"Kite Streamers," a short story by Wang Meng, chronicles the romance between the disillusioned female protagonist Susu and an optimistic young man named Jiayuan. Set in Beijing during the 1970s, this story illustrates how the Cultural Revolution movement shaped Chinese society and influenced people in different ways. Throughout the story, Meng develops themes involving the Cultural Revolution and unexpected hope.
First, he illustrates how deeply society was affected by the Cultural Revolution. The story opens with a sign brandishing the propaganda slogan “Long Live the Great People’s Republic of China.” When she was a little girl, Susu believed in communism and Chairman Mao. As a teenager, she witnessed society’s adherence to a cult of personality, to Mao, and heard loud chants of his quotations like, “Kill to the left! Kill to the right! Kill, kill, kill!” Her world was red for communism and Mao, with “red flags, red books, red armbands, red hearts,” and more.
After working in the countryside, she returns to Beijing as a young adult with no education. Schools were closed during the Cultural Revolution, robbing her generation of education and opportunities. Instead, she works as a waitress in a Muslim restaurant without much hope for her future. Like Susu, Jiayuan seems stymied. His sole job prospect is being an umbrella repairman.
The Cultural Revolution also left society cynical and untrusting. Meng illustrates this paranoia when Jianyun helps an old woman after a hit-and-run bike accident. No one believes that he helped her and, instead, they accuse him of hurting the woman. He is mocked for being a fake do-gooder by a crowd that studied “Xunxi and believed that human nature was fundamentally bad.”
Yet despite all the hopelessness of life as a result of the Cultural Revolution, the characters develop optimism for the future. A second important theme in “Kite Streamers” is the theme of hope. From the beginning, Jiayuan is less cynical and more hopeful than Susu is about people and his future. Although the bike incident led him to have to pay the old woman—he hadn’t done anything wrong!—he justifies giving her money because “that old woman needed money and grain coupons badly.” Employed or not, he is still interested in learning things and improving himself. He states, “a jobless person is a human being with a life to lead, youth, lots of things to do” like read about optimization, paleontology, and foreign languages. He wants to discover the world beyond his own viewpoint. He views work and knowledge as separate:
A job isn’t everything, nor does it last for ever. Human beings should be masters of the world and their work, and above all, masters of knowledge.
Jiayuan quips that he could apply optimization to umbrella repair. In fact, he values knowledge so much that he compares himself to a hypothetical fellow umbrella repairman who earns the same monetary wage but knows about dinosaurs. He believes the co-worker actually would be richer because of that extra knowledge.
Jiayuan’s hope starts to change Susu. Originally disillusioned and resigned to her gray life, she adds colorful streamers of ideas to her imaginary plain rectangular “botty curtain” kite. When Jiayuan advises Susu to be confident and learn Arabic since she works in Muslim canteen, Susu becomes inspired to study and set goals. Jiayuan plans to take an entrance exam for graduate school and coaxes Susu to try as well. “ ‘We may not succeed,’ he urged the less-than-confident Susu, ‘but we should try our best.’ ”
The story ends in hope. Jiayuan shows Susu how to make the best of a difficult situation. They both laugh in the joy of each other’s love and
they both understood their own fortune. They knew that life and the world belonged to them.
The young couple parts with optimism; they both vow to work hard for the possibility of passing the entrance exam. Jiayuan wishes Susu pleasant dreams about a kite. Delighted that he knows about her imaginary kite, Susu boldly kisses him in public on the street. Society cannot diminish their connection, hope, and love.
"The Kite Streamers" tells the love story between a young couple named Susu and Jiayuan. It is set in Beijing in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Although their relationship faces challenges from their society, family, and economic conditions, they strive to support each other in the pursuit of their dreams.
The Cultural Revolution advances the major themes in this story. The upheaval has not only crushed the dreams of the younger generation, it has also indoctrinated certain social views among the general public, such as knowledge is useless, love should serve the communist ideal, and humanity is evil in nature. Most things the couple do in this story, however, are against these views. They learn foreign languages, fall in love without investigating each other’s political background, and believe in helping others even if doing so may harm their own interests. This makes life a lot harder for them, but they have conviction that they are doing the right thing.
Another important theme in this story is the power of dreams, which is what the title, “The Kite Streamers,” symbolizes. Susu and Jiayuan share the similar experience of being sent to the rural area to serve the communist cause and returning after many years through great endeavors. Not given the chance to receive a good education, they have been forced to take very basic positions, as Susu is a waitress and Jiayuan is an umbrella mender. Initially, Susu is disappointed and foresees dim prospects, but Jiayuan’s perseverance awakens her desire to chase her dream. This is how the story turns romantic. They come together and encourage each other to study hard and work hard for their dreams, whatever the results may be.
Wang Meng is a prolific author who faced exile and censorship during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. His story "The Kite Streamers" explores a variety of themes within this context, but personal identity and love are perhaps the strongest.
The Cultural Revolution and Identity
"The Kite Streamers" is a tale about the turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The main characters struggle to come to terms with the various ways in which their beloved country has changed after the political revolution. While Mao promised progress at the beginning of the revolution, they soon feel the effects of violence, censorship and authoritarianism. Through the lens of the main characters, Wang explores the nature of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as it relates to personal identity. The author himself was exiled as a result of the revolution and forbidden to write during most of this time, which gives the story an intensely personal feel. Set against the backdrop of a nation in which the government places tight restrictions on all expressions of personal identity, including creative endeavors, "The Kite Streamers" offers a powerful examination of the self. Despite the tumultuous nature of the times, Wang explores the idea that it is possible to find your identity even in the face of great censorship and oppression.
The Theme of Love and Relationships
"The Kite Streamers" focuses primarily on a young couple caught in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. They face not only political upheaval in the outside world but significant pressure in their private relationship as well. The young couple begins the story with a sense of idealism and, as they grow both as individuals and as lovers, that naive optimism is tempered by the reality of their situation. The couple is constantly torn between their dreams for the future and the societal expectations that threaten to consume them. This story is told in the stream of consciousness style through an omniscient observer, which allows the reader to gain a unique understanding of how the characters see each other. The theme of love in the Cultural Revolution is also explored through the concept of restriction. The oppression they experience is so severe that they feel there is nowhere safe for them to go together.