Educated Youth, though a novel that has a penchant to slip into melodrama, is certainly an education. First published in 1992, Giramondo Publishing has recently released a sleek new edition of Ye Xin’s book, which has enjoyed acclaim in its native China for more than two decades. A guest of the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, Ye has, in Educated Youth, created a novel of historical and personal significance.
The period in history is an obscure one, so rich that it seems ripe for the picking to have novels written about it. The premise is one hitherto unknown to me: during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, more than 14 million Chinese high school graduates were sent from the big cities to live and work the land in the countryside, as part of a program of ‘rustication’. They were known collectively as the zhiqing. Ye himself was one such zhiqing.
Educated Youth tells the story of five children of the former zhiqing who, in their teenage years, are seeking out the parents who abandoned them to return to the cities once the cultural policy shifted. They reappear in a series of soap-operatic confrontations in the cutthroat city of Shanghai.
One of the most interesting elements of this novel is Ye’s choice of narrators. Instead of the point of view of the children, it’s the parents who guide the synchronous narration – two women and three men.
The descriptions of Xishuangbanna, where the children have journeyed from, are sun-soaked and technicoloured. They juxtapose harshly with cold, brutal, corporate Shanghai, and both the parents and children struggle to reconcile their feelings for the two places.
As a self-confessed ignoramus when it comes to Chinese culture, I certainly learned a huge amount about modern Chinese history that I had never before encountered. A broader, less domestic take on the era would have lifted the novel, though. As it stands, we are encountered with a series of tearful discussions in which the parents, unexpectedly assaulted with their pasts, each go through a similar emotional journey, without a broader political context.
The parallelism of the five narrators’ journeys, although curiously resulting in a page-turning experience, is occasionally clichéd in its emotional range.
The novel’s flaws, however, are few. It’s an absorbing book with some tender characters; intellectually put together with a drum-tight structure, it’s an educational history lesson you won’t soon forget.
Louise Jaques is a featured artist at this year’s National Young Writers’ Festival. She has been published in Voiceworks, The Vocal, Cordite, Vertigo, and the 28th and 29th UTS Writers’ Anthologies. You can find her on Twitter here.