The Poetics of Pain and Return: Zou Jingzhi’s “Ninth Building,” Translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

By Chialan Sharon Wang

Ninth Building (jiudong) is a collection of essays Zou Jingzhi began writing in 1996 after the titular building where he grew up was demolished and replaced by a new one. The collection was published in 2010 and translated into English by Jeremy Tiang in 2022. As a memoir, the essays document Zou’s childhood and adolescence during the Cultural Revolution. The heterogeneous subjects explored in the book are divided into two parts. Part One, “Ninth Building,” has sixteen essays depicting a child’s dreamlike, harrowing, and confused impressions about death, disease, departure, and denouncement rallies during the Revolution. Part Two, “Grains of Sand in the Wind,” contains twenty-eight essays that record a young man’s experience and observation of life in the Great Northern Waste, China’s northeast borderlands, as well as the Henan Province during the “Down to the Countryside Movement.” The movement was a campaign that sent educated urban youth to remote rural areas to engage in labor activities to appreciate the humble soil and the hard life of peasants. The collection is bookended with an introduction (which has a subtitle in the original Chinese version, “A Record of Looking for Myself, 寻己录) and ten poems set in the location of northern China.

The mesmerizing power of Ninth Building comes from the mixture of the quotidian, run-of-the-mill activities humans undertake and the violent, absurd practices promoted by political propaganda during the Revolution. Described from a passive, observant, sometimes sarcastic perspective, suicide, beatings, permanently damaging diseases, fatal accidents, and pangs of loss, guilt, and regret bleed into the mundane activities of a child playing, card games, pranks, harvest, lumber, brigade duties, and composing and performing music. The sheer brutality of the political catastrophe is detailed: Red Guards and children modeling themselves after the Red Guards publicly humiliate and torture their teachers, parents, the neighborhood elderly, and those that are arbitrarily labeled as the capitalist class. Such brutality is recalled as the backdrops of the narrator’s (in both the child and adult versions) navigation of friendship, communal relationship, and comradeship.

In both parts of the book, the narrator maintains an ambivalent relationship with political violence. He joins other children to purchase Red Guard armbands and reports his and his friends’ suspicions about adults in their neighborhood to party cadres. He rehearses Maoist slogans and catchphrases that remind him to be ideologically correct, only to break down emotionally at the thought of the relentless abuse of the innocent. As a witness to lives wrecked or taken by the Cultural Revolution, he offers audience to the bereaved and traumatized who are left in confusion or stunting pain. In Part Two, the young man reaching his adulthood mired in hard labor in rural areas tells stories about nonsensical episodes and individuals he came to know, painting a more cynical and ironic picture of modern China’s political frenzy. In “A Basin,” for example, after having participated in a group effort to extinguish a fire at a distillery with plastic basins, the narrator doubts the shallow heroism, “[A]fterwards, there were many things I could no longer look at so innocently. Unexpected words appeared out of nowhere, shattering the passion and certainty of my sixteen-year-old self” (88). From this point on, the narrator’s sentiments of lament, sorrow, misgivings, and disaffection grow stronger.

Perhaps the scenarios where the mixture of the quotidian and the calamitous delivers the most poignant portrayal of violence are those where the relationship between humans and animals is foregrounded. Across the essays, chickens, birds, cows, dogs, and horses constitute and contribute to the bewilderment, shock, and resignation about the aftermath of the Revolution. The animals’ vulnerability to human abuse and nature’s cruelty plays out in the macabre connections across species. Their fate is intertwined with the pain and whims of a suffering and embittered humanity. In “Specimens,” the narrator’s friend’s younger sister is found dead, like “a tiny dried-out corpse” (22), an image reminding one of his specimen collections. In “Springtime,” a boy’s treasured newborn bird leaves the narrator wondering, “If you were to fling this bird into the air, it would fall and shatter like a clod of earth. Why not throw it? When it actually does die it won’t shatter like that” (39). The description of birth and growth among fauna and flora in the springtime ends with the neighborhood elderly woman, Granny Zhang, being beaten by a freshly plucked willow branch. In “Chicken Blood,” Zou’s rooster is a cockfighter whose blood is drawn and used as a potential cure for his neighbor’s chronic diarrhea. In “Blister Beetle,” another sent-down youth, Horseface, ingests a bug so his bloody urine can result in a medical discharge from the Northern Great Waste. In “Lumber,” a chopped pine tree falls on and kills a grazing bull, “one of its eyes [having] fallen out onto the snow” (132), before it is dragged back to the brigade, presumably to be eaten. In “Auntie Xin,” the local woman in Ruyang, Henan, screams tirades about her poisoned dog, who dies slowly while standing in a stream watched by a crowd. The objectification of the animal reflects the disposability of human life. As a receptacle of human emotions, the animals are fetishized as emotional consolation, treated as stand-ins for the victims and culprits of human tragedies, and lamented as an embodiment of the unforeseeable mishaps of life. Depicted in a matter-of-fact tone, animals are coddled and tormented: raised, beaten, force-fed, kept in captivity, killed, and consumed. Human beings are compared to live or dead animals as objects of contingency. The animal becomes a metaphor of the humans’ silent submission to arbitrary and relentless torture.

Zou’s collection of essays gives a literal expression to the term “nostalgia,” which designates the “pain of returning.” The suffering in recollecting the ten years of catastrophe is articulated as strongly as a transfixion by the past. As if still trying to make sense of the past, Zou recounts feelings of the moment and his strenuous comprehension and reconciliation of the absurd in the present. Faithful to the Chinese original, Tiang’s translation is as transparent and literal as the original text. In line with Zou’s language of candidness and straightforwardness, the translation reiterates the dispassionate yet melancholic sentiments articulated in the plain description of occurrences with precision. The challenges of translating Zou’s work lie in the combination of the vernacular, philosophical, and poetic languages and idiomatic expressions that can be hard to convey in translation. Tiang manages to achieve clarity and nuances. For instance, the chapter title, “Tanxin” 谈心 (talking heart), an act of divulging one’s thoughts and feelings, is translated into “Heart-to-Heart.” The phrase seamlessly transitions into Zou’s play on words with “tan ganhuo” 谈肝火 (talking liver fire) and “tan piqi” 谈脾气 (talking spleen air), which Tiang translates as “spleen-to-spleen” and “gall-to-gall” (151)—when a female comrade’s attempt to have a heart-to-heart chat with the narrator derails into her patronizing lecture. In another case, Tiang emphasizes symbolic connotations by translating the chapter title, “Kangbao 扛包” (carrying sacks), into “Burden.” The chapter details the exhausting task of carrying sacks of grain during the harvest to unload them into the silo. It ends with a sack-carrying competition among the educated youth to decide who would return to college. The English title underscores both the heroism in shouldering the responsibility for a socialist future and the youths’ fatigue and resentment about the sent-down movement.

Zou started to write vignettes of his memory of the Cultural Revolution in the 1990s, a time in which literature and photo exhibitions celebrated the memory of zhiqing, the educated youth in the sent-down movement. The wave of nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution in the ‘90s, a diametrical contrast to the suffering and deprivation depicted in the Scar Literature in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is characterized by scholars as cultural resistance, identity formation, and memory negotiation of the zhiqing generation as a reaction to the rapidly changing values in China’s market economy (Yang 2003[1]; Davies 2005[2]). In the “Introduction,” Zou expresses a similar anxiety about atomization and alienation: “When I’m around too many people, I lose myself. In an unfamiliar city, among crowds of strangers, I keep having to stand still—not to ask directions, but to find myself” (ix). The collection of essays, however, demonstrates neither reaffirmation of the combatant social values nor an intent to reconstruct a whole, unified selfhood. Its equivocality expresses much subtler and troubled emotions about the Revolution.

 Zou, Jingzhi. Ninth Building. Translated by Jeremy Tiang. Open Letter Books, 2023.

Chialan Sharon Wang is visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College. Her research interests include Sinophone literature and film and postcolonial studies. 

[1] Yang, Guobin. “China’s Zhiqing Generation: Nostalgia, Identity, and Cultural Resistance in the 1990s, “Modern China, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 2003), pp. 267-296.

[2] Davies David J. “Old Zhiqing Photos: Nostalgia and the ‘Spirit’ of the Cultural Revolution.” China Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Special Issue on: Collective Memories of the Cultural Revolution (Fall 2005), pp. 97-123.

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