The Ancient Ship
Zhang Wei depicts a master plot in which the Chinese sense of community vies with individuals’ desire for wealth and leadership in China’s northern town of Wali from 1949 to the late 20th century, beginning with the Sui family, which owns the lucrative “glass noodle” factory. The Zhao family is biding its time for the moment of weakness that will enable its takeover of the factory, the bridge arriving with the arrival of Mao’s revolution. However, their success is transformed with the Li family’s movement into the industrial phase of China’s evolution into a world power, one which the Zhao family fights but loses. Potent scenes rivet the reader to the reality of such changes. They include the soldier Dahu’s death in the Sino-Vietnamese war, the discussions of the useless and childish Star Wars space weapons race, and the land reform movement that catalyzes the town’s sense of community and competition.
Zhang Wei’s parody of tradition versus modernity is most potent in Fourth Master, whom the reader initially reveres as he discusses the virtues and merits of classic Chinese literary works The Golden Lotus and The Analects. Extolling tradition, he cleverly promises to support the Communist movement yet actually is only obsessed with his own sexual defilement of an innocent young girl, Hanzhang. Chinese history has been depicted as doing what all revolutions do: transforming both individuals and society. Zhang Wei quite effectively satirizes the impossibility of achieving such a visionary ideal through fierce punishment, controlled propaganda of distant Chinese leaders, or a community’s efforts to control every facet of its individual lives. The Ancient Ship cements Zhang Wei’s literary fame, paralleled by the wondrous archeological findings which he honors within this superb work of historical fiction.