Review by Maria Teresa De Donato
Yunnan, China: A young girl who has just graduated from her country with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature arrives in the city of Kunming, where she will stay for eight years and teach European Culture at the Department of Tourism of the Yunnan Normal University, as well as work as an Anthropological and Historical Researcher, alongside her colleague, Prof. Shen Lianzong.
This girl’s name is Fiori Picco, the Author of this novel. In China, however, she will be affectionately renamed “Xuelian,” or “the lotus of the snows,” a flower which, as she will explain to me later, “grows on the peaks of the Himalayas, is sacred to Buddhist monks, and is similar to our Edelweiss. Some of its meanings indicate purity, resilience, and tenacity.
Xuelian will play a primary role in the story reported in this novel of hers as well as in the participation in the project Prof. Lianzong, Professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Ethnic Minorities of Kunming, will be entrusted to her and which will allow a definitive turning point in documenting the real existence of Li Tangmei considered an “emblematic figure, a heroine who marked her generation in an era of pomp, wealth and splendor.” (p. 8)
Although Fiori Picco is the Author, she will not be the protagonist of this literary work.
While having lunch, more or less regularly, with her colleague at the Old Happy Fish restaurant, Xuelian meets Yang Sen, a boy of the Yao ethnic group with whom she will not only make friends but will also embark on a journey to his native land by participating in a historical research project Prof. Lianzong will entrust both of them with. This experience will prove to be a significant milestone for Xuelian in her capacity as Anthropologist. It will constitute a unique opportunity in the life of Yang Sen, who will find himself, in a completely unexpected way, also covering the role of Historical Researcher for the entire project duration.
Yunnan, a province located in southwest China, boasts a strong presence of ethnic minorities, including the Yao. Xuelian and Prof. Shen “were collaborating on a research project on Yao culture and history.” (pp. 11, 12)
Yang Sen was born and raised in a village called Dragon’s Tail and was a Yao of the Landian tribe (p. 13). As he will explain to the two women, he fled one night from his village in search of a better life that could make him grow and improve and offer him personal and professional opportunities he could never have had, had he stayed in Dragon’s Tail.
The final push to leave those places had been given to him by the fear, or perhaps even by the awareness that he probably would not have been able to pass the initiation ceremonies, which included four very tough tests, to which all males of the village had to undergo before the completion of eighteen years of age. Failing even one of those tests would have meant being eternally ridiculed by his fellow villagers and being isolated and deprived of the possibility of marrying a girl from that village.
Therefore, the choice had been between facing the initiation rite with the four tests hoping that all would go well, and being accepted by the community as a mature and fearless man, or abandoning the village forever, including his family.
When Yang Sen left Dragon’s Tail, by his admission, he was “a young man, unattractive, frail, shy and with an old man’s mouth.” (p. 15) Since he was a child, however, he had proved to be responsible, reliable, and a hard worker, working alongside his mother in her tailoring business once his father fell ill, demonstrating that he was not only highly creative but also had an innate talent that would later pave the way for success. Yang Sen also carefully observed “the three fundamental principles that had been instilled in him since his birth as a man of the Landian tribe” (p. 16), namely sacrifice, renunciation, and saving.
Despite the many limitations that Yang Sen feels he has, this boy also shows excellent maturity and strong moral ethics. His humility and simplicity went along with a profound awareness of his dignity as a human being and of belonging to the Yao ethnic group, a source of pride for him but also a reason for reflection.
“I realized that our origins are just like the roots of the great sacred tree of the forest: deep and rooted in the ground…”… “My greatest fear was people’s judgment, combined with the fear of the unknown and not being able to survive.” (p. 9)
However, despite his misgivings and fears, Yang Sen feels that life in the Dragon’s Tail village, the initiation rituals to prove one’s masculinity and be considered a ‘real man,’ and a mentality and lifestyle he perceives as restrictive are not for him. There is a whole world to discover beyond those valleys, mountains, forests, panoramas, and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets he has been surrounded by since birth. While recognizing their charm and value, above all sentimental, he is fully aware that they are no longer enough for him.
Making friends with Chuga, Xuelian, and Prof. Shen, who will become role models and instill greater confidence in his potential by increasing his self-esteem and helping him to overcome his initial fears of not being up to… , will allow Yang Sen to take flight: “The discovery of the precious manuscript changed my life forever. From then on, I no longer feared proceeding with awareness on my path. With a little perseverance and character, I, too, could have achieved the goals I had set for myself.” (p. 267)
Yang Sen and his culture are, in fact, both protagonists of this literary work, as one is a projection of the other and vice versa. The two merge into a whole rich in aspects that often fascinate, others make us reflect, and others still amaze us.
Yang Sen’s comment summarizes the main lesson that emerges from this: “In reality, human beings are nothing more than shaded flowers inside an enormous cosmic kaleidoscope. The world, the universe, space, and karma itself are in continuous, perpetual change.” (p. 271)
Yao is a novel written in a simple and fluid style in which its Author, Fiori Picco, has transcribed her personal experience and that of Yang Sen, through which the reader can get to know the Yao ethnic group.
It is a book as rich in culture as it is in ‘poetry’: it is a hymn to a remote and equally ancient civilization which, regardless of what we Westerners especially can understand, must be safeguarded and treasured as a World Heritage Site.
Fiori Picco deserves great credit for having made it known to us, having perceived its most profound essence, and having managed to transmit it to us in its most authentic form.
A book that reflects great humanity, empathy, and depth of thought and whose reading I recommend to everyone.