Chinese Language Blog

A Chinese Book Review: Chronicle of a Blood Merchant Posted by on Sep 7, 2020 in Culture

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许三观卖血记 (Xǔ Sānguān Mài Xiě Jì) is a 1995 novel by the Chinese writer Yu Hua. Translated to English by the name Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, the book tells the story of Xu Sanguan who finds a way to augment his meager salary. A way that changes his life.

Xu Sanguan lives in the city and works as a cart-pusher in a silk mill. His family believes that selling blood considers as proof of a strong body. 在这地方身子骨结实的人都去卖血 (zài zhè dì fāng shēn zi gǔ jiē shi de rén dōu qù mài xuè, the strong people in our village sell blood), his uncle says. Selling blood not only presents you as healthy, but also earns you quite a sum: 卖一次血能挣三十五块钱呢 (mài yī cì xuè néng zhēng sān shí wǔ kuài qián ne, you can earn 35 Yuan for selling blood).

Xu Sanguan joins the villagers in their visit to the city hospital to sell blood. He wishes to use the money to find a girl to marry: 我想找个女人去结婚了 (wǒ xiǎng zhǎo gè nǚ rén qù jié hūn le). With the blood money, he invites the beautiful Xu Yulan to eat dumplings. Soon after, he proposes, but Xu Yulan has a boyfriend. Xu Sanguan doesn’t accept her refusal, and convinces her father to let his daughter marry him.

In five years Xu Yulan gives birth to three sons: 许玉兰在五年时间里生下了三个儿子 (Xǔ Yùlán zài wǔ nián shí jiān lǐ shēng xià le sān gè er zi). Xu Sanguan named his sons Yile, Erle and Sanle: 许三观给他三个儿子取名为许一乐,许二乐,许三乐 (Xǔ Sānguān gěi tā sān gè ér zi qǔ míng wèi Xǔ Yīlè, Xǔ Èrlè, Xǔ Sānlè).

As his eldest son grows up, people begin to talk. This kid doesn’t look like Xu Sanguan at all, they said: 一乐这个孩子长得一点都不像许三观 (Yīlè zhège hái zi zhǎng dé yī diǎn dōu bù xiàng Xǔ Sānguān). It seems that Yile looks like his mother’s former boyfriend, He Xiaoyong. Yile’s eyes, nose, and big ears seem more and more similar to He Xiaoyong: 一乐的眼睛,一乐的鼻子,还有一乐那一对大耳朵,越长越像何小勇了(Yī lè de yǎn jīng, Yīlè de bízi, hái yǒu Yīlè nà yī duì dà ěr duǒ, yuè zhǎng yuè xiàng Hé Xiǎoyǒng le).When Xu Yulan admits their relationship wasn’t innocent, Xu Sanguan believes his eldest could be He Xiaoyong’s child.

At the age of nine, Yile gets into a serious fight, and injures the other kid badly. Xu Sanguan is required to pay the hospital fee of the battered kid, but refuses. 一乐又不是我的儿子 (Yī lè yòu bù shì wǒ de ér zi, Yile is not my son), he says, I’ve raised him for nine years, and I will keep fostering him (以后一乐还由我来抚养 yǐ hòu yī lè hái yóu wǒ lái fǔ yǎng), but this time He Xiaoyong has to pay the money. Xu Yulan then goes to her ex boyfriend, promising him that Xu Sanguan will waive his debt for raising his son for nine years, if only He Xiaoyong will pay the hospital fee. The father of the hospitalized kid asks He Xiaoyong to pay the bill for the sake of these nine years. Even Yile is sent to appeal to He Xiaoyong. All in vain. Having no other choice, Xu Sanguan returns to the hospital. Ten years after he sold blood for the first time, he sells his blood again.

In 1958, the Communist Party of China leads The Great Leap Forward campaign, aiming to accelerate the industrialization process of China. Furnaces are built in every corner. Wearing red armbands, people go from door to door to collect every family’s pots and bowls, making cooking at home impossible. People are invited to eat in the new canteens. But when the canteens are being shut down one after the other, the days of famine begin. After 57 days of eating only porridge, Xu Sanguan goes to city hospital once again. His body weak, he can barely speak, but he is determined to sell his blood again, so he can take his wife and kids to eat noodles. He doesn’t want, though, to spend his blood money on He Xiaoyong’s child. Before they go to the restaurant, Xu Sanguan gives Yile five Jiao to buy himself a roasted sweet potato from the stall down the street for dinner. Can’t you treat me like your biological son and take me to eat noodles, too? (你能不能把我当一回亲生儿子,让我也去吃一碗面条?, nǐ néng bù néng bǎ wǒ dāng yī huí qīn shēng ér zi, ràng wǒ yě qù chī yī wǎn miàn tiáo?), asks Yile. But Xu Sanguan refuses, leaving hungry Yile behind.

Years later, the days of famine passed, Xu Yulan’s ex-boyfriend unfortunately passes away, and Xu Sanguan finally accepts his eldest son as his own. But then comes the Cultural Revolution. Big character posters cover the walls, criticizing counter-revolutionists. Mass parades on the streets condemn capitalists and landlords. High-ranking officials and civilians are all targeted. People use the revolution to avenge past deeds, and no one is safe, including XuYulan. One day, Sanle returns home and tells his parents about the poster he saw, in which Xu Yulan is portrayed as a whore 破鞋 (pò xié, literally means worn-out shoe). She is then taken to be judged at an assembly, and returns back with half of her head shaven. She is also ordered to stand on a small stool in the middle of the street with a wood board hanging on her neck declaring that she is a prostitute. Curious to know what the Xu family did? I will let you read the rest by yourself. You can listen to the audio book here, and watch this video clip summarizing the movie based on the book:

Text vocabulary

mài = to sell

 zhèng = to make money

结实 jiē shi = sturdy

结婚 jié hūn = to get married

生下 shēng xià = to give birth to

儿子 ér zi = son

取名 qǔ míng = to name

xiàng = to look like, to resemble

抚养 fǔ yǎng = to foster, to raise

亲生 qīn shēng = one’s natural child


Another book review:

Book Review: Shanghai Girls / Lisa See



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  1. Tianhui:

    What a powerful reminder of China’s past !

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