Bronze and Sunflower, a Tale from China’s Cultural Revolution

Seven-year-old Sunflower is the daughter of an artist forcibly relocated from the city to the countryside during China’s cultural revolution. By day, he works in the “Cadre School,” leaving the young child to explore the river and nearby village of Damaidi. There she sees a slightly older boy riding a water buffalo. The boy, called Bronze, has been mute ever since a fire ravaged the family’s home. After her father drowns in a freak storm, the other members of the Cadre School bring little Sunflower to the village and Bronze’s family—the poorest family there—are the ones who choose to adopt her. Over the next six years, the family sacrifices to send Sunflower to school and survives a variety of disasters that befall poor rural villages during this period. Throughout, friendship and love sustain the two children and those around them, and Sunflower becomes a valued and beloved member of her new community.

Cao Wenxuan, one of China’s most popular authors for children, offers an endearing and inspiring retrospective on one of China’s cruelest periods—a time when Communist Party leader Mao Zedong ordered intellectuals out of the city to toil on farms, believing knowledge and discourse to be corrupt, reactionary, and dangerous to the Revolution. Cao presents this destructive economic and social policy through the eyes of his young characters and of the other isolated villagers who observed these events with curiosity and confusion:

Surely these city people, who enjoyed good lives, had other options. How strange it was. So often the villagers packed up their tools at the end of the day and saw the Cadre School people still hard at work. So often they were woken by the Cadre School people singing and shouting as they labored long into the night. “They’re mad,” muttered the villagers, rolling back to their dreams….

            Little did they know that the Cadre School people had no choice. (p. 62)

The complete absence of preachiness gives Cao’s tale its power and appeal, as readers travel vicariously to this remote Chinese village in the 1960s and live alongside the protagonists. Award-winning translator Helen Wang preserves Cao’s elegant prose and rises to the challenge of the third-person omniscient narration. It’s a stunning achievement. Bronze and Sunflower is an excellent choice for readers ages eight and up as well as adults, a emotionally powerful story that evokes a time and place with echoes in the present.

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