The Sky Dwellers (天行者)

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Article by Malcolm Aquino

Born in 1956 in Tuanfeng in Hubei province, Liu Xinglong’s (刘醒龙)works include eleven novels and twelve collections of short stories. Some of his novels have been translated and published in English, French, Japanese and Korean. His novel The Sky Dwellers won the 8th Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011, while his Holy Heaven’s Gate won the first Academy of Contemporary Chinese Literature Prize and the second China Novel Society Novel Prize. He has also won the Lu Xun Literature Prize for a novella and Taiwan’s United Literature Prize.

If you’ve ever worked as an English teacher at a shady school, you know how to put out fires. You have class in five minutes, your lovely (read: awful) manager tells you to have a class with a ragtag group of kids who don’t belong in the class, and some don’t even belong in society. Your classroom has holes in the walls. The IWB board hasn’t worked properly in months. The desks are all beat up and you have nothing to go on except the constant “make sure the kids are having fun” instructions you are given. Yet, the show must go on. You persevere through the madness, coming out with what you can only hope is a good lesson. That hope takes you through your contract, that hope of a better gig with better students, better management, and better facilities.

That hope for something better is what drives the community teachers of Jieling, a small rural town up in the mountains of China and the central location of author Liu Xinglong’s The Sky Dwellers. Jieling is known to only produce “sweet potatoes,” a phrase given to the less intelligent group of peasant farmers who make Jieling their home.
Literacy is low, funds are even lower, but Sun Sihai, Deng Youmi, and Principal Yu must make due and try to teach the children of Jieling, even if it costs them their health, marriages and political standing. Unlike us English teachers, who get paid quite well, the three teachers are only paid about 50RMB a month, a paycheck that rarely actually shows up in their hands. On top of all of this, the three are in charge of all maintenance, curriculum and even housing for some of the most desperate students. The teachers must also fight with parents to keep their children in school, when the family is looking to make some extra income.

This perseverance is fueled by the hope of the three teachers becoming state teachers, both a great honor and a source of extra funding for the school. Many call them dreamers, others call them insane, but the three carry on with Jieling school, because it is all they have. The compassion and dedication of the three teachers inspires others who find themselves as volunteer community teachers, most of them young people either going to university or currently attending. These three young persons’ motivation leads them to fight for Jieling school, even when they have stopped teaching there, and the legendary patience of Sun Sihai, Deng Youmi and Prinicipal Yu seems to have paid off, sometimes literally. However, there is no easy road in life, and the teachers are confronted with all sorts of problems, from rainstorms that collapse walls to a shady village cadre who has a personal vendetta against the trio. They aren’t alone however. Many of the best and brightest students band together to help the teachers when times are tough, even if all they have to do is show up to school. Most of the villagers think very highly of the three teachers, but others find them to be troublemakers and a nuisance. This colorful cast of characters really lends itself to the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.”

There is romance, tragedy, comedy, triumph, and defeat. Liu Xinglong paints three vivid portraits of men who only know dedication and hard work. They’ve never had it easy.  They don’t regret or blame others, just keep on keeping on. I wish I had teachers half as good as these three in my life. The three men are an inspiration, not just to others in the novel, but outside. Since reading it, whenever a problem at work arises, I always remind myself that I could be working in Jieling. I have gotten quite comfortable in a big, modern city collecting five-figure checks, and the novel was a good reminder that I’ve got it quite easy here.

Jieling is a fictional place, but there are plenty of real places that this could occur in. That is what makes Liu’s writing so great. The novel is clearly drawn from real events and situations. Replace Jieling with any number of rural townships and there is sure to be some resemblance to Jieling. The Sky Dwellers is a love letter to the community, or minban, teachers and all that they must endure for the sake of education. The novel is also one of the more positive Chinese novels I’ve read in a while, so it was refreshing to have a happy ending for once.

Like any novel, there are some problems. However, the ones in The Sky Dwellers are minor. Pacing can be a bit of an issue. A major conflict will get resolved after a few chapters, then there are lulls where not much of anything happens. This can be attributed to world building, but as someone who has done some travelling through rural China, it started to drag a bit at times. Some of the tragedies in the novel seem a bit contrived, like they were put in there for the sake of having tragedy. They do not tell the reader anything about the characters that we didn’t already know. Others came out of nowhere and killed some of the mood in certain sections.

All in all, I would highly recommend The Sky Dwellers for those who like inspirational, feel-good stories and for teachers. Even though that ragtag class you pulled out of your ass in five minutes may seem like a total circus, just imagine that you could be doing all of that for 50RMB a month!

Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.