Sam Meekings tells LESLEY McDOWELL how the hardships of his Chinese in-laws inspired his arresting debut novel . . .
FICTIONAL TALES ABOUT REVOLUtions and dictatorships tend to be dystopian visions of the future, like Orwell's 1984, or thwarted, tragic love affairs, like Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. Both types may base their stories on historical events – like the Russian Revolution and its Stalinist aftermath – but both tend to end bleakly. The individual is ultimately defeated; faith and hope are destroyed.
One of the many remarkable things about Sam Meekings's beautifully written debut novel, Under Fishbone Clouds, about the horrors of the Chinese Revolution, is not just that it's based on a real couple's experiences, those of Meekings's Chinese wife's grandmother and grandfather, but that they survived the dystopian nightmare; that their love for each other and for their family did not end tragically. Faith and hope – incredibly as it seems – did win out.
Meekings didn't quite get to China by sticking a pin in a map, but his decision to go there was almost as random, and it's astonishing to think that the telling of this couple's remarkable story might never have been told but for a chance advert. Approaching the end of his final exams, the now 26-year-old father of two tells me that he'd lived his whole life up until that point in a series of "dilapidated seaside towns" on the south coast of England, and was desperate to go somewhere exotic. He noticed an ad on his university website for temporary teachers in China and answered it. Next thing, he was in Beijing, struggling with a sense of disappointment at the lack of oriental architecture he expected to see. On the whole, he says, it was very industrial, not unlike parts of the UK.
It was almost enough to send him home, but he stuck it out, teaching in a small city three hours from the capital, where the restaurants closed at nine in the evening and you had to go back to Beijing if you wanted coffee, milk or butter. The sheer size of the country captivated him: he did a great deal of travelling during that year, yet felt he'd only seen about one per cent of it.
But it was during that year that he met Lian, the woman who would become his wife. When he came back to the UK to get a Masters degree from Edinburgh University, they stayed in touch. He went back to China, began work as an editor, and they married and settled in a suburb just outside Beijing with their new family. It all sounds very simple, very modern and very easy – just what we'd expect from our participation in the global village that we're always told the world is now.
Except for one small thing: history. Meekings is a history graduate so he knows the importance of knowing your history, and China's recent history is crucial. How do the younger generation feel now about Mao, about the revolution in the 1940s, and the cultural revolution of the 1960s, I ask him, curious to know if everything, even a dictatorship, is as easy for the Internet generation to absorb as it seems?
"Young people tend to hear about the revolutions from history books at school, which I find very bizarre, as it would mean for people my age reading about their parents going through all this," he says. "It's amazing, though, to what extent it's not talked about, there is a sense that China is now doing well and it's very important nationally for everyone to look forward, that it's important for everyone to work hard to make China great. People say this quite unselfconsciously and without irony, whereas if you heard teenagers saying that in the UK, you'd do a double-take."
Meekings's novel begins during the Second World War when a middle-class teenage girl, Yuying, is married to Jinyi, one of the hired hands in her wealthy father's restaurant. In spite of their different backgrounds and the fact that it is an arranged marriage, the two fall in love, and Yuying accompanies her husband back across a war-torn China to his family's poor country home. It costs them the lives of two of their babies, however, and Yuying, broken-hearted, returns alone to her father's home. Jinyi eventually follows her but things are changing: there is a new government now, and the middle classes aren't allowed their own businesses any more. Everything belongs to the state, and all classes must work in the factories, on the fields.
As Mao's edicts increase, eventually Yuying is condemned and sent away from her husband and their four children; two years later, Jinyi is sent away as well. It is only after the death of Mao that they are allowed to return, and when they do, they come back to the same house, even the same jobs, as though nothing has changed, as though they haven't been toiling and suffering and been separated all that time. "My story may be based on two people, my wife's grandparents," says Meekings, "but they represent what millions of people went through. It happened to everyone. There's an unspoken pact between them all not to dwell on it. Also, you can't apportion blame as it's the same party that's still in power. Different people, but the same party. The Communist Party still plays a huge part in people's lives in China. The brightest students work very hard to be asked to join."
This surprises me: I thought you had to join the party, or at least that they would want as many people to join as possible. No, Meekings assures me: "You don't have to be a party member but it helps you move up. Everybody wants to be a party member. Chinese people believe they have a classless society now, but I point out to my students the old woman in the street raking through bins for scraps, and the party member driving past her in his flash car. There are huge discrepancies between rich and poor, but the Communist Party still has a great hold on the popular imagination: all the TV soaps show stories about noble soldiers on long marches, that kind of thing. It's really an unquestioned part of their national identity."
Is that why Yuying and Jinyi don't take their anger out on anyone when they are finally freed to return home? Because they still believe the party had their interests at heart? "Very much so. When people came back after Mao's death, they often returned to the same house, even the same job, because it would have been continued for them, their families would even have been paid their wages while they were away. But you were going back to live among people who might have accused you in the first place. Everybody knew who had accused whom, and I think if you didn't find a way of explaining it to yourself, you'd find it impossible to deal with."
The public show trials and subsequent executions of the Gang of Four, who included Mao's last wife, were, he feels, scapegoats for everyone's anger and hatred at what had been done to them. "You'll still find some old people who will spit at the mention of Mao's wife, but won't hear a word against Mao himself. You'd think people who lived through ridiculous policies" – like the one Meekings shows in his novel, where all the sparrows were chased away one season, resulting in a massive insect invasion which obliterated most of the crops – "that brought on famine, that they'd want to blame him. But he's still the man that liberated China."
As an Englishman in China with two children, I ask about the legacy of the party's one-child rule, and how it has affected him. "My son has Chinese citizenship but my daughter doesn't yet, as a second child." That "yet" though is important – there are ways and means, Meekings says.
In the countryside there are still large traditional families of six or seven. How do they manage? "Well, if you have more than one child, they don't come and take your children away. They just won't issue ID cards for them – they won't be able to go to school, get jobs, a passport, it will be as if they don't exist. If you're living in the country in a big family, then it does mean you're kind of condemned to a certain way of life."
Given that it does still feel, to us here in the UK, like a restrictive way of life, I can't help wondering if his wife's grandmother is not nervous of a story based on her life publicising what happened to her, and to the son who couldn't cope with her condemnation and absence and who subsequently killed himself – a story that is critical of the revolution and what it did.
"No, she wanted to speak about what happened to her son," says Meekings. "She's not at all frightened – she says it's an interesting story and someone should tell it." It's more than interesting, it's captivating, and all the more so for being real. And how remarkable that she should finally have a grandson-in-law who is able to tell it.
• Under Fishbone Clouds, by Sam Meekings, is published by Polygon, price 14.99. Sam Meekings is at the Edinburgh book festival on Thursday 20 August.