Dragon’s Gate by Vivian Bi

‘Scaffolding the dragons’ gates means telling stories.’

Beijing teenager Shi Ding is a natural storyteller.  He is thriving during the Cultural Revolution: his tales of revolutionary heroes attract an appreciative audience.  Shi Ding also has a skill for identifying class enemies.  When Shi Ding is ostracized after his father’s death, he is determined to find out why his father committed suicide.  He is led to the home of a neighbour: a university professor, Ruan Qiling, for whom his father had done a lot of handyman work.  After the suicide of Ruan Qiling, Shi Ding has to guard her house. It is during this period that he discovers and reads her library of banned classics.

This is the beginning of a series of journeys for Shi Ding.  He is in search of both truth and redemption, and of a way of sharing these banned stories in a way that will not be dangerous.  His travels take him to a remote region where he tells stories and listens to them.

‘You have to know these stories.  Driver Kong assumed a solemn expression, cleared his throat and started scaffolding his dragon’s gate.’

Shi Ding’s journey is a mixture of Cultural Revolution reality (shortages, danger, drab reality) with the escape provided by storytelling.  Shi Ding’s stories bring colour back into a world dyed drab blue as part of the campaign to destroy the ‘Four Olds’ (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas).  Shi Ding remembers the beautiful things his father, once a tailor, had made including outfits for his wife and a vibrant wall hanging depicting the Long March.  His father had also been an accomplished cook and an ingenious carpenter.

What does Shi Ding learn on his travels?

‘Shi Ding knew that his guilt lay in his ignorance.’

There are four parts to this novel, reflecting different Western classics and parts of Shi Ding’s journeys.  There may be no escape from the reality of the Cultural Revolution, but stories provide possibilities.

What an amazing novel! I picked it up and could hardly bear to put it down.  The setting and the role of storytelling (as well as the actual stories) held my attention.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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