About The Book
In the bed of a Liberation truck rides a group of elderly farmers on their way home from peddling goods at a market. Among them is a young man alternately leafing through an atlas and admiring the view of the sun on a river at the bottom of a plateau. He is smiling and humming, and appears refreshed and content.
The student is a graduate of the Chinese Department at Xinjiang University. Although his thesis on Chinese phonetics has been pronounced brilliant, he has concluded that phonetics is not his true calling. He has been assigned to work at the Xinjiang Provincial Office of Family Planning. Frustrated, he decides to refuse this position and study human geography in Beijing. On the way to the capital, he anticipates seeing the Yellow River, or the Heilongjiang, “all those rivers in the North.”
Also riding among the farmers is a young woman photographer from Beijing. She stands with her back to the student, seemingly to avoid looking at him. She eventually introduces herself, saying that she plans to photograph the Yellow River. When the truck reaches a high point, she cries: “There it is below -- the Yellow River!” The student catches sight of an enormous coil of water winding down from the horizon.
The truck comes to the bank of the river and stops. The student recalls that a decade earlier he swam nearby. He finds a stepping stone leading to the water. The photographer asks what the river makes him think. He replies that it reminds him of his father, who abandoned his mother when he was young. The photographer talks about her own father, beaten to death by Red Guards when she was 12. She had to wash the blood off his body.
Toward evening, the Yellow River looks like molten copper. The student strips and dives in. The photographer snaps a picture of her naked, broad-shouldered friend running toward the water.
The photographer invites the student to travel with her up river. They discover a shard of pottery on the bank. She photographs it, later ranking this picture and the one depicting her friend diving into the water in the evening as her best work. The couple catches a freight train to Beijing, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the door of a box car. She recalls a former lover while he thinks about sea waves and the Irtysh River in Mongolia.
In Beijing, the student immerses himself in his studies while toying with the idea of writing a poem to be called “The River in the North”. The photographer works on her portfolio. One day she advises the student that refusing to accept a job assignment might mean revocation of his degree. He expresses little concern, and then welcomes friends who come to call. She listens as the student argues with his friends, one of whom is named Xu Beihua.
The photographer fails to find a publisher for her pictures and visits the student to seek solace. There she meets Xu Beihua, who offers to write a review of her work. The student busies himself with his graduate school entrance exam, but when he finally completes his application, he is told that he is too late. He visits Xu Beihua to seek the latter’s advice and discovers the photographer’s pictures on Xu’s walls.
The student’s mother falls sick. He ferries her on his bicycle to the hospital and spends four days with her, first in the emergency room and then in a ward, abandoning his exam preparations. On the fifth day, the photographer comes to see him. They bicycle together to the Yongding River and stroll along the bank. She tells him that her pictures have been published together with Xu’s commentary on them.
As the entrance exam approaches, the student concludes that he has no choice but to demand the right to take the exam from the Communist Party secretary. He barges into the official’s office, and then apologizes for his rudeness and storms out.
The student prepares for the exam and works on his poem. He receives an admission card for the exam just before it is held. He visits the photographer, shows her the card, and invites her to dine at the Moscow Restaurant, fulfilling an old promise. During the meal, the couple listens to the music of the Japanese folk singer Nobuyasu Okabayashi. The photographer looks at the student and confesses that Xu has declared his love for her. The student fails to give an opinion of the situation, but concludes that she heeds a steadier partner.
The night before the exam, the student sleeps deeply, dreaming that the Heilongjiang is thawing and calling him.