Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

黑白 (lit. Black and White)

Novel by Chu Fujin.

An orphaned boy is brought up in an extended family near Nanjing in 1920s and 30s, and finds solace in learning Chinese chess (围棋). He leaves home, still a child, and goes to Nanjing with an uncle, where he earns his living as a chess prodigy. The uncle dies and he has to support himself, and two cousins who turn up from the old family home. He makes a few friends, including the chessmaster’s daughter and his landlady, and meets again a girl he once admired at school, now also in Nanjing. He supports himself with odd jobs, and continues to move in chess circles. Eventually two things happen: the girl from his childhood disappears and then reappears as the 2nd wife of one of his mentors; and he himself marries the daughter of his chessmaster (who has now become a monk). His old childhood friend shares his love of chess; but his new wife can’t stand it. The couple go through a difficult ‘honeymoon’ period, but have just become reconciled (and she has become pregnant) when disaster strikes – she’s killed in the Japanese bombardment of Nanjing in 1937. He is distraught and heads out of war-torn Nanjing to the southwest to find the chessmaster and tell him of his daughter’s death. On the way, he suffers numerous hardships and eventually ends up near death in a remote area, where he is saved by a mysterious figure who lives in a shack in the woods. After some time, as he begins to regain consciousness, he discovers that his saviour is a woman, not a man as he had first thought. They start a sexual relationship, and she agrees to go with him to the south-west. For a long time he makes no commitment to her, until eventually she becomes pregnant and they marry. They get to the south-west and settle there, as it is a safe haven from the war. His childhood friend turns up again, this time alone; they meet only once and realise they had loved each other all along but that there is no future for them together now.

In the end, as the years go by, the boy becomes a man and achieves some sort of inner peace. The whole story – of life, love, combat, relationships and self-discovery – is mediated through his learning and practice of chess. There are long descriptions of chess ‘battles’ (fairly technical). The book is also remarkable in that through it, we see how in some sense, ordinary lives and ordinary friendships were pursued in spite of the terrible upheavals and the poverty of China in that era. I was held by it all the way through, even though I don’t have much interest in chess. Narrated in limpid, flowing prose and with the deceptively detached tone which characterises much of Chu's work. NH