The Noodle Maker

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Noodle Maker, the second of Ma Jian’s novels translated into English, offers an unflinching, sometimes humorous look at the trials and tribulations of the denizens of an unnamed coastal city in China in 1990. The novel, chapters of which have appeared in The New Yorker, opens as a professional writer, Comrade Sheng, is charged to write a short communist propaganda novel. He is told his piece should introduce a hero resembling Lei Feng, an idealized communist martyr of the 1960’s. Sheng’s hero should be drawn from the people around him and should sacrifice himself for a comrade at the end of the novel.

To his friend, a professional blood donor who visits him once a week to share the good food and drink that his profession allows him to buy, writer Sheng complains that he only knows people whose lives would never be allowed to serve as propaganda models. In the following chapters, such lives that are narrated, a literary sleight of hand that allows Ma to portray the suffering, disillusionment, and coping measures of urban Chinese people living in the immediate aftermath of the post-Tiananmen Square government crackdown of 1989. At the end, in a moment of postmodern self-reflection, Sheng feels that the human models for his characters are strings of dough, pulled into white threads by an invisible noodle maker in his head.

The first of Sheng’s acquaintances and neighbors whose life is presented is the entrepreneur. By buying a used kiln from an art school and setting up his own crematorium in the suburbs, he is taking advantage of the Open Door Policy often alluded to by the characters of The Noodle Maker. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping ended the dramatic excesses of the Cultural Revolution and began to promote a policy of limited economic reform. However, political power remains in the ironclad hands of the Communist Party, which still seeks to control people’s private lives. In turn, Ma’s characters, warped by their government’s policies, use the party as a tool to enact revenge born of jealousy and pettiness, as they inform on their enemies. This creates a situation, the novel insists, in which eyes that look “gentle and kind” have all but disappeared in China, together with “all similar expressions of pity, compassion and respect.” Thus, the entrepreneur can only experience the love of his old mother when he is about to cremate her. Still alive, she prefers to be reduced to a heap of shiny white bones rather than continue to suffer the squalid pettiness that permeates her life, even as her son achieves limited economic success.

Like all characters in The Noodle Maker, actress Su Yun leads a life inevitably tied to politics. At sixteen, she was a star in the operas of the Cultural Revolution, the only mass entertainment allowed by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing in those years. When politics changed and people no longer desired asexual revolutionary figures, Su Yun engaged in love affairs but only got hurt in the process. After having brief affairs with Sheng and the blood donor, she truly fell in love with a painter. He then started to neglect her when he acquired a three-legged dog. Symbolic of the difficulties of sharing love after the very idea of romance had been outlawed for more than a decade, Su Yun demonstrates the fate of a person unprepared to experience sexuality.

In despair over her boyfriend’s neglect, Su Yun writes a play about their relationship, which Ma embeds in The Noodle Maker’s text, successfully mixing genres and bringing alive the literary activities of his own characters in best postmodernist fashion. Su Yun decides to commit suicide by allowing a tiger to maul her to death in the avant-garde Open Door Club at 3 a.m. on June 4, 1990. Not coincidentally, this is the exact date of the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when government tanks literally crushed the students demonstrating for democracy in that Beijing square. Not alluding directly to that event, The Noodle Maker does not point out the significance of this date; readers must determine it for themselves.

As in the novels of Ma’s fellow exiled Chinese writer Ha Jin, such as War Trash (2004), the following chapters of The Noodle Maker show the harshness of life under communism that drives characters to use the party’s policies for personal gain and to try to destroy their enemies or competitors. Critics...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2005): 819.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 19 (October 1, 2004): 932-933.

London Review of Books 26, no. 13 (July 8, 2004): 12-13.

The New Leader 88, no. 1 (January/February, 2005): 31-32.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (March 27, 2005): 23.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 47 (November 22, 2004): 37.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 2004, p. 22.