When China embarked on its Three Gorges Dam project to harness the waters of the Yangtze for electrical power, many viewed it as a potential human and environmental disaster. China’s artists were quick to seize upon it as a subject of numerous films and books depicting the personal human toll as villages and towns were torn down to make room for the dam. California-based writer/journalist Li Miao Lovett recently came to town to read from her debut novel on the subject, “In The Lap of the Gods”. Our writer reviews the book below. — Alan Lau, IE Arts Editor
Great progress and human thriving play rivals against each other in Li Miao Lovett’s “In The Lap of The Gods”.
Lovett’s novel details the livelihood of peasants who farm along the Great Yangtze in modern China. The Three Gorges Dam is a historic event in China — the dams built to manage the flooding of the Yangtze river. The lives of the farming peasants have been adversely affected and obliterated in the gargantuan effort to build dams along the Yangtze. The construction of the dams have taken away the land and its fertile river rich soil prime for farming. Generations of Chinese farmers have depended on this land.
Imagine the beautiful, sublime Chinese landscape and the realism of Lovett’s geography. The geography of the novel spans from Chongqing, a region in southwestern China along the Yangtze River, to the Three Gorges Dam, considered a modern engineering vision. The story of Liu Renfu and baby Rose inhabits the villages and townships, abandoned and condemned to make possible floods to help with the building of the dams along the Yangtze and other minor rivers. There is the village of Fengjie, in which Liu lives with his wife, who passes away with child in the eighth month. After the loss of wife and his hope for the child, Liu leaves for old Wushan, a town anticipated to be demolished for another flooding for the dam and will be rebuilt as New Wushan on higher ground.
The novel’s background is modern China — delving into the contrast between the countryside and the big city — epitomized by Chongqing. The geography of this region of rivers demonstrates the lack of appreciation for women in both the traditional and political culture, and the threadbare economic life in the country and sometimes cities.
Imagine also the life of an unschooled son of peasants like Liu who becomes a scavenger to the fresh haunts just left behind by villagers and townspeople. The villagers and townspeople hold out until the last moment when the water becomes flood. On a venture to scavenge, Liu rescues a foundling whom he takes in as his daughter, baby Rose. The foundling is Liu’s second chance at a family life.
Liu’s partner in this scavenging enterprise is a shady businessman, Fang Shuping. Ol’ Fang comes from a wealthy family for which he has been much criticized in his youth during the years of the Revolution. At first, Fang is a greedy “deal-maker,” as the middle-man collecting remnants sometimes jewelry to sell off for a profitable sum, sometimes even a black market trade to sell abandoned infants to orphanages. But further into the novel, Fang changes as he recalls Red Guards and students rioting in Nanjing. He remembers when a student saved his life, and his sad tale of loving the daughter of a local party official in the countryside. Fang tells Liu, “When I left Nanjing with those scoundrels, I was thrilled to be sent away….It was a second chance at life, and I seized it.”
The novel reveals other causes for reflection: such as women’s roles in this shifting culture where family child-rearing has been controlled. Mei Ling, a waitress at a restaurant owned by one of Liu’s few friends has a story the author takes to heart. Mei Ling’s life, her grandmother’s tragic fall for giving birth to a baby fathered by a merchant from whom she begs for rice to help feed the family. Mei Ling’s mother is subjugated to the temper of Mei Ling’s father after the first born, Mei Ling, is not a son.
Religion is also woven into the story. The character, Mei Ling, brings into the story the life of Catholics in the area. Her devotion flickers as she escapes from her oppressive father by marrying Liu and moving to Chongqing to make a living to support her family only to succumb to an unfortunate affair.
In the end, who are the Gods? Liu goes to a fortune-teller to learn of his future from the “gods of fate.” Who are the Gods? A corrupted government taking away land from peasants without just recompense, the Communist Party who governs, the will of the peasant farmers and the abandoned, or fate itself?
“In the Lap of The Gods” is an elegy to the landscape and geography of a region with great rivers. It provides a lyrical ending to those villages Liu scavenges, villages buried in the swollen water of the rivers, by nature and by human planning.
A thought occurs to Liu in meeting an old acquaintance for a final boat ride to visit the villages: “But he [Liu] understood the impulse to salvage the living from forces that snatched away life.”
Li Miao Lovett’s “In The Lap of the Gods” gives form to the history of a place and a vivid set of characters within the context of this history. The novel comes with high praises.