Many years ago I've read a short story that impressed me very much at the time. I'd like to find the story on the endless Web, but, alas, I recall neither the title nor the author, only the plot. To make the matters worse, this was printed in an anthology of Russian language translations of Chinese fiction. Is there any way to identify the story?

Here's basically the story. IIRC Russian translation was "Barcarola", which doesn't mean anything in Russian, so I have no clue how it was called in Chinese or could have been translated to English. I read it around 1990; it's situated in Mao's China and partially after the regime was relaxed, and is opaquely critical of the Cultural Revolution, so must have been written in 1980s.

The story consists of several interleaving timelines. In the first one the storyteller recall his childhood, when he and his friends played on an old unseaworthy beached fishing boat; in the second one he visits a family of an old friend who passed away. In the story the friend died in an earthquake, but it's pretty much obvious that the "earthquake" was the Cultural Revolution. The story goes like this:

1) Young kids, including the protagonist, find an abandoned beached fishing boat. They decide that the boat is their "ship"; they play on it, pretending to be sailors or pirates.

2) Years later, during the "earthquake" the protagonist sees his childhood friend carried away, never to be seen again. After a while the protagonist decides to visit his friend's family, the wife and the daughter. They are surprised and excited: after their husband/father disappeared nobody would have any interaction with them, they are being treated pretty much like lepers.

1) The kids take care of their beached "ship", play on it daily, it becomes the center of their lives.

2) The protagonist keeps visiting his friend's family that was abandoned by the society, and gradually convinces them that their lives have not ended. He convinces the daughter, whom he gets attached to more than he admits, to resume her piano training.

1) The kids learn that the villagers are going to scrap their "ship" for firewood. They decide to save it by letting it sail into the ocean. So they dig a trench in the sand between the boat and the water and push the boat into the ocean. The boat disappears with the tide. The kids' jubilation is mixed with tears, for they won't see their "ship" again.

2) The protagonists is visited by his friend's daughter who now has become a great piano player. She tells him that she was invited to play overseas. It's obvious that if she leaves she'll never come back to China. She says that she's accepting the offer, but lingers as if to let him intervene. The protagonist decides not to stop her and watches her leave.


1 Answer 1


I think you're looking for "Boat Song" by Feng Jicai.

Баркарола is Russian for "barcarolle", a traditional song of Venetian gondoliers, so I wouldn't say it means nothing in Russian, it's actually a decent translation, assuming the original Chinese name means "boat song" as well.

It's been a while since I last read it, but I remember that the artist did not die in the earthquake but rather committed suicide by smashing his head against the wall.

Otherwise, all your details check out.

  • Wow! This is it. Thanks!
    – Michael
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 15:13

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