Bronze and Sunflower

  • Bronze and Sunflower
  • written by Cao Wenxuan
  • translated by Helen Wang
  • published by Candlewick Press (2017)
  • Roar Score: 4/5

Bronze and Sunflower is 381 pages of pure poetry. The book is so beautifully written that every paragraph – nay, every sentence – dances off the page and is so powerfully evocative and lyrical that it’s hard to believe Helen Wang (for I give her the lion’s share of the credit here, in the new English translation from Candlewick Press) can keep it up for the entire book. But she does.

Author Cao Wenxuan is a professor of Chinese literature at Beijing’s Peking University and is considered to be one of China’s preeminent authors of children’s literature. Though he has written some 15 novels (and several other short stories and picture books), Bronze and Sunflower is his first to be translated and published in English.

The book was originally published in China in 2005, and Cao was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2016 for his “lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Very literally, his is a voice we haven’t heard in the United States (truly, in the English language), and it’s absolutely been our loss.

Between Sunflower and the village was the river, a big river with no beginning or end in sight, flowing all day and all night, never ending. The reeds on either side stood guard over its journey from west to east. The river and reeds whispered and chuckled like best friends, teasing and twitching. Day after day, month after month, year after year, they played together tirelessly.

Bronze and Sunflower tells the story of two siblings in the rural Chinese countryside in the years around the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Sunflower is the only child of an urban artist sent to the local Cadre School for “reconditioning.” She is lonely and lost, and she longs to cross the river to the neighboring village and play with the children she sees on the opposite shore.

In a cruel twist of fate, her wish is granted after tragedy strikes and her father drowns. Sunflower is adopted by the poorest family from that village, yet they nevertheless take her in and quickly make her one of their own. Almost immediately, she is Mama and Baba’s beloved daughter, Nainai’s granddaughter, and Bronze’s sister.

Bronze is known as “the mute” in the village since he hasn’t spoken a word since a devastating fire when he was younger. Regardless, Bronze and Sunflower are instantly inseparable and develop a language all their own.

Like her brother, once she had an idea in her head, she couldn’t get rid of it, no matter what. She did not care about anything else until she’d seen it through. Even if the idea was a mistake, she still had to do it.

The story meanders like a slow-moving river, taking its time to get where it needs to go. It covers several years, several disasters, and more hardships than you’d care to count. But just as a river nourishes the land over which it flows, Cao’s story (and Wang’s impeachable translation) nourishes the reader, providing life and sustenance.

Cao’s intensely personal descriptions of everything from catching fireflies to picking rice to surviving famine are done with equal love and attention. He doesn’t shy away from extensive descriptions and “worldbuilding,” for lack of a better term.

Every so often, they would glance at each other, their newfound happiness like fresh water running into a dry pond bed, like energy returning to a weak body, a joy that breathed warmth into tired limbs.

Young American readers likely have no frame of reference for what life was like for rural Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. They have no concept of how damaging a quick-moving fire or a plague of locusts could be. They don’t understand how farmers’ kids on the other side of the world occupied their days some 50 years ago.

I can hardly blame them. This is not a context with which we expect our kids to be familiar. So Cao’s deliberate pace and attention to the smallest details are most welcome. They help establish the world and define the characters.

The book focuses on the everyday lives of Bronze and Sunflower and the adventures they find. It is very much a story about childhood, and for that reason, many of the themes are universally relatable. Kids only need to scratch the surface to find a lot that is familiar, even if that surface might seem completely exotic and unfamiliar.

Although the book is set during the Cultural Revolution, Cao doesn’t really spend much time explaining what that was. Ultimately, it’s tangential to the story he’s telling. Sunflower arrives in the village because her father is “from the city” and has been sent for reconditioning, but beyond that, the politics and societal upheaval that came to define the Cultural Revolution aren’t mentioned.

Bronze and Sunflower is a book about characters – not the details of its setting.

Iit should be noted that Cao’s leisurely pace, along with his liberal use of figurative language (though beautiful), can create some barriers for young readers who are more acquainted with the pace and vocabulary typical of more popular recent books from American authors.

Bronze and Sunflower will likely be seen as a challenge by many young readers, but it is a most rewarding one. This one comes highly recommended.

(Disclosure: Candlewick Press provided me with a review copy of this book. All opinions remain my own.)

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