THE SEVENTH DAY
By Yu Hua
Yu Hua is one of China’s best known writers in the West, which may be due to the fact that all of his writing is an attempt to understand, explain, and come to grips with contemporary Chinese life.
If history is change then China has probably experienced more of it than any other country in the world in the last half century. The individuals Yu Hua writes about are all trying to adapt to this change, the sudden shifts in politics, business, and culture that have defined the boom years of China’s “economic miracle.” Today’s China is his subject, and while his novels usually take the conventional form of presenting a character’s life history, his real focus is on the life of the nation.
The Seventh Day begins, suggestively, at the end. There’s a sense that some of the bloom has fallen from the economic miracle’s rose. The first sentence describes Yang Fei rising from his bedsit and going out into the thick fog of a “barren and murky city.”
The weather, which will continue to be heavy with rain, smoke, fog, sleet, and snow, mirrors the state of Yang Fei’s soul. Yang Fei, you see, has just died, and it is his unburied spirit that will now negotiate a dreamy urban and rural landscape of faces, places, and memories for the next seven days.
The afterlife has a familiar physical appearance and geography, in as much as any part of today’s China stays the same for very long. You can walk down the same streets, but urban renewal is taking place at such a strenuous pace that apartment buildings are being dropped with the residents still in them. Yang Fei even meets the ghosts of some of these forcibly relocated souls in limbo.
The demolished buildings symbolize the trauma of rapid change, as does Yang Fei’s own life, the stages of which he revisits after his death.
Born by accident on a speeding train, he falls onto the tracks and is adopted by a kindly railway employee. Later he marries, but is left by a wife who is ambitious to rise in the world. Then, on the fateful day, he stops into a noodle shop just before it explodes.
Life in modern China is not for the weak. The economic miracle isn’t stopping for anyone. Yang Fei’s adopted mother is one such casualty, being knocked off her feet by a speeding BMW and then run over by a truck and a delivery van. Among the spirits of the dead Yang Fei also meets several suicides, as well as a number of people who have met violent ends, trapped in demolished buildings, for example, or dying as a result of botched black market organ removals. Saddest of all is a group of twenty-seven babies disposed of by a hospital as “medical refuse.”
The afterlife provides an antidote to these horrors of urban life, presenting a peaceful land of rest after all of this remorseless change. In eternity nothing really happens, which means nobody is in a rush to get anywhere. Instead we see people drawn together by genuine affection, and being reunited with loved ones. A strictly non-denominational, feel-good spirituality presides, easing the dislocation and stress of death.
Yes, paradise is a bit bland. It always is. But after experiencing such violent chaos, a bit of blandness is just what those left behind are looking for. Especially reassuring during a time of widening economic disparity is the blessed “equality in death.” The spirits of rich VIPs with expensive burial plots go to the front of the line, but they’re made to seem a bit ridiculous in holding on to their sense of privilege and self-importance. They’re dead now, and they should be over that.
Death can give us that perspective, or at least in fiction it can.
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 10, 2015.