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Strange Tales from Strange Lands.

Strange Tales from Strange Lands makes available in English some of the best short stories written by Zheng Wanlong (b. 1944), a contemporary writer identified with the "Questing for Roots" school (xungenpaz), also known as the "National Culture" school (minzuwenhuapai), of the mid-1980s. As a response to the influx of Western influences, Zheng and writers such as Han Shaogong, Jia Pingwa, and A Cheng turned to "national culture" for inspiration and for spiritual orientation. The classification national culture covers both Han Chinese traditions and those of ethnic minorities. Zheng's fiction features the Oroqens in Northeast China as well as the Han Chinese who have migrated to the Oroqen area in recent times as gold miners, lumberjacks, and traders. As Kam Louie points out in his introduction, what emerges from the varied work of xungenpai writers is not a single common root of Chinese culture or a unitary "national self" but a conglomeration of traditions and selves--i.e., a "root system." Zheng has made a contribution to this "root system" by depicting the long-neglected Far North and adding it to the fictional landscape of China.

In his stories Zheng has created a series of memorable characters, among them a teenage boy caught in an Oedipal conflict with his mean and cruel father, a backwoods "knight-errant" named Three Kick Chen, an Oroqen girl torn between her vague longing for a mysterious man on the run and her love for her grandfather who loyally but futilely guards a timber depot, an old man risking his life in a flood to salvage an earthenware pot that turns out to be empty, and an Oroqen man who is alienated from his own tribal tradition but cannot accept modern civilization, symbolized by the clock. The reader will not easily forget the deadly snowstorms, the shamanistic rituals of the Oroqens, and the rough-and-tumble frontiersmen lured to the "strange land" by dreams of gold and inescapably living out their shares of love, hate, trust, betrayal, hope, and despair.

As its title indicates, Strange Tales from Strange Lands capitalizes on the exoticism of frontier life and Oroqen customs. Zheng is vague about the time frame of most of his tales, thus lending to them a mythic ethos. While appreciating Zheng's representation of an ill-known ethnic group in a remote corner of China, the reader should be aware, as Louie convincingly argues, that Zheng's fictive Great Khingan Mountains region is conjured up as an "other" of Han Chinese culture and that the roots Zheng is searching for are largely personal.

Louie's introduction offers a useful guide to readers new to Zheng's fiction. However, one senses an occasional tendency in Louie to fit Zheng's fiction too neatly into his critical scheme. For example, Louie alleges that Shenken in "The Gorge" needlessly risks life by refusing to use guns to hunt the bear, just to show off his machismo. In fact, both the Oroqen worship of the bear as a totem and the traditional taboo against hunting the bear with guns can be explained by the need to maintain the ecological balance of Oroqen country. This posture of humbleness and self-restraint before nature is very "feminine" compared with modern men's callous readiness to slaughter animals with gunfire. No wonder nature is aptly symbolized here by a female bear about to give birth to a cub, and Shenken dies embracing the bear, which he has stabbed to death to protect two boys who have attempted to gun down the bear and prove their manhood.

The translations by various student hands are generally quite readable but uneven in quality. The vibrant style of Zheng's prose comes through well in English, although thorough editing would probably have eliminated many minor mistakes.

Sheng- Tai Chang South Puget Sound Community College
COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Oklahoma
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Chang, Sheng-Tai
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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