Hallowed Be My Name
In 1963, John F. Kennedy said of America, "This country can not afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor." As a prosperous country with capitalist ideals managing its economy, America has its values based on personal wealth, material gain, and individualistic means of survival. Values set in China's socialist history conflicted with this Western ideology until the Deng era claimed an economic system not so dissimilar to the basic American model. With Confucianism or Maoism no longer the core of the thought, action, and spirituality of the people of China, the pro-democracy reform of the 1990s drove the nation's people to seek spiritual sustenance in their personally gained material goods as capitalist ideals inched their way into their society. In Liu Heng’s Black Snow, the main character Li Huiquan struggles to get by in a society that is beginning to devalue personal relationships among its people and to place more significance on monetary success of the individual. Huiquan, just released from prison, takes on the job of a street peddler of clothing. He feels that he only needs as much money as will allow him to stay alive, and yet he notices that money has become a much more vital part of others' lives, that it has almost consumed them to the point that they can not create real, trusting relations with people because of their obsession with it. Money is Huiquan's means to an end, but to others money is the end itself.
A friendless orphan, Huiquan wanders the city of Beijing pondering his existence, the existence of others, the force of fate, life, and death. Exhausted with loneliness, he cannot seem to find anyone or anything to capture his attention. Huiquan lacks a spiritual life and yet is denied by the current political situation of the 1990s the opportunity to create a real one. His time goes into selling low quality clothing on the street, as well as sitting in a karaoke bar at night watching a certain young singer perform on stage. This singer, Zhao Yaqiu, is enchanting to Huiquan because of her subtle beauty and innocent charm, and thus becomes a type of idol for him to worship. Without any direction on how to interact with females, or to properly worship anything, Huiquan humiliates himself in trying to win her respect and affection. He tries to be her bodyguard and later gives her an expensive ring, but it becomes apparent she is too focused on her own personal success to reciprocate any of the feelings Huiquan has for her. She refers to him as just a mere fan of hers: “See how loyal my fans are—they even come looking for me here,” she says to others when Huiquan approaches her after her show. Any warmth that seems to emit from her is somehow manipulative, as she has many men escort her home after her shows, which Huiquan once thought was his role alone. Though Huiquan never lusts perversely after her or has any ill intentions, Zhao Yaqiu ends up giving herself to an older man who hardly cared for her and yet promised to make her a star. What is important to her is being admired by fans, having career success, and making money, not establishing meaningful relations with anyone who is most fond of who she is behind her mask.
Cui Yongli, the shady older man who introduces Huiquan to the black market, is described as having what Huiquan lacks: money, women, a life of ease and comfort. What makes Cui Yongli more admirable than Huiquan—in the eyes of others—is his ability to easily make money and get away with his underground activity ("He's as slippery as an eel!"). Huiquan is loyal to all his friends, but Cui uses Huiquan for his own personal business and also went against his promise to Huiquan, making moves on Zhao Yaqiu. Though this is a contrast between the two men that makes Huiquan the respectable character, he stills sees himself as pathetic because he does not have the life of women and money that Cui Yongli has. It is greed and pride that drives Cui away from building a strong relationship with Huiquan. This same theme is seen in another of Huiquan's friends, Ma Yifu, who lies to Huiquan in order to borrow money to waste on hopeless gambling.
Huiquan is the loyal friend, and yet this loyalty is used as a tool for others to gain their own personal money and success. Money is worshipped; friendship is not. Huiquan's sad realization that "everyone lived for himself, period!" led him to bitterly accept his lonely death, cursing the lives of all those who betrayed him. Huiquan could not survive in an impersonal new China worshipping the hollow relationships with people who only worshipped themselves.
The Lost Generation
During the transition from Maoist China to a progressively democratic as well as liberal market economy, many people felt left behind. Li Huiquan in Black Snow by Liu Heng is representative of all those left behind, all those who were unable to adapt to a new system of values and a new lifestyle. Prior to his imprisonment, Li Huiquan was respected despite his violent nature because of his sincere loyalty. During this period of time, skills were not as necessary, as socialist planned economy and the collectivization of communes divided labor evenly, and Huiquan was able to survive based on his personal connections. In the post-Mao era, however, Huiquan found China transforming into a capitalist economy where buying and selling is the way to life and where income and salary is the benchmark of personal success or worth. An orphan and without any particular skills, due to his upraising during Mao's reign, Huiguan as well as many others of his generation found themselves unable to adapt to such a radically different social order.
Once Mao's China had come to an end, the Chinese people had to realize that Mao was gone and that the new government didn't care anymore if you were rich or poor or if you were ideologically similar or not to the current political party's beliefs. Democracy was emerging when Li Huiquan got out of prison. His emergence from a labor reform camp mirrors the Chinese people's emergence from a communist state to an increasingly capitalist state and the abruptness in which it occurred. In a matter of years, China had undergone severe modification, and like Huiquan upon his release from prison, people living in China at this time found themselves in a very different world.
This post-Maoist Chinese society allowed people to take control of their lives and entertain the idea of free will. However, those like Huiquan that had grown up under Maoist rule had never had such an opportunity. Now that the opportunity presented itself, many people found taking control over their lives difficult. They had become fated to fail because the Maoist society in which they were brought up forbade individualism and private ownership. To be highly knowledgeable and skilled was to doom oneself to outcast status. In post-Maoist China, however, social norms were turned on their head and individualism, consumerism, and self-perseverance became the keys to personal success. Young adults at this time had grown up in a time where communes became a leading means of economic involvement and jobs were assigned—guaranteed—not earned. To have to suddenly switch from being forced into a particular job to having to find work in a field you have no experience in created much trouble for the individuals of Huiquan's generation.
Not only did the economic system change dramatically, but personal values underwent tremendous transformations. Huiquan had been respected despite his criminal status because of his sincere loyalty. After Maoism went out of fashion, loyalty was surpassed by financial status as a determinant of personal qualities. The only people who still embraced the earlier values were other individuals labeled deviant such as Ma Fang and Spike. Because Huiquan's traditional values were not accepted in the new capitalist China, he had to return to his previous, criminal, friends for acceptance. What is there to cherish in a constantly changing society? What was illegal became legal, what was respected became a mark of shame. With such turmoil, it becomes very hard to know what values will persist and what will become outdated. Because of such turnover, Huiquan and his fellow deviants find that their now-outdated values are the safest option. Loyalty to one's self and one's own values was the only way to preserve one's identity. Otherwise, with each political shift one must redefine oneself, resulting in personal crisis.
To Huiquan and the others left behind in such a political transformation, holding closely to one's own values and beliefs was the only means for the survival of one's identity. To remove oneself from all that one had learned through life was to remove oneself from one's roots; to do such was more harmful than the outcast status otherwise attributed to one's self.
Winds of Change
| Liu Heng's novel, Black Snow, is a rather depressing
tale about a man, Li Huiquan, and his search for himself. Li Huiquan, a
one time gangster, just got out of labor reform camp when the book starts
and goes back to the place that used to be his home, even though no one
lives there anymore. He devotes himself to starting anew by no longer fighting
and by getting a steady job as a street vendor. He makes enough money to
support himself and live a decent, modest life. This modest life does not,
however, bring him happiness.
Throughout the story Li Huiquan struggles to survive in a modern Chinese culture that has changed greatly since his youthful days. The main theme of the book is the author's portrayal of the changes in human relations as a result of China's economic reform and transformation. As China began shifting to a more decentralized market socialist society in the 1980s, relationships between individuals also began to shift.
This story portrays the breakdown of social relationships between men, women, and friends. First, the author shows men as those that only take care of themselves and that cannot be worried about the problems of other individuals in society or the problems of society as a whole. Second, he portrays women as superficial and vain beings that have become nothing more than teases for men. Lastly, Liu Heng portrays friends as nothing more than people that will use you at any costs.
Li Huiquan devoted himself to his friends and believed in loyalty to them no matter what. He was, however, betrayed by all of them. Cui had sex with Zhao Yaoiu, whom Li Huiquan had intense feelings for; Spike stole hundreds of dollars from him, and Ma Yifu lied to him and squandered his money. These people used Li Huiquan because 1990s China has no recognition of love or friendship. In the post-Deng era, friendships are based on utility.
Liu Huiquan, however, still lives by the morals and codes of social relationships of a past time. He is seeking to fill a void in his life and looking to find meaning while others are looking to use him. Money has taken the place of traditional Chinese values and Li Huiquan cannot grasp that fact. He is doomed to fail at the outset because he lives in a completely different world; ultimately, one devoid of real love or sincerity.
As a result of this he experiences different degrees of alienation and faces his own death. Before he can commit suicide, his life is cut down by thugs trying to rob him. I think it is ironic that he was once a thug in his past and now he dies at the hands of those just like him. It is rather fitting that teenage thugs kill him because he is more like them than anyone and they would probably understand him more than anyone.
In his novel Black Snow, Liu Heng examines what could be considered a lost generation in Chinese history caught between the end of Maoism and the beginning of capitalism. To do so Liu Heng uses his main character Li Huiquan to present the problems that this lost generation is encountering and explores the reasons why they occur. In addition, Liu Heng makes criticisms of the new capitalism.
Liu Heng's criticism is not necessarily that of capitalism itself but directed toward the transition the Chinese government has made that is too fast for its population. During the Maoist period, individuals like Li Huiquan would be deemed valuable because they were loyal and even though in Li Huiqaun's case he is violent, other elements of his character make him valuable. In the new capitalist society, he is unable to keep up because his usefulness is now measured by his productivity or his earning power. The society has created a new type of individual that was incapable of existing before.
Instead his life is constantly filled with disappointments and betrayals that are all caused by his lack of maturity. Having never had true parenting, Li Huiquan is no more mature than when he entered prison and therefore is easy to take advantage of. For instance, when fellow convict Spike Fang shows up, he gives him money but in the end Spike ends up robbing him. Li Huiquan however is unable to see this coming because he trusts Spike fully despite his criminal background. Instead he believes that his loyalty to Spike will be enough for him to respect him but is sorely mistaken. Li Huiquan's maturity is stunted and will never progress because in the new society no one is going to bother to raise him. Instead Li Huiquan is left with betrayals, anguish, and his violent instincts.
The lost generation for the most part has Li Huiquan's problem. The values that they grew up with are no longer the values that are held in high regard in the new society so they feel misplaced. However, Li Huiquan's general problem is made worse by his potentially violent personality and his relative innocence. While others might feel misplaced, Li Huiquan is left behind.
Liu Heng's novel is certainly not a hopeful look at the new Chinese society. Black Snow also has a certain element of originality because of Li Huiquan. Unlike many other characters in Chinese literature that have been wronged by the changing society, Li Huiquan was never wealthy, or any sort of an intellectual. In fact, he has never even truly become an adult. This originality makes Liu Heng's novel not only original but also makes it easier for a younger generation to relate to.