Power corrupts, so the saying goes. Award-winning author Li Peifu suggests there is more to it than that in his novel A Man of the Plains, now translated into English by James Trapp and retitled Graft.
The saga begins in the 1980s and centers around a town the author calls Meiling in Henan, a province in China’s central plain. In one of the outlying villages, lives Liu Quanyou, a humble and talented gardener who has become a specialist in plum trees. He has two treasured possessions. The first is a bonsai plum which he created by grafting seeds onto an ancient tree that he dug up himself in the Sichuan mountains. The second is his son, Liu Jinding, who will eventually scale the greasy career pole to become executive deputy mayor of Huanghuai City.
Liu Jinding’s ascent is boosted by Xie Zhichang, a local flower-seller and self-styled fixer. When Liu Jinding is expelled from school, Xie finds a new place for him and later helps him with his university entrance. Here Liu befriends his tutor, Li Delin, a respected wheat expert with an American PhD, a notable achievement at the time. The story details the advancement of these three men, and their entourages, through graft (in the hard work sense) and graft (illegal means) over the next 20 years.
By the early 2000s, Xie is a multimillionaire with wide-reaching business interests while Li and Liu have been promoted to the highest levels of local government. It’s all very cosy with luxury hotels and favors for friends. But then there’s a problem: a murder. Enter the standout character of the book, Helian Dongshan, a hard-boiled detective who is bent on discovering the truth, no matter the cost.
This is an engaging and spirited book with a large cast of minor characters, many of whom have nicknames as well as their ordinary names. The inattentive reader can become lost. However, the extensive web is necessary to show the terrifying width and depth of the cronyism in play. Sadly it is not the preserve of the ensemble. The story shows that nepotism pervades all strata of society and is, in fact, perceived to be normal. This is particularly the case when Xu Ya’nan, Li Delin’s unrefined second wife, wants to return to her village to show off their baby. Li Delin warns her never to accept gifts as she, of course, cannot return favors. However, she ignores him. After the villagers have courted her, author Li describes the group of business types who also visit:
“Their real reason for coming was to “introduce” themselves to the governor’s wife, all with their eye on the main chance for the future. So they surrounded her, talking away, handing her their business cards, claiming to be distant cousins and so on. Each one of them tried to make sure it was them who Xu Ya’nan would particularly remember … so naturally, the red envelopes they handed over were all very well-padded.”
With its satirical dissection of sharp practice, as well as keen observation of the frailty of human principles, this novel appears to be an anti-corruption manifesto. However, in a final note, author Li Peifu says this is not his purpose. Instead, he is writing “the spiritual ecology of a specific region” and that he believes, for human society, the only thing which is eternal is “change”.
Change is indeed a consistent theme throughout the story, illustrated by the life cycle of plants, the landscape (as skyscrapers blossom) and, more specifically, within Chinese society. The detective, Helian Dongshan, is horrified by the lascivious behavior, as he sees it, of the young city elite. Stuck in the mores of the poorer, stricter yet simpler times of his upbringing, he cannot understand how his son can earn millions by “playing” computer games and it drives a wedge between them. Meanwhile Li Delin, a quiet academic who should have been left with his wheat-growing projects rather than put in government, is overwhelmed by the new materialism, and those who seek to exploit it, galvanizing around him. Ultimately, he is crushed by it.
Instead of criticizing the system that breeds change, or decrying change, author Li is more interested in its inevitability. The final image of the author’s note is a butterfly on a railway track. The locomotive has started, the wheels are turning. Li Peifu asks, as we might: is the butterfly awake?