It was perhaps inevitable that Chinese memoirs in translation would move on from those whose authors date from the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution. Cai Chongda is a popular millennial writer and fashion executive who became the youngest editorial director in the GQ franchise. His memoir, Vessel, was a bestseller in China a half-dozen years ago and is now available in English in a translation by Dylan Levi King.
Cai focuses not about his rise in publishing nor what it was like to start a successful menswear fashion line but on his childhood in a small fishing village in Fujian and how his roots have made him who he is today. The memoir is structured from fourteen essays, plus an afterword and a note from the translator. These essays skip around in chronology and many are framed around his father’s stroke and resulting disability, which drive Cai to earn money to pay for these medical expenses. Early on in the book, Cai’s great-grandmother, whom he called Nana, gave him the idea that people need to let their bodies serve them.
Your body’s a vessel. If you wait on it to do something, there’s no hope for you. If you put your body to work, you can start to live.
Vessel is a unique look into the background of a thirty-something in contemporary China.
Cai’s talent as a journalist shines through, especially in the stories about his school friends who never felt at home and always seemed to be reaching for more. One, nicknamed Tiny, was left behind in the village while his parents and older brother worked in Hong Kong, trying to earn enough money to send for him. They did make enough to buy Tiny all the latest gadgets and toys from Hong Kong. They also hired two body guards to protect Tiny from bad elements. Tiny eventually moved to Hong Kong, yet could never free himself of his Fujian roots. The language barrier was difficult and culturally he felt like an outsider in Hong Kong. Cai met up with him when they were adults and learned of the hardships Tiny’s family faced outside of Fujian. Cai himself admitted he was taken by the glitz and glamour of Hong Kong.
I will admit, I had my own yearnings when I saw those skyscrapers on TV. But that city and those buildings were never truly real to me. They were too distant. Tiny was living between worlds. He was a man out of my time, surrounding himself with the trappings of a city that seemed to be dozens of years ahead of our small town.
Another friend was a big man on their school campus and overcame the stigma of his cleft palate. Cai befriended this boy, Wenzhan, and thought he, like Tiny, would become someone big someday. There was also a boy named Hope at his university whom he looked up to. But like these other friends, Hope’s dreams were too big for his body and mind.
It’s not difficult to wonder, when reading these stories of Cai’s friends, if they would have fared better, as did Cai, if they had felt the same connection to their childhood home. Cai celebrates the local culture of his Fujian village and explains its uniqueness.
In southern Fujian, unlike most of China, temples are not segregated by sect. Inside a large temple, there are often gods and deities from numerous faiths, so you might find the Three Buddhas beside a shrine to the Daoist deity Guan Yu, and then an altar to the local earth gods beside a temple to Mazu, the goddess of the sea.
Cai also places his town in the larger context of Chinese history, which is important because it gives him a sense of grounding, even after he’s moved far away to Beijing.
Legend had it that our town in southern Fujian was first settled during the Jin Dynasty, a kingdom that reunified China after the Three Kingdoms period. Some traditions were said to date back to those times, including a ceremony for outstanding scholars held on the day of the Lantern Festival. In modern times, it was the town’s Education Committee that handed out awards recognizing top students at local schools.
By the end of his memoir, Cai understands what Nana meant by his body as a vessel. Cai made choices to move to Beijing for career opportunities there. He wasn’t like his friends, whose dreams dominated their thoughts in a way that rendered them unable to act upon them.
Vessel isn’t the first English book to examine Chinese millennials, but most have been written by foreign journalists or Chinese who have immigrated to the West. Cai’s book is a unique look into the background of a thirty-something in contemporary China.