Title: Naked Earth
Author: Eileen Chang (translated by author)
Published by: NYRB Classics
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public library
Content warning: Murder, state brutality (physical and mental), forced imprisonment, sexual harassment, death (by illegal abortion complications)
“After leaving the Mainland for Hong Kong in 1952, Eileen Chang was commissioned by the United States Information Service to write two books, one of which was her magnificent novel Naked Earth. Far from being a simplistic exercise in anti-Communist propaganda (two previous novels Chang wrote were pro-Communist), Naked Earth is a powerfully moving, Balzacian tale that follows two young student cadres, Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan, who fall in love during a time when, as Chang writes, “the whole country lay stretched out like an open palm, ready to close around any one person at any minute.” Mao’s land reform movement is in full force when Liu and Su Nan arrive at a farm to help the peasants take over the fields. The work is hard, the nights long, and spies abound. Liu is eventually imprisoned by his enemies and sent to fight on the Korean front. But both Liu and Su Nan harbor festering secrets that are pulling them apart. A romance, a thrilling drama, a tragedy, Naked Earth is a stunning work of twentieth-century fiction by one of China’s most revered modern novelists.” (Source)
For some reason I keep opening books by Eileen Chang and expecting a happy ending. Don’t do that unless you want your heart broken.
The tone and writing style of Naked Earth is very similar to Half a Lifelong Romance. Whereas Half a Lifelong Romance is more of a family saga and a story of young love, Naked Earth is a story of young love and a totalitarian state. The two are interdependent though and Chang weaves them together in order to examine the brutality of the Chinese cultural revolution.
I found Naked Earth a much more difficult read and more along the lines of Human Acts by Han Kang in how Chang depicts state brutality and control. In Half a Lifelong Romance, tensions centre around family and work, the differences between personal and familial desires, and the difficulty of working in state controlled industries. The title Naked Earth is incredibly apt as Chang strips open the mundane violence of the everyday. This is a story of the decisions people make, willingly as they preach the powers of the regime, and passively as they try to get through life without winding up in prison or executed. The violence is even more shocking by the banality of it. And in the centre of this is a story of young love between Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan, two young students who are sent to the countryside as part of land reform.
The opening of the book with Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan’s relationship on their way out to the countryside and their arrival in a small village, almost imbues the book with a small sense of hope and optimism. I knew what was going to happen, but Chang’s writing of the tenderness of relationships lulled me into a sense of false security. It’s the juxtaposition between Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan’s budding relationship and the actions of the Communist government that allows the blooming brutality to dig deeper into the reader. It’s a slow moving blight across the fields and an illness through the streets of the city. You don’t expect it but suddenly it’s everywhere, a fevered adoration of the regime and passive acceptance in order to stay alive. And slowly, Chang allows the regime to separate and wound the young lovers.
Again, this is not a happy ending. All the promises of young love don’t actually mean that the flower gets to fully mature. Eileen Chang is an author I keep coming back to and plan on reading all of her work one day, even though each book emotionally hurts me. This is one of her major strengths though, the ability to score a story open and reveal what lies beneath the earth.