Yu Hua is a literary legend in China ,and in 2002 he became the first Chinese writer to win the prestigious James Joyce Award. His novels To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant have been named as two of the top ten most influential books in China during the last decade. In Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, the people of China are under the reign of Chairman Mao, and Hua presents an unflinching portrait of life for the Chinese during Chairman Mao’s reign.
Xu Sanguan is your typical Chinese factory worker and the protagonist in Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. Xu Sanguan works in a silk factory, where he pushes a cart and distributes silk worms to the other factory workers. Similar to the jobs of others, his is not well-paying and the work is tedious. However, Xu Sanguan has no other options to make money, and he has to make a living to survive. While he works at the factory, Xu Yulan, a pretty young woman who sells fried dough on the street, catches his eye. Xu Yulan is known as the “Fried Dough Queen” for her beauty and vivacious nature. Although Xu Yulan is being courted by another man, Xe Xiaoyong, Xu Sanguan convinces Xu Yulan’s father to agree to a marriage between Xu Yulan and Xu Sanguan.
Years later, Xu Sanguan and Xu Yulan are well into their marriage and they have three sons, Yile, Erle and Sanle. Xu Sanguan’s expanded family puts increased demands upon him to provide food and shelter. His increased obligations and his country’s Cultural Revolution press against him as he struggles to provide food and shelter for his family. Xu Sanguan decides to visit the “blood chief” at the local hospital, where he sells his blood for an amount of money that is much greater than his meager pay at the silk factory. Selling blood is a potentially lethal proposition, but Xu Sanguan feels forced to take this risk in order to support his family.
Over the years, Xu Sanguan’s family continues to have their normal needs for food and shelter, but a famine strikes their country and Xu Sanguan once again is forced to sell blood. His family is starving and they rise only twice day from their beds to consume watery rations of corn gruel. While Xu Sanguan sells his blood to take his family out for a proper meal, he refuses to allow Yile to join them. Yile is the eldest son, but it is determined that Yile is a bastard. Yile’s real father is Xe Xiaoyong, the man who was courting Xu Yulan shortly before Xu Yulan’s marriage to Xu Sanguan. Xu Sanguan’s sense of honor is crushed when he learns that he is a “cuckold” for raising a bastard for over nine years. The dynamics of the family continue to change throughout the novel. Xu Sanguan, Xu Yulan and the three sons struggle to survive throughout their country’s turbulent changes. Xu Sanguan’s relationship with Yile is tested and changes over time. Xu Sanguan risks his own life to save Yile and comes to learn that “blood money” will not only pay debts, it will forgive them, too.
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is emotionally intense and provides the reader with a gripping view of reality for the Chinese and their struggle to survive during their country’s upheaval and changes. In a society that has learned to be circumspect, hostile and is impoverished, author Yu Hua provides an intense backdrop for a heartfelt, intense story of a common Chinese family’s survival and growth. While the reviewer suspects that some of Yu Hua’s literary talents were unable to be “carried over” in the translation of Chronicle of a Blood Merchant from Chinese to English, the book is engrossing and clearly is another literary achievement for Yu Hua.