A tragicomedy, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant relates the story of how Xu Sanguan, a silk factory worker, faces physical pain and sacrifice for the survival of his family. The novel by the Chinese author Yu Hua (1960– ) is also about the protagonist’s frictions and reconciliation with his wife and sons, and his endurance against the hardship of life during Mao’s era in China, from communist saturation during the Great Leap Forward Campaign (1958–60) to the social engineering of the Cultural Revolution (1969–76).
The story of Xu Sanguan unfolds as a series of incidents in which the main character becomes involved in selling his blood for money over a period of 30 years of living through hard economic times. Every blood transaction is strikingly different in terms of the reason, motivation, situation, function, experience, and effect.
The start of Xu Sanguan’s immersion into the habit of selling his own blood for money is accidental. An encounter with two blood merchants from his grandfather’s village inspires Xu Sanguan to have his first try, though his motivation is vague. The money from his first blood sale helps him defeat his rival in courting a girl named Xu Yulan. Xu Sanguan and Xu Yulan soon marry. However, Yile, the son born to the pair, is not Xu Sanguan’s offspring. The next blood transaction, which takes place many years later, is for Yile, who cuts the skull of the blacksmith’s son with a rock in a fight protecting his younger brothers Erle and Sanle, Xu Sanguan’s real sons. Failing to persuade He Xiaoyong, presumably Yile’s real father, to pay for the serious injury Yile infl icted on the blacksmith’s son, Xu Sanguan has to sell his blood for the second time in his life. However, uneasy about his wife’s “nonresistance” to her former boyfriend’s “rape” many years ago and ashamed of having raised another man’s son, he is reluctant to pay for Yile’s troublemaking behavior. Then, partly for revenge and partly for comically libidinous reasons, Xu has sex with another woman who works in the same factory where he works. His third blood sale furnishes him with the money needed to carry on this affair.
These serial reactions create continuous discords between Xu and his wife, but not so seriously as to bring an end to their marriage. Indeed, these incidents seem to be what keeps the marriage going. When living conditions turn worse during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, the story gradually takes on a tragic tone, even though more tender feelings and affections can be found in Xu’s family. In the harder circumstances, Xu Sanguan sells his blood for the fourth time to get his hungry family a relatively nutritious meal. The several blood deals that follow are all for his sons. One is to support Yile and Erle, who are sent to the poor countryside to be reeducated by the peasant farmers according to Mao’s policy. Another is for a dinner treating Erle’s farm leader, who has the power to decide whether and when Erle is permitted to return home and live with his parents.
The final blood transactions are the climax of this novel. Yile’s life is in danger due to contracting hepatitis, and the medical treatment in Shanghai is unaffordable. In a desperate effort to save Yile, Xu Sanguan journeys to Shanghai, selling blood to the hospitals one by one on his route, once in a couple of days, regardless of the effects on his health. His blood transactions even include “buying back” his own blood twice in order to resell it at higher prices. At one point the doctors who want to save Xu’s life find that he has fallen unconscious because too much of his blood has been extracted. Another situation is created when Xu buys “one bowl of” dense blood from a healthy young man who would like to help him and then sells to the hospital “two bowls of” blood diluted by drinking water. This all-out, life-risking struggle against the death of his stepson, and against the limitedness of his body, is one of the most impressive and moving scenes in this novel.
The epilogue of this story is set in the post-Mao era, when Xu Sanguan is old, his three sons grown up and married. No real tragedy has happened to this family during the past years, nor has he had to sell a drop of blood for economic reasons again. One day, however, Xu Sanguan feels a strong inner drive and physical desire to sell his blood once more. Because of his age, a young blood chief refuses him, with humiliating jeers at his old, useless blood. None of his three sons understands Xu’s fury and sadness. Only the fried pig livers ordered by his wife in a restaurant—plate after plate, three in all, when Xu used to have one plate after every blood drawing—gives him some comfort.
For Xu Sanguan, selling his blood has many functions: to serve his family, to satisfy his own needs, to prove his strength and value, and to survive a disastrous age. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant can therefore be understood basically as a story about a common person’s efforts and struggle for better living conditions for his family in hard times. While this conclusion approximates the value Xu places in selling his blood, the novel implies greater and richer motives.
To illustrate this, attention should be focused on the start and end of Xu Sanguan’s career as a blood merchant. Even his family life is the result of his first blood deal. These series of events all begin with a purposeless and accidental act. It is not until after he has been paid for his blood for the first time that Xu discovers what he should do with his life. Then he becomes a husband and a father, and enters the stage of striving for his family. The starting point of the career as a blood merchant brings his life into a dynamic process.
For Xu Sanguan, selling his blood provides a way to cope with the world and to satisfy his needs. But the awareness of his own self is, in fact, his discovery of how to use his body. During his career as a blood merchant, he fosters his own body as an instrument, a money-making machine or an alienated self. The first time Xu attempts to sell blood is for himself, for the sheer experience of his body, but after a lifetime of exploitation, his body is at the point of uselessness. Here we find the tragic fact that the blood transaction, once seen as a way of making a living, has been internalized by the character as a way of living, an inner need of his life. The novel ends in his failed effort to reexperience the existence of his own self, which lies only in the physical sensibility of an exploited body.
This means-becomes-end transition also implies a nihilistic view of life, in which time plays a role. In the river of time, where significant things seem to become meaningless, strength and health belong to the blood merchants no more. Xu Sanguan’s blood associates die or become disabled. The blood chief Li, a person of power in their blood transactions, cannot avoid death either. Only the blood business remains, and a new generation of blood merchants carry the profession on, as life itself goes on. The future of these newcomers can be foretold from Xu’s present. Xu Sanguan once struggled at the edge of life and death, but in the end, the children, for whom Xu has been desperately striving, care only for their own interests. It seems that for every blood merchant, tragedy and the void follow.
Nevertheless, the novel does not suggest a pessimistic attitude toward life. On the contrary, what is of importance here is a quality of endurance, of carrying on while confronting not only the hardship but also the meaninglessness of life.
In this sense, Xu Sanguan is praiseworthy. However, he is just a common person, a nonhero. There are obvious defects and weaknesses in his character. Some of them might compromise our fondness of him, while other behaviors draw us close to him. On the one hand, he is so cruel as to deprive Yile of a bowl of noodles during a famine merely because he does not consider Yile to be his own son; on the other hand, he is kind enough to risk his own life to save Yile. This novel is a success in balancing and combining these two sides of Xu Sanguan’s character in the development of the plot.
The story of the blood merchants takes place in a real historical milieu, but it is far from clear if it is a realistic novel. Some of the characters’ behaviors are so ridiculous as to tint the story with unreal and cartoonlike color. The characters’ dialogue and acts are incredibly frank, thus giving the writing style an impressive tone of absurdity. An example is the funny, sensational description of how Xu Yulan had sex with her former boyfriend and the controversial issue of whether it was a rape or a seduction. This is retold without reservation by Xu Sanguan to his three sons in the “family trial” of Xu Yulan, who is absurdly accused of “prostitution” by the revolutionary activists. The children are described as amazed by these erotic details of their mother’s past, regarding it with curiosity and interest. On the other hand, as a parody of the “public criticism meetings,” which were very popular during the Cultural Revolution, the “family trial” scene in this novel is not so absurd and unreal in the mind of those who bear the historical memory of that real and nightmarish era.
The traumatic historical memories of China are an important background to understanding the story. However, this novel treats people’s sufferings and catastrophes in an easy way, much more mildly than Yu Hua’s former works, which are full of violence and death. Here tragic happenings are represented mostly as comic and funny. This trait is epitomized in an analogy that consistently cheers up every male blood merchant in the novel: The physical weakness after a blood drawing is described as “the same as the experience after one just dismounts from a woman’s body,” although the blood drawing itself is by no means comparable to a sexual orgasm. There is an intentional mixture of suffering and pleasure in a blackly humorous way here, which can be found almost everywhere in the book. This is both the style of the narrative and the attitude of the characters: It is a way of dealing with the hardship of life, to make it a little bit more bearable.
Hong Zhigang. Yuhua Pingzhuan (A Critical Biography of Yu Hua). Zhengzhou: Zhengzhou University Press, 1998.
Knight, Deirdre Sabina. “Capitalist and Enlightenment Values in 1990s Chinese Fiction: The Case of Yu Hua’s Blood Seller.” Textual Practice 16, no. 3 (December 2002). 547–568.
Wu Yiqin. “Farewell to ‘Illusory Forms’—The Significance of Xu Sanguan Selling His Blood to Yu Hua.” Forum in literature and the Arts 1 (2000): 10–19.
Yu Hua. Xu Sanguan Maixue Ji. Shanghai: Shanghai Literary Press, 1996.
Categories: Chinese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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