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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Bronze and Sunflower
by Cao Wenxuan
Age Range: 9-11
Bronze, who has been 'mute' since a traumatic childhood experience, lives with his family in Damaidi in rural China. He has not spoken a single word since a terrible catastrophe – a fire that swept through his village destroying everything in its path. He cannot go to school, doesn't really have any friends and spends much of his time on his own.
Sunflower has come to live with her father at the Cadre School (labour camp) on the other side of the river. Her mother is dead and her father, a sculptor of bronze sunflowers, has been sent to the Cadre School from the city. There are no other children to play with so Sunflower is very lonely as she waits for her father to return every evening.
Despite a river that separates them, Bronze and Sunflower become friends. When fate intervenes and Sunflower is orphaned, after her father drowns in the river, she finds herself being taken in by Bronze's family and treated like one of their own. Life in Damaidi is hard and Bronze and Sunflower must work together to survive but the love of her new family is worth far more than all the hardship.
Bronze and Sunflower is set in rural China in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese author Cao Wenxuan is Professor of Chinese literature at Peking University and is considered China's Hans Christian Andersen.
Wenxuan has created a beautiful novel which is a joy to read due to the effortless and flowing translation by Helen Wang. Every description makes you feel as if you are really experiencing life in rural China and gives an insight into the realities of poverty where medical services and education are seen as privileges not as rights.
The lyrical prose is breath taking; painting a lavish canvas that remains with you long after you have finished the book. How can you not be haunted by the image of Sunflower's father walking amongst the field of sunflowers – 'those long, rough pencil-straight stalks holding up round flower heads, which tilted down like smiling faces'? Or of his fateful boat trip when his – 'cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky'? There are the sounds of the reeds as Bronze and Sunflower look for each other among the reed beds, the flocks of ducks as they pillage a field of corn and arrowroot or the terrible fire that sweeps through the thatched village destroying homes and the destruction wrought by a flock of locusts – 'swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouth gaping, their tongues flicking'. Each one creates such a rich lingering image which is part of what makes this book so special.
Bronze's inability to speak sees him bullied by some of the children of the village and referred to as 'the Mute' by some adults, but there is still a community who cares and looks out for him, despite the fact that they may not understood his disability.
At the back of the book there are pages of explanation with details of the historical context and how the story came to be written.
Although the age range is put at 9-11, this is a book that will be of interest to a broad range of ages from 9 upwards including adults.
Winner of English PEN Writers in Translation Programme, Bronze and Sunflower is a timeless classic and one to be savoured.