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Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
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VINE VOICEon March 19, 2005
Blood is certainly one of the most graphic and potent of literary symbols: a life-sustaining fluid, a product of injury or death, a signal of feminine fertility and virginity, a salable commodity, a gift of life via transfusion, and a genetic and metaphorical bond among children, parents, their extended families, and prospective descendants. Each of these meanings plays a significant role in CHRONICLE OF A BLOOD MERCHANT, Yu Hua's harrowing tale of one father's relentless efforts to survive and provide for his family under the most difficult of circumstances.

Set in a small town in mainland China, CHRONICLE OF A BLOOD MERCHANT follows three decades in the life of Xu Sanguan, a cocoon deliverer in a local silk factory, as he marries Xu Yulan, fathers three children (more of less named One, Two, and Three), learns that he has been cuckolded, is in turn unfaithful to his own wife, and helps his family survive the Cultural Revolution, ruinous famines, the "sending down" of two sons to the countryside, and the critical illness of his oldest son, the one he has long known is not his own. Along the way, Xu Sanguan learns to sell his blood at a local hospital as a way to raise emergency funds. Symbolically, of course, Yu Hua is portraying the burdens and hypocrisies of a system in which the lowly and honest can only barely survive by resorting to the extreme measure of selling their energy, their strength, and in some cases, their very lives.

This novel works for several reasons. First, the language is simple and direct, almost choppy and childish at times, a reflection of its uneducated protagonists. Second, the author has created a small cast of characters whose fates are inextricably linked to one another, and among whom actions both good and bad eventually create unplanned or unintended consequences. In particular, the relationship between Xu Sanguan, Xu Yulan, their son Yile, Yile's blood father He Xiaoyong, and He's wife, creates a series of alternating and humorous interdependencies. Third, Yu Hua has skillfully recreated the peasant atmosphere of Chinese village life, complete with gossiping and public lamentations, traditions and superstitions, the importance of connections (guanxi, as the Chinese call it) with higher-ups, and horrific misinformation about human health and personal care.

Finally, CHRONICLE OF A DEATH MERCHANT is a story of fatherly devotion and filial piety. Xu Sanguan is so devoted to his family that he nearly sacrifices his own life to ensure theirs. The last fifty pages describe Xu Sanguan's horrifying physical descent to the edge of death, slowly yet so inevitably that I wanted to shout at him to stop. I was reminded of the similar, sick to the stomach sense of dread I felt watching Morgan Spurlock's SUPER SIZE ME. Curiously, one is about eating and intake, while Xu Sanguan's danger arises from the blood he is selling to raise money.

While I would not classify this book as one of China's great novels, CHRONICLE OF A DEATH MERCHANT is an engaging story, sometimes sad and sometimes humorous, filled with memorable characters. Perhaps more important, it offers a biting critique of an ineffectual and often capricious government system, told from the viewpoint of those who understood it least and suffered at its unfeeling hands the most. Intentionally or otherwise, Yu Hua traces the roots of a rampant blood-selling practice in China's poorest provinces that has created an epidemic of HIV and AIDS cases. This is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in Mao's era, in China's current day HIV health crisis, or simply in a heroic family saga.
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on June 29, 2014
It isn't as dark as the title or the synopsis suggest. In fact, the title is misleading. The main character doesn't sell blood to make a living, but really to help others continue living. I read "To Live" before this one, and "China in Ten Words" before "To Live." "To Live" and this one are similar in that they both bisect the Cultural Revolution in China and tell what it was like living in the countryside during the Great Famine. Each one though is surprisingly funny. And I don't think it's a disingenuous funny. I think these really were ludicrously funny times in China, and it's good to have an author having lived through them portray them in a tragicomic way. China literature is not all opaque kung fu myth, mystical nothingness, and political masochism. It's also pretty humorous and heart-warming. Yu Hua apparently studied the masterpieces because he wanted to be a great writer. This novel shows that he is definitely honing his craft.
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on September 8, 2014
Contrary to the expectations created by title, this isn't so much about any particular blood merchant, but a man who, first by happenstance, and then by necessity, seeks the services of the blood merchant(s). I was a little disappointed in this, hoping for a glimpse into this aspect of Chinese life, even if only a fictional glimpse, but as a regular reader of Yu, I enjoyed the story nonetheless. Yu's stories provide a glimpse into the life of everyday Chinese and what they've experienced over the decades since Mao's "creation" of contemporary China, even though the big events--Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution--are often in the background. If you are a fan of Yu, you'll enjoy this.
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on July 10, 2013
This book is the story of Xu Sanguan, who worked in a silk factory in a small town, and of his wife, family and neighbors and all that happened to them during the events in China in the middle of the twentieth century. On very important ocasions in his life he sold his blood. It is a good story.

The book is very emotional, it made me laugh and cry. I especially remember the relationship with his son Yile.

Some of the events that happen are terrible. And yet, after finishing the book I feel optimistic. I think it is because so many characters are good. I mostly remember love, and not hate. They want to help, they understand and they forgive.
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on May 29, 2016
Very interesting novel. The story about Xu Sanguan's family and life struggles are very interesting and makes you want to keep reading to find out what happens next. The last 50 pages seemed to go on and on though; the ending was a little strange in my opinion but it was an overall captivating read.
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on July 9, 2013
Yu Hua has a writing style like no other. The ability to create emotions so human and globally understandable is amazing. As the mother of a daughter adopted from china, I have become interested in Chinese history and culture and have been reading many books on the subject. Yu Hua elicits emotion from the reader with the compelling scenarios and characters. So touching, so sad, yet so memorable and worth the read.
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on February 21, 2007
I have read many children's books that were originally in Chinese, translated to English. I always thought it was funny the way the children end up with numbers for names in the stories. I was a bit surprised that this book used the same convention (Yile, Enle and Sanle = 1st Joy, 2nd Joy, 3rd Joy). At times I felt that I was reading a children's book and wonder how much of that is because of the translation or is this the Chinese convention for writing? It was often very simple and repetetive. Overall, though, once I finished it, I felt that it was a good story and gave me a little peak through the eyes of the average Xu on a time of political turmoil. Interesting.
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on February 3, 2005
I'm surprised at the negative reviews here. This book was not depressing at all. It was a quick enjoyable read with the subtle humor I find only in Chinese works.
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on May 30, 2017
Great book
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on October 14, 2011
I'm dumbfounded by the blurbs and positive reviews. Some people can blame the translation, but that doesn't change the issue that the characters are poorly developed, unsympathetic, uninteresting and that the novel itself is constructed like an amateur outline. Minor characters appear and reappear inorganically solely to cause a problem that the leads then solve in ham-handed ways. Not remotely suspenseful or insightful. This is a remarkably simplistic view of an incredibly tumultuous and fascinating period in both Chinese and world history.
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