The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is a collection of eight stories. They tell, in a powerful and subtle manner, how Mao's disastrous experiment affected--destroyed--the lives of ordinary people. Their dominant tone is not denunciatory or self-righteous, but empathetic and observant when narrated in the third person, and self-protectively detached or complicit when narrated in the first. Many of the narrators share Chen's background: a former overseas scholar who returned from the USA to support the motherland. Despite their idealistic patriotism, they are doubly suspicious in Maoist ideology, first, for being an intellectual, second, for being an ex-American imperialist. These stories trace, in part, the disillusionment of these repatriates, who are sent to farms to be "re-educated" by labor.
The loss of idealism forms a painful backdrop to the strongest story of the collection "Geng Er in Beijing." The story stands out for its length and complexity, and also for the fact that it is not driven by a crisis, the way short stories usually achieve their direct impact. Instead, the crises in Geng Er's life are already over before the story begins. He loved and lost a woman to the Workers' Propaganda Corps. He loved a second woman but was prevented from marrying her by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. The life he leads now is a much diminished thing, brightened only by the lucky chance of securing one of 20 bowls of hot mutton soup in a popular restaurant.
Chen does not comment on her characters, but lets their situations speak for themselves. It is an art of selection and organization, and often succeeds brilliantly. Both "The Execution of Mayor Yin" and "Ren Xiulan" end with a scene that is also an indelible image. "Residency Check" appears to be inconclusive--why does Leng not divorce his apparently adulterous wife?--until one realizes that its very inconclusiveness is a part of the writer's tact. In this story about the destructive effects of prying curiosity, to keep private affairs private is a public statement.