Cao Wenxuan, Bronze and Sunflower (Candlewick, 2017)
A Chinese children’s classic finally comes to the English-speaking world with this gently absorbing tale of sorrow, friendship, and growth. Set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, it centers on the relationship between Sunflower, a city girl who has come to the country with her artist father, and Bronze, a mute boy from the village whose family takes Sunflower in when tragedy strikes. Their immediate bond only grows stronger as it is tested by poverty, unsympathetic neighbors, and natural disasters.
With its depiction of rural life, from detailed descriptions of making shoes out of reeds to the terrible depredations of a plague of grasshoppers and the resulting famine, Bronze and Sunflower strongly reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books, and should appeal to the same audience. Tradition and family loyalty are extremely important, foundational as they are in Chinese culture, but the love between Bronze and Sunflower goes beyond that. The mute boy and the orphaned girl show how the flower of true humanity can blossom in the unlikeliest of places, and though separation threatens at the end, what they have gained from one another cannot be destroyed.
The Communist regime is only obliquely referred to — Sunflower’s father was part of the “Cadre School” program of re-education that sent city folk to do hard manual labor in the countryside. The political significance of this is not dwelt upon, nor do the characters occupy themselves much with what is happening elsewhere in China, concerned as they are with merely surviving another winter. The themes and incidents are both specific to a certain time and place, and strongly archetypal, linked to eternal natural cycles of growth, harvest, and decay. For this reason, the book could be a good starting point for a broader study of China with older children, or can be experienced on its own with no special knowledge or background necessary.
Here is an interesting interview with the translator, Helen Wang, who won a major prize for her work on this book (which was only her second translation). Wang has done an excellent job of preserving some of the special character of Wenxuan’s leisurely prose while making it accessible for an English audience. I hope there will be more to come from both author and translator.