2020-05-27 ☼ blog
Note: I was recently duped into supplying this reader’s report to someone impersonating a publisher. Since I won’t be getting the expected payment for that work, I’m posting it here for anyone to read for free — along with the warning that you should carefully check the email address you are replying to any time you receive unsolicited offers of work.
Children of the Melon-Eating Era is a novel about prostitution and government corruption in contemporary China. The three principal protagonists are Niu Xiaoli, a young woman who is drawn into prostitution out of financial necessity; Li Anbang, a high-ranking official facing several challenges that threaten his impending promotion; and Yang Kaituo, a lower official who becomes the object of nationwide derision when he is photographed smiling foolishly at the scene of a fatal bridge collapse. The intersection of their storylines results in a political scandal that topples both Li and Yang, as well as a host of other government officials.
Niu Xiaoli is a strong, independent young woman living in rural China. At the age of fourteen she kicked her mother out of the family home (after discovering her in bed with another man shortly after the death of her husband), and she has been looking after her feeble older brother ever since. Soon she will be marrying her fiancé Feng Jinghua, but first she has to find the money to purchase a second bride for her brother (after his first ran off and left him to look after their four-year-old daughter).
She borrows the 80,000 RMB she needs from a local loan shark (negotiating a lower interest rate in exchange for a kiss, but rejecting his proposal of a no-interest loan for sex) and Niu Xiaoshi marries Song Caixia, a woman from another province who claims her family need the money for her father’s dialysis treatment. However, Song Caixia disappears after just five days.
Niu Xiaoli sets off on a journey to track her down and retrieve the money. With her goes the woman she blames: the matchmaker Zhu Juhua (the wife of a local man named Xin), and Zhu’s four-year-old son from a previous marriage. But once they get to her home province, Zhu and her son disappear — escaping not just Niu Xiaoli, but also her disappointing marriage with Xin.
Niu Xiaoli spends weeks travelling between the local villages in search of Song Caixia — fending off an attempted rape from a local driver at one point — but has no success. When she is starting to give up hope, she encounters a woman named Su Shuang who tells her she can take her to Song Caixia — for a price.
Su Shuang leads her to another province, but when they arrive she reveals her true intentions: she wants to recruit Niu Xiaoli as a high-end prostitute who will appeal to customers with her unique beauty (several characters describe her as looking like a foreigner). She tells Niu Xiaoli that she will be able to earn ten thousand a night by pretending to be a virgin.
Initially repulsed, Niu Xiaoli has second thoughts when she remembers that she came close to sleeping with the local loan shark for a price. This is not so different, she reflects, eventually deciding she will accept Su Shuang’s proposal — but she pledges to return home once she has done the deed ten times and raised enough money to cover her losses. Her first time is with an older, bespectacled man in a luxurious courtyard house. When he asks her name, she tells him it is Song Caixia.
Li Anbang is a government official who has made his way up through the ranks of the party and is now on the verge of being promoted to provincial head. However, he learns that the decision will hinge on the report of an investigation led by a close friend of Zhu Yuchen — a former colleague of Li’s who now harbours a grudge against him. The future of Li’s political career thus depends on his ability to get back on Zhu Yuchen’s good side. He attempts to do so by befriending Zhu’s bad-tempered father, but only ends up further antagonising Zhu.
Meanwhile, more trouble comes Li Anbang’s way: his rebellious seventeen-year-old son crashes a car, killing the prostitute who was with him in the vehicle. He manages to cover up his son’s involvement, and arranges to have him sent to the military in the hope of avoiding any further mishaps.
But things get even worse. Li learns that one of his protégés, a municipal mayor, has been toppled and is now being subjected to the notorious internal Party investigation process known as shuanggui. This means there is a high risk that Li Anbang himself will be charged with corruption and jailed.
At a loss, Li shares his troubles with the only person he feels he can trust: a retired real estate tycoon named Zhao Pingfan (“Ordinary Zhao”). Zhao recommends going to see a master of the I Ching named Yizong, who offers divinations that interpret the world through colour. Though he is not a superstitious man, Li decides he has nothing to lose. Yizong tells him he has “offended red”; the only solution is to “break red” by sleeping with a virgin.
The “virgin” Li ends up sleeping with is Niu Xiaoli. And for a while it seems as if all his problems have found solutions: Li Anbang’s protégé commits suicide without revealing anything that incriminates Li; Zhu Yuchen is diagnosed with cancer, and has to travels to hospital in Beijing before he has a chance to affect the investigation into Li; and the cover-up of his son’s crash is not exposed.
Yang Kaituo is a bureau chief responsible for the maintenance of roads. It is his ill fortune to be drunk at a nephew’s wedding on the day a truck of fireworks explodes on a local bridge, causing the bridge to collapse and killing over twenty people.
Questions are immediately asked of Yang, who was the one responsible for the construction of the bridge. His attempts to minimise the damage to his reputation are soon thwarted when a photo of him goes viral: not only is he smiling foolishly at a site where multiple fatalities have just occurred, he is wearing an extremely expensive watch. Soon, internet sleuths reveal many other photos of Yang, wearing multiple expensive watches (making him a fictional counterpart to the real-life official Yang Dacai).
As a result, Yang soon finds himself taken in to be disciplined through the shuanggui system. Following a couple of days of hunger and thirst, he admits to his interrogators that he received these watches as bribes, along with many other bribes, in exchange for the rights to profit from construction deals (by getting the job done on the cheap and skimming off the excess).
One of the people he has had dealings with is Su Shuang, the woman who lured Niu Xiaoli into prostitution. Confronted with an incriminating text message, Yang admits that she procures a virgin for him to sleep with once a month (he claims that this is a libido boost he needs in order to be able to function in bed). What’s more, Su Shuang is one of the people who have given him bribes in return for construction deals — and the bridge that collapsed was one of those deals.
Niu Xiaoli returns home and announces that she succeeded in tracking down Song Caixia. She marries Feng Jinhua and uses her remaining earnings to start her own mutton soup restaurant (inspired by a meal she ate on her travels) outside the entrance of the clothing factory where she used to work. Business is good, and everything seems to be going well for her — apart from the continuing harassment from Xin, who holds her responsible for mislaying his wife. After a failed attempt to find Zhu Jinhua himself, he begs Niu Xiaoli to reveal how she managed to locate Song Caixia (Niu insists it was just good luck). Eventually his enmity fades and, taking pity on him, Niu gives him a job working on the restaurant.
Things take a turn for the worse when Qi Yafen, a woman she had hired to work in the restaurant, leaves to launch her own rival business after learning the secrets of the trade. This is not merely her revenge on Niu for putting her out of business (she used to run a pancake stall): it turns out that she and Feng Jinhua have been having an affair for years. Informed by Xin (who caught them in the act in the restaurant one night), Niu Xiaoli confronts Feng. After she sits him down in his motorbike repair shop for a day and a night, Feng confesses, and Niu demands a divorce.
On the verge of completing the divorce procedure at the marriage bureau the next day, they are interrupted by three officials who have come for Niu Xiaoli. Before she is taken away, she slips her bank card to Feng and tells him to use the money to pay for a new bride for her brother, as well as her niece’s school tuition fees. Niu is taken back to the province where she first went with Su Shuang (who has already been arrested). There she is confronted with videos of her having sex with many important officials — videos that were to be used for the purpose of blackmail. Though she had no idea she was being recorded, nor any knowledge of who these men were, she is told she is guilty of extortion.
There is a brief summary of the fallout from this corruption case, revealing that Li, Yang, and ten other officials have all been toppled, and the name of Song Caixia (the pseudonym used by Niu Xiaoli) has become famous around the nation. This includes several examples of online social media ironically eulogising her in poetry.
But all these posts and articles were erased by online censors the next day. Had they not been erased, everyone would have lost interest within a few days. Because they disappeared, they became more widely-read than ever, circulating in private chat groups.
We also get some details of a TV interview with Li Anbang’s friend Zhao Pingfan, who has now fled to the U.S. He insists that Li’s persecution was politically motivated, and he is guilty only of aligning himself with the wrong people: “the corruption in China runs too deep — are we meant to believe the corrupt officials have been removed, and the officials remaining are untainted?” The interview is widely discussed amongst the Chinese diaspora, but makes no impact within China because it is quickly censored — and because a more exciting scandal involving a celebrity and a Thai ladyboy has diverted everyone’s attention.
It is here that the title of the book comes most sharply into focus: it refers to an example of internet slang that refers to idle observers (such as those who read stories online) as “watermelon eaters”.
Ma Zhongcheng is an unassuming official who has managed to earn a promotion to deputy chief of an environmental protection bureau by virtue of appearing non-threatening to his would-be rivals. To celebrate the new position, he and his family spend the May holidays at a nearby seaside resort.
However, when Ma is called into work early he goes back by himself, leaving his family to enjoy the rest of the holiday. Waiting at the bus station, he decides to treat himself to a visit to a nearby massage parlour. There he end up getting a blowjob from a woman in her fifties named Xiao Cui, but immediately afterwards he is carted off by four burly security guards.
He bribes them to let him go, but soon realises he has been set up. When he goes back to the massage parlour to confront them, he is told that he can’t complain about not getting value for money, despite being conned: the woman who called herself Xiao Cui is actually Kang Shuping, the wife of Li Anbang. She has been reduced to prostitution just so she can afford to continue visiting her husband and son in jail. Ma concludes that he did indeed pay a fair price for the opportunity to cuckold a provincial head, and reflects on the absurdity of the events that led to this point. He offers his thanks to Song Caixia, on his own behalf and on the behalf of all the other men who got to sleep with Kang Shuping.
Children of the Melon-Eating Era is a brisk and compelling read, particularly in the first half of the book. Niu Xiaoli is an engaging protagonist, and her sections of the story have a lot of energy. The novel loses some momentum when we shift focus to Li Anbang, whose initial characterisation is defined primarily through a dry summary of his government career, but picks up again once he runs into trouble. The Yang Kaituo storyline is less satisfying: as a character he lacks the necessary depth to activate any real empathy in the reader, and the description of the shuanggui process is lacking in specificity.
Ma Zhongcheng’s short storyline at the end of the book feels perfunctory and a little misogynistic in tone: the conclusion might have had more weight if we had spent any time with Kang Shuping as a character earlier in the book. The book gains some tension from the expectation that these seemingly unconnected storylines will eventually connect; I was anticipating an eventual encounter with the real Song Caixia, the runaway bride whose disappearance began the story, but in some respects her complete absence from the pages serves the story well.
Liu Zhenyun does dialogue well: Li Anbang’s occasional interactions with ordinary people beyond the realm of officialdom, for example, demonstrate an affable charm that help make him a sympathetic character. The prose is generally functional and straightforward, but it falls short when it has to convey the carnage of a collapsed bridge. Liu also has a couple of recurring phrases that can be irritating: when characters encounter any kind of shock they are invariably described as either “not knowing whether to laugh or cry” or “feeling like their brain is exploding”. The repetition could potentially be smoothed out in editing, but the reliance on these verbal tics betrays Liu’s failure to fathom the interior depths of his characters.
Another flaw is Liu’s habit of over-explaining: his readers are seldom trusted to make inferences for themselves, and events that took place just a few pages previously are restated again in case we have forgotten. There is a jarring example of repetition in the second half of the book: the exact same wording is used to describe Feng Jinghua’s hunger and thirst while Niu Xiaoli is extracting the truth about his affair, and the suffering of Yang Kaituo while he is being interrogated. This is probably a deliberate stylistic choice rather than lazy writing, but it is unclear what we are meant to take away from this underlining of the parallel between the two men.
There is a lot of politics in Children of the Melon-Eating Era, but Liu Zhenyun takes care to ensure that it stays within the boundary of what can be published in China. In recent years there have been a slew of popular novels criticising corrupt government officials, but criticism of the anti-graft crackdown itself is rarer (Liu manages to slip it into this book by placing the words in the mouth of an unreliable character, Zhao Pingfan; his own reputation and good behaviour as a writer mean he can get away with more than other authors). The text is also strewn with XXX’s that anonymise locations and officials; readers who have a grasp of recent political events in China may enjoy filling in some of the blanks for themselves, but for a general reader they are more likely to serve as a distraction.