Long River has been praised as the modern Tales of Hulan River, now an established classic published in 1940 by the female writer Xiao Hong. The novella indeed stands out among other works published in 2013 to distinguish Ma Jinlian as a formidable writer. As a native of Xiji, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Ma Jinlian is a devout Muslim. People often like to refer to the three geographical regions of Xiji, Haiyuan, and Guyuan simply as Xihaigu. It is a curious region, where the population endures water shortage and poor natural environments with the help of their unusually strong faith.
Like in Tales of Hulan River, Long River uses a little girl’s perspective to narrate four stories of life and death that occurred in a Hui village in Northwest China. The story is told from memories buried deep in the wrinkles of time, and these memories flow out to the tune of the young girl’s heart. Although Long River discusses death, it is neither miserable nor sympathy seeking. The use of the little narrator’s perspective adds sincerity and dilutes agony.
The Hui people depicted within the work have very distinctive qualities that, in some respects, make it seem as if they worship suffering. They resign themselves to their fate, endure, and submit. Such characters imbue the work with a unique style. The story makes it easy for readers to understand and experience the tenderness of humanity as displayed in the solidarity of love within the Hui village. It can move the reader with its sentiments that emanate benevolence, simplicity, and honesty. Additionally, the novella reveals many widely unknown details about the Hui lifestyle. For example, the work shows how the body of the deceased is cleansed during a Muslim funeral, how an Akhoond recites scripture for the deceased, and how the host family gives rations of money to all the adults and children who attend. Different customs may bring us novelty, while all the while they cause us to rethink what we believe in.
The author Ma Jinlian does not only view death as dreadful and full of suffering. Instead, she also considers it rich with implications of nobility, beauty, and tranquility. In the long river of time, a single life represents merely a miniscule grain of dust, but at the moment this dust fades away it leaves its own unique luster. As a result, the perspective of Long River is grounded on one shore of this river. Impermanent lives occupy the side of the river from which the story looks out to the tranquility of spirits on the other side. At the same time, it gazes out at the sorrows and joys of the human realm from the silent beauty of the other shore. To experience the world from such a state of consciousness requires a great power of faith.
Ma Jinlian is a female writer of the Hui ethnic group who was born in Xihaigu area, Ningxia Autonomous Region, in 1982. The Hui people are a predominately Muslim ethnic group in China. Her life experiences can be described as anything but smooth. She started off as a farmer and was then hired as a middle school teacher. She moved on to be an elementary school teacher and then a village official. Her personal life was not easy. On one hand, she was raising a child, taking care of household work and farming, while on the other she quietly worked as a writer. She had no computer and she only wrote in old notebooks by hand. She repeatedly modified her drafts before mailing them off. Eventually, she passed the examination to become an official teacher and her living environment changed drastically.
In 2000, she began producing literature and has since continued for over ten years. Her natural disposition being taciturn and reticent, she has revealed that she enjoys quietly reading, thinking, and writing. Her works have been published in more than 10 prominent magazines including October, Fiction Monthly and Xinhua Digest, and some have been selected for various yearly anthologies.
Her novella Long River won first place in the yearly review of novellas published in the year 2013. Regarded as important as a novel published in 1940 by another female writer, which is now an established classic, Long River won the yearly award by the magazine Ethnic Literature, and her novel Iris Blooms won the thirteenth “the Best Works Award”. In 2014, Ma Jinlian won the first Mao Dun Young Author Literary Award.
Long River recounts four stories of life and death that occurred in a Hui village of Xihaigu.
On a clear and sunny autumn day, my mother and I were beside the kang peeling corncobs when the sound of crying drifted in from the courtyard of Yiha’s home. Yiha, 29 years old, had unexpectedly died while working on a well. When it was time for the funeral, his children did not have adequate funds. Yiha’s family was already extremely poor, but with the help of their neighbors he was able to have a decent burial. A half year later, Yiha’s wife remarried to a family of good circumstances in Chuandao. His three children and parents were left over. Shortly after Yiha’s wife remarried, she would occasionally come back to see the children. But once she became pregnant with her new husband, she never came back again. Yiha’s children became more pitiful with each passing day. With the help of their neighbors, Yiha’s three sons were able to make it through long winters. A dozen years later, Yiha’s eldest son married, and it was from the wife that he learned of his mother’s accidental and premature death several years before. With this news, Yiha’s eldest son wailed with tears.
The widow Ms. Tian took her daughter Su Fuye, who had contracted a congenital heart disease, and married off to the village bachelor Maque. Su Fuye said little and grew to be thin and beautiful. She was different from us "dirt monkeys." Grownups warned us to treat Su Fuye very cautiously and carefully, because if the child was even the least bit careless, then her life would end. The doctor had said she wouldn’t live past 12.
One day, when Ma Yunhui’s eldest son was on his way to an arranged date, a car flipped over and he was killed. Su Fuye cried when he was being buried. She had remembered how her father had been badly hit by a three-wheel truck. She was afraid of herself sleeping in a dark and dusky grave one day. The first time I felt sadness over death was because of Su Fuye. In the spring, Su Fuye suggested we go and climb a mountain for fun. So we walked, seemingly forever, in a depression of a mountain. We wanted to find an Iris flower. We argued over whether we should take the flower back or cut it out to stick in our hair. The arguing made us thirsty, so we went to find a spring. It was then that Su Fuye let out a sudden gasp. This was the last noise she would make. Both her hands jerked to grab at her chest. She had suddenly died from her heart disease.
Throughout the year, my mother couldn’t get up from her kang. That year it got worse; she completely lost feeling in both her legs. As the disease got worse, so did her temper, especially toward my father, but he seemed calm and apathetic to this – he always shouldered it all. My mother’s temper would go from good to bad. It was extremely variable. Sometimes, she would lie on her stomach wiping away tears. As the disease worsened, she refused to take her pills. She threw all of them on the floor, and she ate less and less. So after my father finished the autumn harvest he used a donkey cart to carry my mother and us into county town so a doctor could have a look at her. On the way home, my mother was weak and weary. She had no interest in listening to me describe the scenery. Father wanted to sell off livestock and grains to take mother to a bigger hospital, but mother firmly rejected the notion. On the 27th day of the 12th lunar month, there was a heavy snowfall and mother died of her illness. My older sister mentioned how mother’s grave was close to Su Fuye’s; it seemed that they were mother and daughter. Upon hearing this, I suddenly felt disgusted. I was envious and jealous of the notion that Su Fuye could accompany my mother.
Winter came around again. Mu Sa the old man passed away. Even though snow was blocking the roads, the burial was still well attended. Everybody showed up. Mu Sa had lived for 91 years and had experienced all kinds of transformations in China’s rural areas. He had become a person of virtue and prestige in the village. During the “social education” in 1958, the Akhoond surnamed Ke was endlessly insulted at the reeducation labor camp and he chose to commit suicide by hanging himself. His body was thrown into an old pit. To keep it from being eaten up by dogs, young Mu Sa risked of being “educated” himself and went door-to-door urging people to go and collect the body. A party of youths experienced untold dangers and difficulties collecting the body, and the Akhoond was finally able to have a respectful burial. During the famine, when Mu Sa’s own family were starving, he still provided the Ke family with half of a small sack of grain. His own three-year-old son died of starvation that year. Later, Mu Sa did not avoid the impoverished state of the Ke family’s son and married him his daughter. During Mu Sa’s funeral, the Ke family insisted upon paying half of the burial costs. They also gave away a generous gift of money. I used this money to buy a stick of sweet oats that I ate up immediately. It left behind a flavor of sweetness on my lips that lingered for a long time.