Beyond The Village Gate
Mei Ching Tan
Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.
SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)
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Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.
When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.
The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.
The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.
Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.
One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.
They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.
Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.
As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.
I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.
Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child. I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.
That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.