The Comical and the Tragic in Liu Zhenyun’s Novel «Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland»

UDC 821.581
Publication date: 19.03.2024
International Journal of Professional Science №3-1-2024

The Comical and the Tragic in Liu Zhenyun’s Novel «Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland»

Sidorenko Andrei,
PhD in Philology, Dept. of Chinese Philology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies,
St. Petersburg State University
Abstract: The article considers the comical and tragic contents in the novel "Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland" by a prominent Chinese author Liu Zhenyun. The comical and the tragic are the two basic literary categories that form our outlook on the contents of a literary work. It is concluded that the two categories form a viable foundation for the re-evaluation of the value guidances of Socialist Realism. Moreover, the two categories serve as a basis for the literary interpretation of both history and reality in Liu Zhenyun’s early fiction as exemplified by the novel discussed in the article.
Keywords: Chinese Literature, Liu Zhenyun, new historical fiction, Tragic, comical


The novel «Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland» consists of four parts, arranged in chronological order, the action of which takes place in different periods of the 20th century. The main driving force behind the development of the action in the novel is the struggle between the two clans Sun and Li for power and dominance in the village. Chinese researchers place Liu Zhenyun’s novel on par with the novels «The Ancient Ship» by Zhang Wei and «White Deer Plain» by Chen Zhongshi. With these works, Liu Zhenyun’s novel unites a kind of «rebellion» against the traditional approach to history in literature [6, p. 18]. Liu Zhenyun takes “revolutionary history” from the plane of ideology and passes it through the filter of realism, using his own writing style [7, p. 122].


Comical in the Novel

If we roughly apply the concept of «value guidance» as a research tool, then in Liu Zhenyun’s novel «Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland», in contrast to the previous stage, anti-values ​​and anti-value attitudes generally prevail. Liu Zhenyun denounces rather than praises. Nevertheless, separate attitudes towards identification with characters are present. For example, at the very beginning of the third part of the novel there is an episode where a landowner showed generosity to a farm laborer (who has now come to the village to carry out land reform), whose wife stole his jacket. The landowner does not punish the laborer, but forgives and calls on to return [4, p. 142]. Here we can see an incentive to identify the reader with the landowner, who from the point of view of the «red classics» should act as a «stranger».

It is more appropriate to describe the above example as a demonstration of the rejection of binary oppositions in the personosphere, to which A. Morrison draws his attention [5, p. 145]. This cannot be considered a value guidance, since we have a work of a different nature before us, this can be more likely attributed to irony over the anti-value guidances of Chinese socialist realism, which paint landowners exclusively in black colors.

Another vivid example of comical in the novel is the description of the Eighth Army’s combat operation in the village during the anti-Japanese war. It is described not as a valiant struggle, but as an insignificant event on a local scale that does not fit into the grand narrative of “revolutionary history”. The essence of this military operation is that the Japanese who occupied the territory ordered the headman to organize the requisition of food from the village population. The soldiers of the Eighth Army find out about this and plan to attack the Japanese when they come. Ironically, the scout sent by the Eighth Army to the village was captured by the Kuomintang and gave them the plans of his leadership. The comic effect is further enhanced by the fact that he himself gave away all the plans out of innocence, and not under torture [4, p. 94-95]. The fact that the Kuomintang outwitted the Eighth Army would be nonsense by the standards of Chinese socialist realism.

The images of the communists also do not coincide with their counterparts from the «red classics» — the detachment described in the novel is not regular troops, but vigilantes (大队), recently recruited from nearby villages, who are not yet soldiers, but simply peasants, who dressed in military uniforms, although they recklessly insist that they are regular troops [4, p. 83]. Such a description sets the description of a combat operation in a light, almost playful tone.

This awkward, ironic tone is intensified by the image of Sun Shigen 孙 屎 根, the squad leader. His very name, which includes the hieroglyph 屎 «excrement, feces», causes a slight grin. He was brought into the Eighth Army not by the idea of ​​fighting for a just cause, but by hatred of the Li family, his worst enemies. A native of the Li family, Li Xiaou, joined the Kuomintang troops. Sun Shigen also wanted to join the government troops, as they made the best impression on him, but did not want to be in the same team with his worst enemy and went to the Eighth Army to the communists. He was sent to his home county to prepare for the creation of a support base there. Sun Shigen is vain, every time he returns to his home village, he borrows a horse to look more personable in the eyes of fellow villagers [4, p. 83]. Sun Shigen started a military operation out of personal vanity — first of all, he wanted to prove himself as a detachment commander. In the future, using, as he assumed, military merit, climb up the career ladder. In addition, having won a victory in his home village, Sun Shigen also wanted to demonstrate his importance in front of his family and fellow villagers [4, p. 87]. It is ironic that in the end the operation did not go according to plan, in addition to the Kuomintang troops, the bandits learned about the operation, moreover, they learned it from the same soldier of the Eighth Army who was sent to reconnaissance and who gave the secret to the Kuomintang.

The operation itself is almost a complete farce. All the same intelligence officer, who  had betrayed a military secret twice, had to add sleeping medicine to the Japanese food, and forgot about it. Moreover, he let down his comrades, saying that he told the cook to do it, although it was not true. The sleeping pills were nevertheless put into food at the very last moment, and not all Japanese soldiers were affected by it. Shooting began, for which the soldiers of the Eighth Army were not ready. As a result, those Japanese who did not fall asleep were taken prisoners by the Kuomintang. A quarrel began between the Kuomintang troops and Sun Shigen’s subordinates because of the Japanese prisoners, which eventually turned into shooting, the Japanese prisoners were killed, and Sun Shigen and several of his subordinates were taken prisoners.

A light, ironic tone is partly retained by Liu Zhenyun in his description of the land reform. Suffice it to recall Lao Jia, with which we began this section, whose awkward image rejects any possibility of a solemn narrative that we encountered in Chinese socialist realism. There are more examples.

At the first meeting, the theme of which was the struggle against the landowner Li Wenwu, the son of a tenant peasant, activist Zhao Ciwei accused the landowner of having had a long relationship with his mother, in which he eventually drove her to suicide, then Li’s family took his mother away from him. To this, one of the poor peasants replied that there was nothing to blame on Li Wennao, since his mother herself was not against having fun with the landowner [4, p. 155]. This episode is described in the first chapter of the novel — Zhao Ciwei’s mother had a long-term love affair with a landowner, and when it became public, she hung herself in shame [4, p. 21].

The counter-argument presented by one of the spectators caused a burst of laughter. The irony here is that the peasants themselves do not really trust the tales of Zhao Ciwei, who, by the way, is described by Liu Zhenyun as a loafer and a bum. If you remember Ding Ling’s novel «The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River,» this episode looks like a parody. The entire rally looks like an absurd performance — the «struggle» takes place on the stage, the musicians beat drums and play musical performances, the atmosphere is upbeat, the audience laughs every now and then, and on the whole they are not very involved in what is happening. Such a relaxed atmosphere arouses indignation in cadre Lao Fan, and he ultimately decides that this struggle session does not count.

Another funny episode in which Liu Zhenyun parodies the brave fighters from among the peasants is the episode with the headman’s rifle. It disgraced another activist named Lai Heshang, Zhao Ciwei’s friend, another loafer who has a tendency to eavesdrop on newlyweds, since he is unmarried himself. Their leader Lao Fan, when he found out about this, with a smile wrote it off as landlord exploitation [4, p. 158].

A little later, Lao Fan sent Lai Heshang with several people to confiscate the rifle from the village headman. The headman suggested Lai Heshang to measure their strength in a one-on-one fight, and if he overcomes him, he will give them the gun, and if not, then the activists go home. Those who came with Lai Heshang began to incite him to accept the headman’s offer. Lai Heshang was scared and did not fight him, threatening to report everything to his superiors. As a result, the wife of the headman gave them the gun with persuasion, because she did not want a struggle rally against them, as it had been the day before with the landowner Li [4, p. 158-160]. The irony here is that the images and behavior of peasants in Liu Zhenyun’s novel in the eyes of readers familiar with Chinese socialist realism about land reform, look parodic and comical.

According to A. Morrison, through the images of Zhao Ciwei and Lai Heshang and their coming to power, Liu Zhenyun parodies the concept of the ideological growth of positive characters from the works of Chinese socialist realism [5, p. 161].

Concluding this section, we note that the above review is not exhaustive, but only demonstrates one of the ways of interacting with the reader, which we called «comical», «light», or value-oriented.

Tragic in the Novel

To begin with, Liu Zhenyun’s narrative often shifts from “light” to “dark”. This combination of «light» and «dark» in describing the same subjects, in our opinion, enriches the reading process.

For example, after the funny scene with the headman’s rifle described above, after the activists leave, his wife laments that fate has tied her with the landlords, and the headman beats her out of frustration, realizing that the clouds are gathering on his horizon. At the end of the chapter, the headman sarcastically notes — «Now the peasants have freed themselves from the oppression of the feudal lords!» [4, p. 161].

«Heavy», in our opinion, it is better to describe, first of all, describing it in general, as a kind of «plot», for example, in relation to land reform.

First of all, we note that for a more logical and coherent characterization of «dark» in the novel as an equivalent of anti-value guidances, one should first characterize the general tone of the description of the land reform in the novel «Yellow flowers under the sky of the Motherland».

In Liu Zhenyun’s novel, one worker, Lao Jia, is first sent to carry out the land reform. He carried out the reform, in the opinion of the leadership, unsuccessfully since there were no conflicts, he did not manage to inflame the hatred of the peasants towards the landowners. Another worker, Lao Fan, is sent to replace him in the village.

Lao Fan is carrying out land reform, as if staging a play, and if the director of the play would demand more convincing performance from the actors, then Lao Fan is trying to get the villagers to hate each other. This is evident in the fact that he was dissatisfied with the fact that the peasants were in high spirits after the first meeting of the struggle and decided to hold the meeting again. If Ding Ling describes the work of a brigade as the movement of peasants from small victories to large victories, then Liu Zhenyun’s description of the land reform sees an escalation of violence.

It seems to us that Liu Zhenyun generally describes land reform and the change of government in the village with an emphasis on destroying the old community, rather than creating a new one. Here we see Liu Zhenyun’s direct value-oriented polemic with the works of Chinese socialist realism, in which the emphases were diametrically opposed.

This plot in Liu Zhenyun’s novel, in our opinion, structurally corresponds to the anti-value guidances of Chinese socialist realism, since the author in its construction relies on interaction with the reader through a negative reaction. «Heavy» in the novel should be viewed as a group of interconnected tragic episodes, in which, as in Chinese socialist realism, the description of violence and other negatively perceived phenomena occupies an important place.

Here are some examples of such episodes.

A striking example is the scene of the «struggle» with the landowner Li Wenwu, which the activists decided to carry out by visiting his house after the meeting. In this scene, Liu Zhenyun describes in detail how the activists are driving his family, including his daughter-in-law with a practically newborn baby, outside in the cold. Zhao Ciwei, one of the activists, took the shining Buddha statue from the child, and the child’s windings were unwound and the child began to cry from the cold. The landowner became angry when they began to offend the child and attacked Zhao Ciwei, but he defeated him and beat him to death in a fight. After that, they began to bury the landowner, but since it was winter in the yard, the ground froze, they could not bury the landowner properly, and dogs gnawed his leg [4, p. 174-177]. Here, Liu Zhenyun, juxtaposing the series of negatively perceived phenomena and events of the land reform, draws the reader’s attention to the tragic, «dark» side of the revolution.

Earlier, we talked about the importance of changing perspectives in rethinking value guidances. An example of this technique is the seventh chapter of the third part of Liu Zhenyun’s novel, considered here [4, p. 183-192]. It describes how the nephews of the landowner Li Wenwu, whom the activists had killed earlier, fled, because they thought that the activists would come to them again and pry where they were hiding the valuables. The fugitives, having made a difficult journey through the cold, met with the son of a landowner, who was hiding with the remnants of a company of the Kuomintang army, which was defeated in the civil war, and told him about what was happening in the village, including what happened to his father. Although the novel is written in a neutral tone characteristic of neorealism, the actions of the characters and the situation in which they find themselves speak of their hopelessness and despair.

Another vector of rethinking the value guidances of socialist realism is the emphasis on the fact that participants in revolutionary processes often seek to satisfy their personal interests and are guided at times by the most basic, practically animal instincts. Liu Zhenyun realizes this in the eighth chapter of the third part of the novel, which describes the celebration of the new year in the village [4, p. 193-196]. Lao Fan, sent from the county to carry out land reform, left to celebrate the New Year with his wife and left activists Lai Heshang and Zhao Ciwei in charge. On New Year’s Eve, the activists decided to interrogate the women of the escaped landlords in order to allegedly find out from them where they were hiding the remnants of valuables. The egoistic, selfish interests of activists are emphasized by Lai Hashan’s remark: «Why, did we try so hard in vain or what?» [4, p. 195].

Lai Heshang began his interrogation by touching the wife of the landowner’s son and throwing her onto the kang with the words: «Before, you served the landowners, but now it’s time to pay tribute to the poor.» When she began to resist, he threatened to knock her down just as he beat her father-in-law to death the day before [4, p. 195]. After that, the activists committed sexual violence against women. The next day, on the first day of the new year, they, taking advantage of the lack of leadership, for the same purpose summoned the wife of the escaped leader of the robbers Lu Xiaotu to the village council.

This episode is interesting in two ways. First, it rethinks the values of socialist realism by juxtaposing sexual violence and land reform. Second, we see in Liu Zhenyun’s novel a reference to Ding Ling’s “The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River”, in which the land reform ends with a celebration in the village. As we see it, Liu Zhenyun deliberately deconstructs Ding Ling’s narrative — the joyous holiday from Ding Ling’s novel becomes macabre in Liu Zhenyun.

The culmination of the deconstructed description of land reform is the events that unfold in the ninth chapter of the third part, in which Liu Zhenyun describes the violence that has grown to the limit on the basis of revenge [4, p. 196-203]. What is interesting here is that company commander Li Wenwu, the son of a landowner, takes cruel revenge not so much because he is angry by nature, but because he is forced to do so. He says: “When my father was killed, I still endured it… …But now, when they killed my father and raped my wife, if I do nothing, then how can I be considered a man after that?» [4, p. 196-203]. Li Wenwu sent his subordinates to the village to take revenge on Lai Heshang and Zhao Ciwei. The activists themselves were not found, so they let out their anger by brutally killing their relatives.

It is worth remembering here that activists also raped Lu Xiaota’s wife. Upon learning of this, the former leader of the robbers asked Li Xiaowu for a pistol and fled in an unknown direction. Soon the former leader of the bandits returned with a sack containing the severed heads of Lao Fan and his wife.

Here, if we compare with the previous episode, it can be seen how the violence associated with land reform as part of the revolutionary process is growing. This episode appears to the reader as a logical development and natural culmination of a common tragic plot related to the land reform.

  1. Morrison also draws attention to Liu Zhenyun’s emphasis on the destructive force of the invasion of Marxist ideology and the class approach into village life. The researcher notes that the redistribution of land caused embarrassment among those who organized it, not because they did not completely free themselves from the oppression of the exploiters, but because the new system was in conflict with the principles of organizing the community, which had regularly existed for many generations before, and Marxist ideology did not provide comprehensive answers to the questions of why it should be destroyed [5, p. 147-148].

Examples of the tragic, «dark», can be cited from the description of the anti-Japanese war, described in the second part of the novel. As it seemed to us, in the description of the anti-Japanese war, the balance of “light” and “heavy” is the opposite in comparison with the land reform. In describing the war, Liu Zhenyun, as we have shown above, is mainly ironic at the solemn narrative in the spirit of the novel «Defense of Yan’an,» discussed earlier. It seems to us that this is due to the fact that the main thing in Liu Zhenyun’s novel is the life of the village as an isolated community, to which the Japanese, despite their cruelty, are still alien, and therefore do not threaten its essence. However, some «dark» touches, contrasting with the ironic tone, enrich this plot.

The first moment we would like to draw attention to is the remark of the headman during the gathering of provisions, which the Japanese were going to requisition. When soldiers from the Eighth Army under the leadership of Sun Shigen came to the village, one of them reported to the chief that in the west of the village some people had hung up a man and were beating him. It turned out that it was the people of the village headman who knocked provisions for the Japanese out of a man. When Sun Shigen found out that they were collecting food for the enemies, he told them to stop it, and the headman sarcastically retorted: “When we were collecting food for the Eighth Army, we also hung up and beat a man” [4, p. 86]. Here, caustic sarcasm directed at the violent nature of any army, and an army enlightened by the «ideas of Mao Zedong» is no exception. This is achieved by putting violence against the defenseless and the desperate situation of those who create it, created on the initiative of the Eighth Army.

In the final chapters of the second part of the novel, devoted to the anti-Japanese war, Liu Zhenyun, it seemed to us, seeks to restore the «balance of tragedy.» Describing how the Japanese surround the village, ravage it and kill dozens of civilians, the writer seems to inform the reader that the war, despite the rather amusing perturbations described in the second part, is primarily blood, death, devastation, fear and grief. In the final tragic episode of the anti-Japanese war, our attention was drawn to two things that can be called the deconstruction of the socialist realist military grand narrative.

The first point is that, unlike the works of Chinese socialist realism on a military theme, not only the Kuomintang troops retreated and hid, but also the squad of Sun Shigen, who, according to the canons of Chinese socialist realism, was ordered to valiantly fight with enemies and either win or die the death of the brave. It seems to us that here Liu Zhenyun undermines the military grand narrative, informing the reader that in fact, in war, it also happens that everyone is forced to act in their own interests, including the communists, such an association with egoism in the literature of seventeen years was unthinkable.

The second point is how a Japanese army company commander named Wakamatsu is described. He is not very imbued with the ideas of «joint prosperity of East Asia», and the need to travel to distant lands to fight irritates him, which he breaks down on the Chinese on the battlefield, because he wants them to stop resisting as soon as possible. When the fighting ends he will be able to return home as soon as possible [4, p. 131]. Wakamatsu is withdrawn by nature and quite strict in dealing with subordinates and colleagues, and even the Japanese do not like him for this. The image of this Japanese man as a «foe» is deconstructed through the description of the affection with which Wakamatsu treats children — moreover, both to his child, from whom his wife sent him an origami figurine with a letter, and to a Chinese girl, to whom he once presented a hat [4, p. 131-132].

Wakamatsu, returning to headquarters after his troops ravaged the village in revenge for the Japanese killed earlier, discovered that his orderly had mistakenly thrown an origami figurine made by his child into the trash can. Tears came to the eyes of the Japanese.

With this practically anti-war scene, Liu Zhenyun concludes the neo-realist description of the war, which in fact, as a large-scale historical event, does not exist for ordinary people. Representatives of each side — communists, Kuomintang, robbers, Japanese, villagers — just want to either grab a piece fot themselves or to be left alone.



Many researchers who consider the novel «Yellow Flowers under the Sky of the Motherland» draw attention to the historical pessimism realized through repeated repetition of events of the same kind — enmity arises between people, which leads to revenge, which is realized in violence, which generates even greater enmity, leading to even more violence. This “looped” story is repeated throughout the entire novel [6, p. 22-23; 7, p. 123; 3; 1, p. 68]. Some researchers, such as, for example, Dong Zhilin, see Liu Zhenyun’s concern for the ruthlessness and hopelessness of history described in the novel, behind the detached tone [2, p. 89].

In our opinion, Liu Zhenyun, introducing the category of the inevitable in place of the previous teleologically conditioned categories of progress and reaction, which determines the narrative strategy of the novel, seeks to reduce all vectors of interaction with the reader to the construction of the most realistic image and encourage him to an independent comprehensive understanding of reality.


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