One day ten years ago, during a summer of no rain, I sat in a rented room in the south of Xi’an listening to a man from my old village as he poured out his story. He stuttered so his story came out in fits and starts. Behind the bed curtain, his wife was sobbing her heart out. There were a lot of mosquitos and I had to keep swatting them with the palm of my hand, though all I hit was my arms or my face.

“She’s gone… she’s gone back there,” he said.

The scene is still vivid in my memory: he looked up at me, his gaze blank, and I was so stunned at the news that I sat silent for a long while. The ‘she’ was his daughter. She had dropped out of lower middle school and come with her parents to Xi’an where they were trash-pickers, but after only a year she had been kidnapped and sold. It took them three years to find her and with great difficulty they had managed to get the police to rescue her. But now, six months later, she had gone back to the village where she had been taken.

“It’s demons who made it end up like this. Crazy demons!” he said.

His wife carried on weeping. My village neighbour suddenly lost his temper and grabbed a bowl from the table and threw it at the bed curtain.

“Fucking cry! That’s all you do!” he yelled.

The story felt like a knife in my heart. Every time I thought of it, it seemed to twist deeper inside.”

I didn’t try to stop him, and I had no words of consolation. There was another bowl on the table with pickled vegetables in it, along with a colander full of steamed buns and a black plastic bucket that served as a plant pot, holding a small crab apple. They had planted it up three days after their daughter came back. My friend had called me over to celebrate with a few drinks, and I arrived just as the daughter was filling the bucket with earth. Now I pushed the bucket, bowl and colander out of the way so he wouldn’t throw them at his wife, and gradually I found out what had happened. The press, TV and radio had all been keen to give extensive coverage to the heroic rescue of a kidnapped woman by the police. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew what had happened and who she was, so the daughter had been besieged and gawked at in the street. Rumours went around that the man she’d been forced to live with was dirt-poor and half-witted, and that she’d given birth to a child. She stopped going outdoors, or talking, and spent all day sitting motionless. My neighbour was worried she was either going to fall seriously ill or go mad, so he asked around for a prospective husband, the farther away the better, so no one would know about her past history. But just as they were talking to the matchmaker, the girl disappeared, leaving a note saying she was going back to the village.

This is a true story, one that I have never told until now.

The story felt like a knife in my heart. Every time I thought of it, it seemed to twist deeper inside. I had no idea where the village was that the girl had gone back to or how she’d been living for the last ten years. I was still in touch with my neighbour, he and his wife used to go back home every year for the harvest, and then come back to Xi’an for the rest of the year and work as trash-pickers. But his hair was thinning and he was getting frailer and more stooped. A few years ago, when I met him, he was still going on and on about how when they went to rescue his girl, she had been in a village on the loess plateau, blasted by winds, everyone lived in caves and couldn’t even afford wheat buns. But the last few times, he never mentioned his daughter.

“Haven’t you been to see her?” I asked him.
He brushed the question off: “What… what is there to s-see?”
He obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t dare probe. Then I made a research trip to Dingxi in Gansu province, to Hengshan and Suide in Yulin prefecture, and Bin county, Chunhua, and Xunyi in the northern part of Xianyang prefecture. This was all loess plateau, and every time we drove along the ridge-top roads we would come across some woman coming back from digging potatoes, her face weathered and sun-burnt, bent double under the weight of a great basket, hobbling along bandy-legged, and I thought of my neighbour’s daughter. In one village we passed by the strip in front of someone’s house. It was piled high with farm tools of all sorts, and there was a donkey and a pig, a dog and a flock of chickens, and Chinese bellflowers and angelica laid out on the ground at the door of their cave to dry in the sun. A man was hunkered down eating his dinner, and there was a woman too, wiping her baby’s nose and shouting imprecations at the people next door. She slapped her own behind and swore energetically at them. I thought of my neighbour’s daughter then too. We strolled around the market and were driving on to the next village, when at the crossroads we came across a child trying to catch grasshoppers in a clump of grass, studiously ignoring his grandmother who was shouting for him. She put down the basket she had been carrying on her arm, and called: “Who wants some flatbread?” Still the child did not come, but the sparrows and crows and eagles did, and by the time the kid arrived with a grasshopper clutched in his fist, there was no flatbread left in the basket, only something that looked like a bone but was actually one of her teeth that had fallen out in the market. She had brought it home to throw up on the house roof. Then, too, I thought of my neighbour’s daughter.

When I was young, death was just a word, a concept, a philosophical question, about which we had enthusiastic discussions that we didn’t take too seriously, but after I turned fifty, friends and family began to die off one after another, until finally my mother and father died. After that I began to develop a fear of death, albeit an unspoken one. In the same way, when a short while ago cases of trafficking of women and children began to appear in the media, it felt as remote from my own life as if I was reading a foreign novel about the slave trade. But after I had heard what happened to the daughter of my village neighbour, it all became more personal; when I walked down the street, I stared at the passers-by, imagining which one was a trafficker. And if relatives came to visit with their children or grandchildren, I warned them to keep a close eye on the little ones as I saw them off at the door.

Kidnapping for ransom is understandable, as is theft of property, and even the theft of livestock and pets that are then sold on. But why does this barbarous practice of snatching women and children persist in our increasingly civilised age?”

I was born and grew up in a village and didn’t come to Xi’an until I was nineteen. So I thought I knew everything there was to know about rural life. But at the beginning of the 1980s, I had a conversation with a Women’s Federation cadre, and she said research had revealed that sixty per cent of village women had never experienced sexual pleasure. I remember that my mouth dropped open in astonishment. Ten years ago, when my village neighbour’s daughter was kidnapped, I paid a visit to the police, where I found out that they did not know the figures for the number of city women and children kidnapped each year (because it was hard to verify whether or not a kidnap had taken place), but proven, reported cases of people who had gone missing ran into the thousands. That astonished me too.

In fact, if you look carefully, every lamppost in every street and alleyway in the city, every signpost and every telephone box is festooned with Missing Person notices. Most of the missing are women and children, and most are apparently kidnap victims. And why do such incidents happen largely in the city (you hardly ever get notices like that in the countryside)? Kidnapping for ransom is understandable, as is theft of property, and even the theft of livestock and pets that are then sold on. But why does this barbarous practice of snatching women and children persist in our increasingly civilised age?

The recent transformation of China has led to the biggest migration of people from countryside to the city in history. Take Xi’an, for example: this is an ancient city but everywhere you see young faces, neatly dressed, with fashionable hairstyles, all taking cute selfies on their mobile phones, but all also talking in every conceivable kind of regional dialect. It is obvious that eighty to ninety per cent of them come from the countryside. In the building where I live, most of the rooms are rented out to young people like them. Some of them will actually put down roots in Xi’an and do well for themselves, but the majority drift from one job to another because they are badly paid, badly treated, or the job is too hard and they leave. But they won’t go home, they would rather live on dry bread three times a day than return to village life. Once they have been in Xi’an for a year or two, they won’t go back, especially the girls. The central government issues a discussion document at the start of every year, proclaiming that it wants to build new socialist villages, but the villages have no young people any more. Are they going to rely on the old folks who have been left looking after the children to build them? I have seen villages with smart new buildings, with signs reading ‘Village Party Committee’, ‘Party Members’ Recreation Centre’, ‘Medical Clinic’ and ‘Agricultural Research Station’, but these are all in villages that are close to the city, with good land and within reach of highways. In remote backward areas, the men who lack the ability, the skills or the funds to leave, are left behind in the villages to scratch a living on the land. They have no possibility of marrying. I have been to villages made up almost entirely of wifeless men.

One man I met, crippled since he fell down a cliff and broke his leg installing electricity in the village, told me: “My family will die out because of me, and our village will vanish in our lifetime.”

I could think of nothing to say.

Pandas are precious precisely because it is so difficult to persuade them to breed in captivity; conversely, the more despised and lowly the species – like rabbits, rats, houseflies and mosquitos – the faster they breed. Yet these despised and lowly men have no chance of breeding at all! The more something goes from being useful to being useless, the more it is considered art. So, in the city, all kinds of sex turns into ‘art’, while these village men remain wifeless and childless. I remember when ‘scar literature’ was fashionable, all of it bewailing the fate of educated youth sent to suffer the privations of village life during the Cultural Revolution. I was one of them, but I questioned why it was so wrong that young townsfolk should be sent down to rural areas, when it was apparently assumed that it was right and proper that villagers, including myself, should suffer poverty and hardship. Let me be clear: kidnapping of women and children is brutal and cruel and should be cracked down on. But every time there is a crackdown, the traffickers are severely punished and the police are lauded for their heroic rescues, no one mentions the fact that the cities have plundered wealth, labour power and women from the villages. No one talks about the men left behind in the wastelands to wither like gourds on the frame, flowering once, then dying fruitless. These are the last villages in China, and the men are probably the last bachelors too.

This is the story of our age, is it not?

I wanted to explore how the cities grew fat while the villages fell into destitution, whether the remaining villagers were timid or fierce, pitiable or loathsome.”

Nevertheless, I did not write this story for ten years. I did not know how to write it. How should I describe my village neighbour’s daughter being tricked into a car, her struggles when she realised something was wrong, the beatings, the rape? How to describe how they threatened to disfigure her, to cut her kidney out, how she watched as the traffickers bargained over her and sold her? How to write about her mother who wept herself blind for three years, until her father heard about a trafficking hub in a small town in Shanxi province and spent a year slaving away in a brick kiln to scrape together the money to go and look for her, finally tracking her down, driving a hundred li of mountain roads by night, lying in wait for two days and three nights at the entrance to the village? How to write about their meeting, father and daughter, with him pretending that he was paying the bride a visit in order not to arouse hostility from the villagers; his trip back to Xi’an where he told the Public Security Bureau exactly where his daughter was, but they demanded that he raise the money for their trip because their budget wouldn’t run to it; about how he went back to collecting trash to raise the money but was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing three manhole covers? How to tell the story of the girl’s rescue: the villagers up in arms, the injuries to the policeman’s leg and the father’s head, before they finally snatched the girl back? How to describe how the girl came back to the city but was overwhelmed by public attention and longing for her baby, and returned to the village where she had been taken? I did not want to write the story of a simple kidnap. There have been far too many reports of criminal cases in recent years, some even more bizarre and cruel than kidnappings, such as the imprisonment and torture of people trying to present petitions for justice, domestic violence and terrorist attacks. What I wanted to explore was how the cities grew fat while the villages fell into destitution, what the village where my neighbour’s kidnapped daughter ended up was really like, which bits had fallen down or washed away, whether the remaining villagers were timid or fierce, pitiable or loathsome, were they iced-up like snow-bound Mount Fuji or a live volcano that could blow at any moment?

That version of the story had a rich plot, with a bizarre ending, and I was full of indignation and grief, but after I had written ten, a hundred, several hundred pages, I had to stop. I was too anxious – I did not understand my characters or where I stood in this – for my novel to flow freely. If I held a rice bowl under a waterfall, how much water could I expect to catch? I knew I was innately curious, as if I hovered over life with a pair of chopsticks ready to sample anything. And I was sensitive too. When someone came to visit me, I sensed everything, the way ants smell out sugar. Eventually, I started the whole thing again. This story was like the rice straw used to tie up a live crab, I couldn’t possibly use it to tie up bundles of garlic chives.

As I began to write, it was not me writing, I was allowing poor kidnapped Butterfly to lament her fate in her own words. She has finished lower middle school, so she has a bit of education and social aspirations. She likes to sprinkle her speech with traditional sayings, she seems to know both everything and nothing. As she laments, who is she talking to? To me? To the world around her? The word for novel in Chinese is literally ‘small talk’ and this story is a very small talk, but it’s not me talking, it’s Butterfly. I originally planned to write 400,000 characters but after 150,000 characters, it was done. The reason may be that it’s not a complicated story, or that I’m old and I wanted to cut her short, using subtraction rather than addition. But 150,000 characters is fine, and through me trying to get the whole process into it, and trying to escape from my former narrative habits, Broken Wings became the shortest novel I have ever written, and in so doing I was able to reap and enjoy the fruits of a different kind of experience.

Having completed this manuscript of fewer than three hundred pages, I said to myself: Your birthplace has determined what you are. It’s like pottery glazes, on Jingdezhen porcelain it is blue and white, and on Yaotou pottery it is black.

I have been an author for decades, and have chosen any number of topics and forms, but with this work, I have written about myself, and only myself.

But a novel takes on a life of its own, it is both under my control and escapes my control. I originally planned it purely a lament by Butterfly, but as I wrote, other elements appeared: her baby grows in her belly day by day, the days pass and her baby becomes Rabbit, Butterfly’s sufferings increase, and she becomes as pitiable a figure as Auntie Spotty-Face and Rice. The birth of a novel is like the clay figure shaped in the image of a divinity by a sculptor in a temple; once it is finished, the sculptor kneels to worship it because the clay figure has become divine.

From the Afterword to Broken Wings, translated by Nicky Harman (ACA Publishing, £10.99)


Jia Pingwa (born 1952) stands with Mo Yan and Yu Hua as one of the biggest names in contemporary Chinese literature. A prolific producer of novels, short stories and essays, he has a huge following on the Chinese mainland, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. An early English translation of his 1988 novel Turbulence by Howard Goldblatt won the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Literature. In 1997, his 1993 bestseller Ruined City was first published abroad in French as La Capitale déchue (Abandoned Capital), translated by Genevieve Imbot-Bichet. It was published in English translation in January 2016, again by Howard Goldblatt, this time as part of the Chinese Literature Today Book Series. Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman, and The Lantern Bearer, translated by Carlos Rojas, were published in 2017. Broken Wings is published in paperback and eBook by ACA Publishing.
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Nicky Harman lives in the UK and is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors). She has translated a wide range of Chinese authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry and contributed to literary magazines such as AsianCha, Chutzpah, and Words Without Borders.

Read an extract from Happy Dreams