by Liu Qinbang
Liu Qinbang, born in Shenqiu County, Henan Province in 1951, has been a farmer, miner and reporter. Now he is vice chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association, Beijing Branch. His major novels include The Chasms, An idyllic Distant Place, Moonlight Everywhere and Red Coal, some of which have won the Lu Xun Literature Prize and the Lao She Literature Prize. Magic Wood has been adapted into Blind Well, a movie which won the 53rd Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear Award.
Nearly a month before Chinese Lunar New Year, Tang Zhaoyang and Song Jinming were at the small train station looking for potential victims – their plan was to bring a guy to the coal mine, find a chance to kill him and claim compensation from the owner, claiming them as their relative. Sitting at the small open-roof restaurant, they cracked jokes with the waiters while observing the surroundings and pedestrians. But before they could have a spoon’s worth of freshly-served mutton soup, they spotted an ideal target. Hastening to gather up their props – bedding rolls and artificial leather bags – they walked over to him.
Judging from his appearance, Song Jinming understood he was in lack of money. So he pretended to ask for a light and struck up a conversation. He casually mentioned that working in the coal mine could earn 900 yuan a month before the Spring Festival. Finding those wages tantalizing, the guy begged Song to take him along. Song let him beg for a while before finally consenting. When he did, Tang Zhaoyang came up, pretending he couldn’t get his hands on any train tickets and fake-complaining about who Song picked for their job. After letting Song plea for a while, Tang finally agreed but on one condition: The guy should call himself Tang Zhaoxia and pretend to be his blood brother, instead of using his real name of Yuan Qingping. Naturally, these details were just the framework for their future moves. However, the man didn’t suspect a thing, agreeing without the least hesitation.
The group of three went far west, tackling many obstacles before finally coming to a coal mine in the remote mountains. On the way, Song Jinming got to know a little about Tang Zhaoxia and his family, such as that he was married and had a son and daughter. After a brief interview, the owner agreed to let them work in the well. Tang Zhaoyang purposely mentioned that they had previously worked in another mine, but the mine closed down and the owner arrested following some kind of accident. With that bit of “evidence”, negotiations would go more smoothly once their plan had been enacted. Tang Zhaoyang also acted like best friends with Tang Zhaoxia when the owner was watching, so as to further win his trust. They also had some lively banter about dating girls.
By the fourth day, the two men treated Tang Zhaoxia to a meal that would serve as his last dinner. Down in the mine, Song Jinming deliberately tipped Tang Zhaoxia’s safety helmet off from atop his head, whereupon Tang Zhaoyang based his head in. Then they doctored the scene to make his death appear an accident thanks to his helmet being off.
When the coal cart started to come around, Tang Zhaoyang kept crying “Brother… brother!”, and pulled him from under the coal pile. But when he asked for 60,000 yuan in compensation from the boss, he was rejected flat out. Returning to their dwelling place at night, they dared not fall asleep and kept some bricks close at hand in case something bad happened. When talking continued later on, the owner gave Song Jinming 2,000 yuan in private, asking him to talk Tang into reducing the price. Finally, Tang Zhaoyang accepted the 28,000 yuan offered, and left with Tang Zhaoxia’s remains and cremation urn. They went to the hotel to have some fun with prostitutes, made arrangements for when they would meet up after the Spring Festival, and went their separate ways, saying to each other “May kind people be blessed with life-long peace.”
Once returning to his hometown, Song Jinming starting using his real name of Zhao Shanghe again, and gave his wife and kids presents. And after having sex with his wife, he took out the money he had earned. His wife begged him not to work outside of town anymore.
But when the Lantern Festival concluded, Zhao Shanghe couldn’t resist the itch to leave home and find more work. He met Tang Zhaoyang at the station as promised. They chose new names again, with Zhao Shanghe going by the alias Wang Mingjun while Tang Zhaoyuan went by Zhang Dunhou. After a little teasing back and forth, Zhang Dunhou went to find yet another “suitable candidate”, this time bringing back a young man who looked like he could be in middle school. They learned that his name was Yuan Fengming and that was just barely seventeen years old. Since his father didn’t come back from his migrant work for the Spring Festival, he had to quit school to earn tuition money for his younger sister as well as search for his father. Wang Mingjun had him use the name Wang Feng, and would introduce him to others as his nephew.
The three came to the coal mine in the remote mountains again, finding jobs fairly easily. Wang Mingjun made sure to take good care of Wang Feng during this time. The working conditions there were fairly harsh – the air was so thin and the temperature so high at the bottom of the coal mine that they had to take some clothes off. This was Wang Feng’s first time working in such an environment, so he felt uneasy and somewhat afraid. What’s worse was that other miners would mock him for his immature body when in the showers after coal-digging. He picked up a leafy coal brick and was ready to take it home since he’d learned that this type of coal was called magic wood.
Wang Feng had originally prepared a letter to send to his family back home, but Wang Mingjun and Zhang Dunhou lied when they said they’d take it to the post office – really, they had read and destroyed it. Afterwards, they brought Wang Feng into town, finding a whore to massage him so that he’d experience a woman’s touch again before his death.
When it was time to end the guy’s life, Wang Mingjun simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. After trying several times, Zhang Dunhou started to become impatient, and they began arguing. And with a strike of a pickax, Wang Mingjun killed Zhang Dunhou. Mingjun told Wang Feng that really they were the people that killed his father. He then urged Wang Feng to deliberately cause an accident to bury him and Zhang Dunhou, then claim compensation from the owner.
But Yuan Fengming (Wang Feng) didn’t do so. Instead, he told the owner the truth as to what’d been going on, and left with some money for the road given to him by the owner. He didn’t want to go home, but where else could his feet take him now?
Through its shocking episodes, Magic Wood deals with peoples’ choice between good and evil. In it, two business partners have a system for making money – leading innocent migrant workers to their deaths to extort accident damages. But one of them eventually caves in to his guilt, which causes a fight with his partner and ultimately their deaths. Yuan Fengming, the boy who makes it out alive in this novel symbolizes kindness in its most simplest of forms. However, even the author can’t be certain he will escape similar disaster again in the future.
The novel touches on the purest of human evils, but doesn’t tack toward doom or despair. Instead, it retains a sense of repentance and honesty so as to light the blanket of darkness surrounding the coal mine.
The author, Liu Qinbang, is very sophisticated in his narrative skill. He leads readers to the story’s inner depths with great ease, demonstrating powerful control of the subject matter.