Set between the late 1940s and early 1970s, Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (translated by Andrew Jones) tells the story of an ordinary man living in hard times. Xu Sanguan works at a silk factory which usually provides enough income to support his wife and three sons. When times get desperate and money runs short, Xu Sanguan sells blood at the local hospital to bail out the family. Unlike most of the Chinese literature I’ve read, this book does not employ any literary pyrotechnics. It is a straightforward story of a man growing up from a curious teen to a selfish young patriarch to a man devoted to his family.
When he is a young man, Xu Sanguan asks questions of everyone. His questions bring him the lifelong friendship of two farmers who teach him about blood-selling. They teach him to drink massive amounts of water before (to thin the blood, they say, so that there’s more of it) and to eat fried pork livers after (to help build up the blood again). Blood-selling is not entirely respectable, as most people believe that doing so shortens one’s life and ruins one’s health. Xu Sanguan doesn’t make a habit of selling his blood; he just sells a few pints when he needs cash to support a wife and start a family.
Time skips in Chronicle of a Blood Merchant to various crises in Xu Sanguan’s life and he has to sell blood. He is not, at first a likeable man. He’s frequently cruel to his wife. When he learns that his son is not biologically related to him, he treats the boy differently from his other sons. He feuds with his wife’s former beau and commits adultery. I started to see his wife as a martyr. (Though I did laugh at the way she would cry on the family’s front porch and shout about her woes so that all the neighbors would know exactly how her husband had wronged her this time. She kind of reminded me of Mrs. Bennett.)
As I read the first half of this novel, I thought I was in for another tale of misery. But in the second half, Xu Sanguan learns to be kind to his wife and children. He stops being quite so selfish. When he sells blood in almost every hospital between his hometown and Shanghai to try and save his illegitimate son’s life, he becomes very like a hero in his sacrifice. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is the first work of Chinese literature I’ve read so far that shows such kindness and devotion to family. By the end, I rather enjoyed this book.