat the dogs. The dogs then run away but only into the road where they are killed by a bus. This casual cruelty is pretty well ignored. Ceng Changfeng wants to use them as meat but his wife and son object strongly, showing early on the disagreements between husband and wife and father and son. Finally, Wu Sheng, who works at the local zoo, takes them to the zoo to feed to the tigers. She gives a graphic description of how they eat them, which is again relevant for later events in the novel.

The three families live in the warehouse. However, it is fairly open so all of them can not only hear the others but often see them. Guangxian, for example, hears his parents rowing the whole time, not least because Wu Sheng refuses to have sex with her husband. When Zhao Wannian finds that his sister has received a love letter, he suspects Ceng Changfeng and calls on Guangxian, to spy on his father, which he does. Guangxian sees his father in bed with Zhao Shanhe. He tells Zhao Wannian, who has Ceng Changfeng arrested. It is only the intervention of Zhao Laoshi, who berates his son, that gets Ceng Changfeng released, though he is not in good shape. Things get worse, primarily because Guangxian cannot keep his mouth shut.

Guangxian continues to make poor choices, particularly as regards the opposite sex. His father has recommended to him that if he feels uncontrollable lust for a woman, he should simply masturbate. Indeed, Guangxian makes this recommendation to others. Neither of them follows the advice. Guangxian is propositioned by a woman, leads her on, rejects her and then falls in love with her and messes up his own life and hers because of this. Later, he will pursue another woman and is accused (probably incorrectly) of raping her and goes to prison for it. He comments I’d always thought that female and male relations were somehow unnatural, which is perhaps more a realisation of his inability in this areas than his real views.

However, it is not just with sex that he makes a mess of his life and, more particularly, the life of others. His big mouth gets him and others in to trouble, so much so that his mother had taken him to a spiritual healer, who can, allegedly, cure this fault. The cure does not work.

It is certainly most interesting to read a novel set in the Cultural Revolution and to see that, while life was hard, people or, at least, some people managed to get by without having to compromise themselves too much. However, what makes this novel is Guangxian.

Guangxian is a complex character. His actions cause much harm, both to himself and to others. However, he is not evil or even wicked. A great deal of his failing can best be described as stupidity or, to explain it in a more complex way, he does not seem to realise the consequences of his actions, he is unable to control his basic lusts, he cannot keep his mouth shut and has little understanding for the feelings of others.

This book is certainly, to a degree, a satire but it is not your conventional satire. Guangxian is not, for example, a Schweik or an Ignatius J Reilly, comic characters, who may have some of Guangxian’s characteristics, but are essentially figures of fun. We laugh with them or at them, or both. Occasionally, we may laugh at Guangxian but, on the whole, we feel both surprised and concerned at his stupidity. It is Dong Xi’s skill to produce a character who could easily be simply a figure of fun but is, in fact, much more. The end of the book – quite a few pages – consists of Guangxian listing all his errors in the form of If I hadn’t done x, then y would not have happened.

Doubtless we all have what ifs in our lives but Guangxian certainly seems to have more than most. Despite being close to marrying three different women, nothing works out for him either with the opposite sex or, indeed, much else, mostly because of his poor decision-making. As he says at the end I still didn’t understand women.

I very much enjoyed this book, not least because Dong Xi is clearly an excellent writer and was able to portray the errors of Guangxian’s ways and the effects of the Cultural Revolution. By the end of the book, the Cultural Revolution is ore or less over but Guangxian has not improved. The book is in the form of a narration to another person, though we only learn who that person is right at the end. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the person is unconscious throughout the narration.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Jiang su wen yi chu ban she
First English translation by University of Oklahoma Press in 2018