Originally published in 1987, two years before the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhang Wei's award-winning novel is the story of three generations of the Sui, Zhao, and Li families living in the fictional northern town of Wali during China's troubled postliberation years.
Spanning four decades following the creation of the People's Republic in 1949, The Ancient Ship is a bold examination of a society in turmoil, the struggle of oppressed people to control their own fate, and the clash between tradition and modernization. In the course of the narrative, the townspeople of Wali face the moments that have defined China's history during the latter part of the twentieth century: the land reform programs, the famine of 1959-1961, the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, and the Cultural Revolution. Translated into English for the very first time, The Ancient Ship is a revolutionary work of Chinese fiction that speaks to people across the globe.
About the Author
Zhang Wei is a member of the Chinese Writers Association, an organization for which he has served as the vice-chairman of the Shandong branch. He is one of the most widely respected fiction writers of the post-Mao era, and he lives in Beijing.
Read an Excerpt
The Ancient Ship
By Wei Zhang
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Many great walls have risen on our land. They are almost as old as our history. We have built high walls and stored up vast quantities of grain in order to survive. That is why so many lofty structures have snaked across our dark soil and over our barren mountain ranges.
We have shed pools of blood at the bases of our walls to nourish the grass that grows there. In the Warring States Period the stately Great Wall of Qi reached the Ji River to the west and nearly all the way east to the ocean; at one time it split the Shandong Peninsula in two, north and south. But like so many walls before it, the Great Wall of Qi crumbled out of existence. Here is how the Kuadi Gazetteer describes it: "The Great Wall of Qi originates in Pingyin County in the northwest prefecture of Jizhou and follows the river across the northern ridge of Mount Tai. It winds through Jizhou and Zizhou, north of Bocheng County in southwestern Yanzhou, and continues on to the ocean at Langya Terrace in Mizhou." If you keep heading in that direction in search of other old walls, you will not find many relics. The capital of Qi was at Linzi. From the middle of the ninth century BCE emissaries bringing tribute to the throne entered the capital via Bogu. Then in the year 221 BCE the First Emperor of Qin vanquished the Qi, who had held sway for more than 630 years.Both the Qin and the Han continued to utilize the Great Wall of Qi, which did not fall into disuse until the Wei and the Jin dynasties. It stood for more than a thousand years. The source of the Luqing River is in Guyang Mountain, where another wall once existed; whether or not it was part of the Great Wall of Qi has never been determined, despite attempts by archaeologists to find evidence.
From there the searchers followed the river north for four hundred li to the strategically important town of Wali on the river's lower reaches. The most conspicuous site there was a squat rammed-earth wall that encircled the town. Mortar showed at the base. Squared corners, which rose above the wall, were made of bricks that had darkened to the color of iron and were still in fine condition. The surveyors, reluctant to leave, stood at the base to touch the bricks and gaze at the battlements. And it was during this northern expedition that they made a startling archaeological discovery: the ancient city of Donglaizi, which had stood in the vicinity of Wali. There they found a tall earthen mound, the last remaining section of a city wall. What both amused and distressed them was the realization that generations of residents had used the mound as a kiln to fire bricks. A stone monument, with an inscription in gold, had been erected atop the now abandoned kiln, stating that it had once been the site of a wall surrounding the city-state of Donglaizi; it was considered an important protected cultural artifact. The loss to Wali was patently clear, but the discovery served as proof that their town had once existed within the walled city-state of Donglaizi. Undeniably, that is where their ancestors had lived, and by using a bit of imagination they could conjure up glimpses of armor glinting in bright sunlight and could almost hear the whinnying of warhorses. Their excitement was dulled somewhat by disappointment, for what they should have found was a towering city wall and not just an earthen mound.
The current wall, whose bricks had darkened to the color of iron, trumpeted the former glories of the town of Wali. The Luqing River, while narrow and shallow now, had once been the scene of rapids cascading between distant banks. The old, stepped riverbed told the history of the decline of a once great river. An abandoned pier still stood at the edge of town, hinting at the sight of multimasted ships lining up to put in at this major river port. It was where ships' crews rested up before continuing their journey. Grand fairs were held each year on the town's temple grounds, and what sailors likely recalled most fondly as they sailed up and down the river was the bustle and jostling attendant on those annual temple fairs.
One of the riverbanks was dotted with old structures that looked like dilapidated fortresses. When the weather was bad and the river flowed past them, these old fortresses seemed shrouded in gloom. The farther you looked down the bank the smaller the structures became, until they virtually disappeared. But winds across the river brought rumbling sounds, louder and louder, crisper and clearer, emanating from within the walls of those fortresses, which created sound and harbored life. Then you walked up close and discovered that most of their roofs had caved in and that their portals were blocked. But not all of them. Two or three were still alive, and if you were to go inside, you would be surprised by what you saw: enormous millstones that turned, slowly, patiently, kept in motion by pairs of aging oxen, revolutions with no beginnings and no ends. Moss covered the ground in spots that the animals' hooves missed. An old man sitting on a stool kept his eye on a millstone, getting up at regular intervals to feed a ladleful of mung beans into the eye of the stone. These structures had once belonged to a network of mills, all lined up on the riverbank; from inside the rumblings sounded like distant thunder.
Excerpted from The Ancient Ship by Wei Zhang
Copyright © 2008 by Wei Zhang. Excerpted by permission.
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