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Zhang Yueran: 茧 (Cocoon)

Our two main characters/narrators are Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong. We first meet Li Jiaqi when, after a long absence when she returns from Beijing to Jinan. She heads to her grandfather’s house. The old man is being looked after by a carer who seems to be exploiting her position so Li Jiaqi soon fires her and looks after him herself. It is clear that he is dying, which he soon does.

Grandfather, Li Jisheng, had a magnificent house, he was a heart surgeon and had been made a fellow of the university which caused a stir through the whole university. He had subsequently contracted lung cancer which is what killed him. Li Jiaqi had been urged by her cousin Peixuan to visit on many occasions but she had resisted. After his death there is a documentary about him shown on TV, in which Peixuan had been involved.

As she had spent the early years of her life there, Li Jiaqi decides to wander round and, in particular to see if her old schoolfriend, whom she has not seen for many years, is living in the same place. To her surprise he is. He is Cheng Gong. They had not met for eighteen years so he does not recognise her initially. After some hesitation they do meet up and we get their respective stories, told in alternating sections.

Cheng Gong lived with his grandmother and aunt and is still with his aunt, his grandmother having died. Cheng Gong’s father was a nasty man. He got into fights, frequently got drunk – a habit he passed on to his son – and was always in debt and in trouble. Cheng Gong and his mother lived a difficult life. His mother compensates by buying a lot of things – clothes, ornaments and so on. Father only returns late, usually drunk. His violent ways were picked up when he was younger and hung out with the Red Guards and he has continued in the same vein. His mother is also an unpleasant character.

One day his mother walked out and never returned. Cheng Gong is sent to live with his grandmother and aunt. Father is still around but still in debt with money-lenders chasing him. When Cheng Gong’s grandfather goes to hospital he even hides out there. He does pay off his debt – by stealing from a restaurant owner, for which he gets six years in prison.

Cheng Gong goes to the school attached to the university but is shunned because of his family’s reputation. However when he writes an essay which starts My grandfather is a zombie and tells of how his grandfather was injured in the Korean War and the teacher reads it out in class he becomes more popular till it turns out that his injuries were actually caused by being beaten up by the Red Guards.

While we are learning his story, Li Jiaqi is telling hers. As we know, her grandfather had been successful and well-known. However the father rebels against his father. When he was sent to the country during the Cultural Revolution he met an attractive but uneducated woman and married her, to his parents’ disgust as they had selected someone they considered more appropriate. At university, he did not study medicine but literature. Initially he had written poetry but gave it up when the muse abandoned him.

He subsequently went into business with a cousin, which involved selling cheap, poor quality items in Moscow. Jiaqi’s later boyfriend, Tang Hui, whose family were also involved in this business, is highly critical, saying the whole business was deceitful. We initially see her later life, living in Beijing and even sharing a flat with Peixuan for a while. The two are complete opposites and clash. Peixuan goes off to the United States and communication is limited.

It is only later that we learn about the failure of her parents’ marriage, the failure of her father’s business and his death. We do know that she continues to have something of an obsession with her father, even having a brief but unsuccessful fling with a couple of men purely because they had known her father. Tang Hui says of her You’re always linking your father’s life to great historical events, as if that’s the only way to give meaning to his existence. When you can’t find a connection in China, you reach for world history. Why not untie him from the past? Give him a bit of freedom?
Jiaqi and Gong have things in common. Both are alcoholics. Both come from very dysfunctional families. In particular, we gradually learn that there seems to be some secret or secrets which may link the two families, of which we are unaware but also of which our two protagonist are unaware. Of course we gradually get hints as they learn bits and pieces.

Jiaqi is clearly obsessed with her father and more or less admits it: All these years, I’d wanted to find out exactly what kind of person my father was, but the more I found out, the blurrier he got. Each time I got closer, it was another farewell. The father, Li Muyuan, is a complex person who struggles hard not to be his father but, apart from his early days as a poet, cannot seem to find his niche, both as regards his career and his relationships.

The secret(s) which gradually – very gradually – come out essentially severely damage three families and not just once but over three generations, as well as affecting quite a few other characters. Violence, untimely deaths, whole lives disrupted, marriages failing or just not happening when they seemed likely and all-round misery are the result.

Zhang cleverly describes the families, the political background and, in particular their various flaws, including those of our two protagonists who are no saints but she especially expertly builds up the tension as we gradually learn the hidden secrets and how they have scarred so many people.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by People’s Literature Publishing House
First English translation in 2022 by World Editions
Translated by Jeremy Tiang