British-based writer Hong Ying has a lifelong attachment to her hometown Chongqing, where she was born, and to the Three Gorges region, where she spent some of her most formative years living with relatives.
In her earlier novel Ji'er de nu'er (Daughter of the River), that has been translated into numerous languages, she incorporated tales of Chongqing with tales about herself.
While in her new work Kongque de jiaohan (The Peacock Cries), she has fulfilled her dream of writing a story about the Three Gorges, where the tombs of many of her relatives will be forever submerged when the Three Gorges Dam Project is completed in a few years, leaving her with only memories of the time she spent in the region. It is a story about reincarnation (samsara), which, Hong Ying believes, means the continuation of human beings from one generation to another.
In the story, the heroine Liu Cui, a genetic engineer at a research institute in Beijing, receives a special gift from her husband, who is working as head of a development company at the Three Gorges.
The gift is a bottle of French perfume, which Liu Cui's mother explains, carries a cryptic message for her. Through the gift of perfume, her husband is asking Liu Cui if she has lost her femininity and no longer wishes to be his wife.
Having realized her marriage is facing a crisis, Liu Cui, prompted by her mother, makes up her mind to take a trip to the Three Gorges.
The story unfolds with this mysterious trip. What is even more intriguing is the side-effects of Liu Cui's trip -- a visit to an old friend of her mother's and an important discovery about her birth at the very site of the Three Gorges.
During Liu Cui's visit to her mother's old friend Aunt Chen, she learns she was born on the same day as Aunt Chen's son. She is also told that a monk and a prostitute were executed on that same day for adultery.
Aunt Chen tells Liu Cui the case was made up by Liu Cui's father, who was then county governor and eager to find a scapegoat in his campaign crackdown on prostitutes.
Aunt Chen and her husband, a military officer under the command of the county governor, knew the underlying truth, and were reluctant to carry out the orders to execute the monk and prostitute.
Aunt Chen believes her son, who was born on that fateful day, is the reincarnation of the prostitute Hong Lian. Chen recalls helping the prostitute escape from custody, only to be recaptured and accused of conducting adultery with a monk and running a brothel.
Chen has a guilty conscience, believing she was responsible for the execution of the innocent woman, fearing that her son, a reincarnation of the prostitute, may come to exact revenge on her. However, following the death of her husband, her son becomes the sole person she relies on and she comes to realize that the prostitute was grateful for her help and compassion and turns into her son to repay her for her kindness.
When Liu Cui learns how her father was tragically persecuted and committed suicide during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), she begins to believe that she might be the reincarnation of the monk, who was wrongly executed upon her father's order.
An even more shocking revelation is that her mother was one of the many who had written to the authorities against her father. Liu Cui's husband, whose father used to be a good friend of her father, reveals that her parents' marriage was a farce, maintained as a front since her childhood.
This knowledge convinces Liu Cui that she is a reincarnation of the monk and has come to this world to witness what became of her father, the mastermind behind the killing of the innocent prostitute and monk.
The reincarnation and retribution reflected in the novel convey an idea that people should be responsible for their later generations whatever they do, according to Hong Ying.
She said that she had been quite obsessed with the years she spent with her relatives in the county of Zhongxian by the Three Gorges. She was sent there at the age of six to stay with her aunts and uncles, and stayed for a year, until she was ready for primary school.
As a result, she knew first hand how miserable a life the people there were leading. Considering herself as the daughter of the Yangtze River and of the Three Gorges, Hong Ying said that she was quite concerned about the Three Gorges Dam Project, which would change the fate of the local people there forever.
She went to the Three Gorges last summer and to the villages where she had once stayed. To her sadness, most of the relatives she knew had passed away. The villagers there are waiting to see what changes the world's largest hydropower project will bring to their lives.
She said that she has seen the new elevated houses perched along the gorges. The shabby slums along the Yangtze River bank in Chongqing were leveled and residents there had moved into new buildings. The project has changed local people's lives for the better, Hong Ying said.
She hopes that the kind of reincarnation and retribution explored in her novel never happens to the people of the Three Gorges.
(China Daily February 24, 2003)