Short Stories on Unspoken Chinese Perspectives

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 10. Books (2), Shanghai by Yuka Niwa1 Comment

The Dog: Stories By Jack Livings

In ‘The Dog: Stories,’ Jack Living writes short stories that revolve around characters who are thriving in the quickly modernizing China. The book consists of eight different short stories, each of which is independent of each other and allow the reader to obtain a visceral understanding of the character’s life, circumstances, and even thought processes behind their actions. However, there are two that specifically stand out and contributed to my understanding and experience of studying away in Shanghai.

The first story ‘The Dog’ is about Li Yan and Chen Wei, a couple in Beijing. The husband, Chen Wei, is from the countryside whose customs are different and strange even to his wife who is from just outside of Beijing and it shows in Chen Wei’s behavior when he is with his family. “She knew he was ashamed of his family’s rough manners, their rugged faces, and wide brown fee.” Chen Wei has invested in a racing dog with his cousin Zheng who is known for making bad decisions. However, Chen Wei’s personality is more submissive in comparison to his cousin who is the dominant person in his family. When Li Yan first discovers that the dog is going to be eaten, she suggests to Chen Wei that they could sell the dog to a foreigner, however, her idea is dismissed not only by Chen Wei but also by her own father. “Her comment did not register with the two men.” Additionally, when Li Yan steps in between Zheng and Chen Wei when they are about to butcher the dog, Li Yan is forced to cook for Chen Wei’s entire family and then is punished by her husband when she fails to make a delicious meal. Jack Living’s short story ‘The Dog’ perfectly encaptures the social status of women in Chinese society, whether it is as a daughter or as a wife, as this is a topic that is not widely talked about. Additionally, coincidentally after reading this short story, there was a recent news article about how a someone smashed a greyhound to death after it had lost a race and I found that this story helped me to view the news article through a different lens.

In “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” Livings depicts the strength of China’s political hold on its people. The protagonist, Zhou, is tasked with creating an enormous crystal sarcophagus for the recently deceased Chairman Mao and has to do so within ten months. Zhou tells his boss that it is impossible for such a huge task to be completed in such a short amount of time, however, he still obediently accepts the impossible task, saying that he is “honored to serve” as he leads his team. Simultaneously, Zhou’s wife Lan Baiyu is extremely sick with cancer and must stay in the hospital. However, Zhou’s work for Chairman Mao and the Party is much more important, and he is unable to visit. ““The Party outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic. This knowledge was as essential to those in the room as the marrow in their bones. The Party was their water, their food, their thoughts.” As Zhou’s work on the impossible crystal sarcophagus fails as he had predicted before, even though his wife is dying, she still encourages him to continue his hard work. This kind of dedication and belief towards the government is apparent in Living’s story and is also an invisible mindset that occasionally surfaces in Chinese society.

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  1. Hi Yuka Niwa,

    I really enjoy reading your piece on this book. At first glance, I almost laughed at the title of the book. In Chinese, ‘dog’ could be a negative adjective. When you say someone is like ‘dog’, usually it is an insult to them. However, after reading what you say about this book, I realize it has much more intellectual content in it. I certainly can relate the stereotype of female social status in China, even till now traditional couples want to have boys more than girls. But on the opposite, that also means the standard for the male is also too high since to be a considerably successful man, one has to meet certain criteria. The second chapter about the Party is also very true during that era. It is almost scary to imagine how influential those ideas are to us without us noticing.

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