Chinese writer Jia Pingwa is rooted in his own origin story. He says in the Afterword to his most recent novel in English translation, Broken Wings, “Your birthplace has determined who you are,” and that here, “I have written about myself, and only myself.” Jia is from Shaanxi Province, which has places so remote that they can barely even be said to be forgotten, as they exist suspended in their own time and space.
Broken Wings centers on Butterfly, a young woman abducted and sold into a “marriage” in a mountainous Chinese hamlet. Partly inspired by a story told to Jia by a man from his home village, it is a fictional window into China’s complicated problem of human trafficking.
The novel’s location is fogged over and yet unmistakable, embedded in one of China’s richest sources of folk culture and tucked into the far reaches of highland village life; its cultural landscape, often colorful and ornate beyond a rough exterior, is displayed in characters’ homespun nicknames—a potential strain for readers unfamiliar with Chinese but delightful linguistic puzzles for those conversant in it—and the novel’s leitmotif of papercuts, a traditional folk art that packs the story with symbolism.
The villagers take pride in being distinguishable from city dwellers, and their identity and lifestyle are regulated by deep belief in superstition, obsession with the spiritual world, and unbending obeisance to custom. When Butterfly’s high heels—a discomforting symbol of the outside world—are strung down a well at night and drawn back up in the morning, she recites local rules like teachings from a religious text:
If ever a villager disappeared, or went away and didn’t come back for a long time, they would take the person’s shoes and dangle them in the well, in the hope that would bring the person back. By now, I’d learnt quite a lot of village lore. For instance, you couldn’t point at the sky with your middle finger, because that way, your mum’s brother would die. You weren’t supposed to pee in the road or your child would be born without a bum hole… If you had a bad tooth, you shaved your hair. You had to throw the tooth and the cut hair up onto a high place.
The longer readers stick around, the worse the situation looks.
As rendered by the award-winning translator Nicky Harman, Broken Wings is straightforward and unpretentious, and so seems faithful to Jia, who has voiced distaste for “flowery” or academic prose. Like Jia’s past works, vulgarity features heavily. Dialogue is peppered with foul and ribald language, sometimes in the spirit of play but also to immerse readers in a dismal place where gentility is wanting, and where suffering is endemic.
The longer readers stick around, the worse it looks. It’s revealed that Butterfly is not the lone trafficking victim in the village, and that several other women have endured even far worse than she has. Stripped of their humanity, male and female characters alike are deformed both physically and emotionally. They are frequently described in animalistic terms, as when Butterfly assesses the natural order of those around her:
The more I got to know the villagers, the more I felt they were like forest animals; there were tigers and lions, and centipedes and toads and weasels, then there were clouds of bluebottles and mosquitos. The bigger animals were taciturn, solitary and unfathomable, and could be combative too… The smaller animals were weak and had to fight for position, but they only had one weapon in their armoury, they could either run or bite or they had camouflage or they were venomous, they stuck together but they hated each other.
When Butterfly doesn’t regard her company as animals, she often still strains to see them as human and alive. When Bright, the man who has bought her, brings visitors to their cave, she reacts:
I took one look and turned my gaze away. They were leathery-skinned, with faces like dried persimmons and small eyes, as if they’d all been turned out of the same mould.
Readers are offered repose in parts when Butterfly reminisces about her past life—one of imperfect circumstances but still wrapped with fond memories—and the prose turns placid and warm, channeling an idyllic tenderness:
I remember the pond.
There were three lotuses in the pond in summer, and a dozen frogs. I could see them from the window of our room. The frogs would jump onto a lotus leaf one by one. First one, then another joined it, then a third, and the leaf would tip over and land all three frogs in the water.
This sentiment also emerges when Butterfly speaks of her mother and the mundane sweetness of parental duty:
That flowery jacket was Mum’s best, she only wore it to town and changed out of when she came back. She had taken a big bag to the township and came back with exercise books, ballpoint pens, bags of salt, and cooking soda, and a whole jin of mutton.
Throughout Broken Wings, men struggle to cope with—and in every conceivable manner—the absence of women, at least ones of childbearing age who stay willingly. Jia injects the novel with a multitude of artificial stand-ins for females, many created to bring good luck, like stone statues of women placed at the entrance to a home. Male despondency comes with its own mystical rules, such as how to avoid hexing the chance of keeping up a family lineage:
Whether the cave had a walled yard outside or just an open strip of ground, you mustn’t stick bare posts in to the ground, because it meant that there would never be any more women in that family—men without wives were known as ‘bare branches.’
The characters live as if rendered in a folk painting from Shaanxi.
Some readers may be aware of how situations like Butterfly’s can play out in China: Families paste up photos of lost loved ones on public walls; police may (or may not) investigate what they can, with limited budgets and competing priorities; and if victims are found or culprits caught, China’s state media applauds the police. However, public dialogue on such cases glosses over systemic factors that somehow make trafficking a fallback option for desperate men. Family-planning policies (and a preference for male heirs) have led to infanticide and abortion of females, creating the world’s largest gender imbalance. Many women—in search of work, freedom, and independence—have flocked to urban areas from rural ones, which have often stagnated during China’s economic boom.
Bright, perhaps rationalizing why he purchased Butterfly, bemoans this trend, complaining,
All these new cities the government’s developing, they’re like giant bloodsuckers, slurping up money and property from the village, sucking away the village girls.
Jia appears to treat male perpetrators of criminality and violence sympathetically. Indeed, when the book first came out in Chinese, in 2016, some critics accused Jia of precisely this. However, an alternative interpretation is that the novel’s characters are pitiable regardless of gender, role, or fate, and that no body or soul is spared from tragedy, assault, or indignity. This makes the ambivalence they harbor—towards each other and when they look in the mirror, including Butterfly—entirely understandable. The characters live as if rendered in a folk painting from Shaanxi—a panorama of images floating on a flat plane, all victims tossed together, all deserving a better lot.
Butterfly often imagines and plots her escape, and at times is so despairing that her only refuge is to leave her body and let her mind wander, as if metamorphizing. Readers who accompany her may feel unmoored and realize it’s the soulful journey, not any destination, that matters most.