You might shrink from calling a leading Chinese author inscrutable, if that wasn’t the way the Chinese see him too. But Ah Cheng is as much puzzled-over in his homeland as he is widely read.
At first sight, there are grounds for supposing that he should be numbered among the artists and writers who inspired the protests in Tiananmen Square last Spring. At forty·, he belongs to the generation of intellectuals who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the liberalisation following the fall of the Gang of Four, and Deng Xiaoping’s suppression of artistic freedom in 1979, which anticipated a bloodier crackdown a decade later. The unvarnished stories he writes about China’s ‘Urbling’, the urban children sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ by the peasants, reflect his own experiences on state farms in Mongolia and on the Laotian border during the 1960s.
You strain to catch the note of dissent in his tales, but they have the guileless force of parables. ‘The King of Chess’, the best of the three novellas that make up this selection, recounts how China’s grand masters are defeated by a penniless teenager, in every sense a rank