Twelve young farmwives become widows early on a summer evening in 1944, when Japanese troops besiege Smallpox Village to search for a group of Chinese resistance fighters who have sabotaged the Japanese military airport. The Japanese troops herd the villagers to the village square and force the women to identify their husbands, as they believe the resistance fighters are taking refuge among the male villagers. Twelve young farmwives step up to the group of young men, strung together with telephone cable, and make their choices. Each young woman claims a resistance fighter instead of her own husband except the last one, the youngest. Her name is Grape, and she is about fourteen years old. At age nine, Grape was bought as a child bride by the Lee family and was formally wedded to her intended husband, Iron Locket, half a year ago. She brings her own husband back to the survivors group. After the Japanese leave, taking the young male villagers with them to the city, people hear gunshots at midnight. Iron Locket is killed, and the mysterious execution makes one more widow that day in Smallpox village.
Having lost his wife to a Japanese air raid on the railroad, Grape’s father-in-law, Second Dad Lee, returns from a trip to face another loss, that of his son. Lee, who owns some land and an apothecary shop/general store, Lee is a philanthropist when crops are green and a vicious creditor when crops go into storage. He also has reputation of dealing with all opposing armies, including the Japanese, to save the villagers from having to meet heavy demands for food, labor, and military conscription. To the villagers, it is a mystery how he has always been able to appease them all. Lee loves to jest and mock. He is a colorful character, a man of controversy, both feared and needed. It seems the only person who understands Lee and discovers the goodness in him is Grape. She has always treated him as the father she never had. As soon as the Communists take over the country, the Land Reform begins. Lee becomes one of the subjects of the movement and is sentenced to death in the massive execution of early the early 1950s. In a carnival of redistributing land and possessions from the rich among the poor, Lee, in spite of severe wounds, miraculously survives the bullets that have raked his body.
Grape finds her injured father-in-law in the desolate apothecary now sealed by the new authorities. The following morning, she is seen kneeling in front of a grave with Lee’s name on the gravestone, wailing her heart out. From her improvised laments, people get to know some details of Lee’s goodness they had never suspected. Grape succeeds in making people believe that Lee has been buried, even thought her mourning for an enemy of the people alarms the comrades of the Land Reform Team. As Grape is simple-minded young woman classified as a semi-slave, they want to win her over as one of masses.
Grape is indeed a simple-hearted woman. When confronted with crises, she makes choices of out her primal nature as a woman. Based on this nature, she cares only for those whom she understands and to whom she feels close. Beyond that, the world is an abstraction to her. During the time she grows up from a girl child to a young woman, she often peeps through a gap at the bottom of a door, beyond which wars take place one after another, beginnings overlapping the endings, armies passing this way or that, claiming various great causes, fighting each other with various justifications. Through the gap she has scanns a piece of modern Chinese history, which to her becomes an abstraction: “It’s full of legs. Legs in military leggings.” Her innocence of politics makes her decide things irrespective of, or beyond, any of the beautiful causes that always alter or replace each other in the long history of this ancient country. She hides her father-in-law in a sweet potato cellar of her newly assigned residence, an abandoned cave house of a poor peasant, and tries to survive with him through a chain of political movements that follow China’s “Liberation.” She has acquired a trunk of picture books from a little boy who was been killed with his exploiter’s family, which attract the village children to her residence and makes the concealment of her father-in-law impossibly difficult, yet the least suspected by the adult villagers. Her instinct tells her that the darkest spot is directly on the other side of a lamp shade.
After her father-in-law’s “execution,” a young man arrives. He stuns Grape with his appearance, seemingly her late husband’s reincarnation. It is Iron Locket’s second brother, Copper Locket, who, having joined the People’s Liberation Army, returns to betray his father’s hidden possessions and let the poor share them out. According to his knowledge, Lee has buried some inherited silver coins somewhere in the former Lee residence. In fact, Lee has spent the savings during the war to buy food demanded by the Japanese and other armies, to save the villagers from danger. Lee is a person who would spend money secretly to make people believe he was infinitely capable and influential. In a word, he likes to appear as a savior. As Copper Locket leads the villagers to look for the hidden treasure, Grape feels an ineffable tie between Copper Locket and herself, even though she sees him as a hazard to Lee’s survival. Copper Locket is not aware of Grape’s infatuation with him until one day her hand touches his face accidentally. He has never expected a touch to be so mysteriously arousing. It is at once childish, feminine and motherly. Meanwhile, the new authority is matchmaking the young widows and women previously forced into arranged marriages to the demobilized Communist soldiers. The girls take on the responsibility of liberating nineteen-year-old Grape from her semi-slave status and marry her off to a man who is a master of the new society. Grape rejects their help. In the years to come, Grape becomes a mystery in that she wants to remain a widow of a young exploiter.
A nationwide Famine begins at the end of the 1950s as a result of The Great Leap Forward, a movement that appears to Grape as a political carnival. Starvation takes casualties every day. Grape’s food rations are far from enough to feed herself, let alone to keep both her and alive. To save her father-in-law and herself, she goes to the city to meet Copper Locket, who is now a doctor in a military hospital. Grape becomes pregnant, and she keeps it secret from everyone, including Copper Locket. She gives birth to a boy and entrusts him to a group of midgets, who go to a miniature temple in a secluded valley to worship their gods from time to time. After Lee knows the truth of Grape’s action, he feels guilty about preventing her from becoming a normal wife and mother. One night he leaves Smallpox Village without Grape’s knowledge and disappears into a mining town miles away. With his knowledge of hog breeding, he settles down with false identification and wins honors as a “model hog keeper.”
After the famine, a young man named Summer Joy, who was one of the readers of Grape’s picture books, comes back to the village after his military service. Summer Joy hangs around Grape’s house and helps her out with whatever work she happens to do. He proposes to Grape, who is several years older than he is. Moved by his passion, Grape begins to think about marriage just in time to hear a villager say he has seen a glimpse of Lee’s ghost in a train station. A few days later, Grape finds Lee, now a sick old man, and brings him back to the village. She finds out that Lee has left his hog keeping job because of the Class Purge of 1964, which targets all the people with vague backgrounds. Grape breaks her engagement with Summer Joy and leaves him brokenhearted.
Famine again strikes the village in the late 1960s when the Cultural Revolution reaches its peak. Lee has brought mushroom spores from the mining town, and their products keep them form starvation. Grape tries to teach the villagers to eat mushrooms, but they refuse to risk eating the things their ancestors never ate in times of famine. They go on eating their famine food: tree leaves and bark, locusts and other insects, and even a flour-like clay that often causes death. Only the young students from the city, who have been sent down for “reeducation” among the farmers, benefit from Grape’s mushrooms.
Having being politically condemned, Copper Locket loses his job and comes back to farm. When he finds out his father is still alive, he wants to betray him to the authorities. The betrayal will be the redemption for his political “crimes.” Grape sees something in Copper Locket that she will never understand. He does everything against his nature, including denial and betrayal. He is the person most alienated from Grape’s understanding of what it means to be a human being. Before he turns his father in, she convinces him to go to the miniature temple in the valley. Among the kingdom of midgets is a normal boy who seems happy and healthy. She tells Copper Locket the boy is his son. If he has his father killed, she will have his son killed as well. She can even have the midgets kill him. The midgets can go anywhere and do anything, because they live in an invisible, parallel world to the world of Chinese society of politics. Copper Locket asks Grape why she protects his father like this, and she answers, why not?
With help of Summer Joy, who has become an accountant of the Commune, Grape survives with her father-in-law the crises of political capmaigns, security campaigns and food shortages. In the cellar that has been dug into a large underground chamber, their mushroom cultivation has thrived. The children who come for the picture books secretly help Grape sell the mushrooms, and their production can hardly keep up with the demand. Father-in-law and daughter-in-law have to keep enlarging the chamber until they hear a digging sound progressing toward them. It is two grave robbers looking for a jade stone with a famous inscription that has been sought by generations of grave robbers. From them Grape comes to realize that antique smuggling has begun again after a ten-year hiatus. During the Cultural Revolution antiques became worthless for first time in Chinese history. The thieves tell Grape of the Party’s correction regarding the landlords, who were wronged during the Land Reform in early 1950s. They tell her the landlords who are still alive have been reinstated into society as normal citizens. Grape realizes her father-in-law should have come out from his underground chamber two years ago. They have finally secured his survival.
A discussion between Grape and Lee begins. In the end Lee decides there is no point for him, now an eighty-five year old man, to resurface into a society from which he has disappeared for three decades. During his disappearance, he has seen all sorts of personalities and characters play out on social and political stages. He is not sure he wants to rejoin them. He isn’t certain if his life will be happier after moving up from his underground chamber, where he has enjoyed his limited but pure freedom. He is too old to solve the mystery of human nature as it plays out in political circumstances. He sees that the only person unsullied by politics is Grape. With her simplicity she stays unchanged vis-à-vis a world that changes like revolving pictures as she faces the people with “their legs scurrying in opposite directions, parading for various ….-isms.”
--Synopsis by Geling Yan
Causes Geling Yan Supports
Causes related to relief for former "comfort women," i.e., those women and girls forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese military during the Sino-...