Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Three books about China

When I am not reading science fiction or historical fiction, I am reading nonfiction, often about either history or China. Here are three highly-recommended books about the Middle Kingdom:

Wild Swans is a nonfiction memoir by Jung Chang about three Chinese women: Yu-fang, who was born in 1909 and became the wife of first a warlord and later a doctor; her daughter De-hong, a Communist official in urban Chengdu; and her granddaughter, who is Jung herself.

The events in Wild Swans describes events in China from the turn of the century through modern times. While it describes much of the history itself, its primary concern is how events affected Jung's family. The book is told in a very calm, very restrained manner which makes its emotional impact even more powerful. And the book is very emotional indeed. I was totally absorbed by the tale of Yu-fang being held prisoner in her own house while her warlord husband was away for years at a time. Or the story of De-hong and her husband Shou-yu, a dedicated Communist official whose belief in the revolution was so strong that he routinely put the cause ahead of the welfare of both his wife and children.

The most intense passages in the book are the chapters on the Cultural Revolution. They comprise one-third of the book and are among the most chilling and affective writings I have ever encountered in my life. This was true horror indeed, paling to insignificance the imaginary horrors created by writers of horror fiction. It was the horror of innocent people being forced to live in constant fear, of not knowing who to trust and who to beware, of being brutalized and terrorized by mobs run amuck, of an entire country being savaged because of one megalomaniacal dictator who was seemingly insane with power.

This book should be required reading for all those pampered Americans (myself included!) who live in relative comfort, mostly ignoring the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves, whether in this country or abroad. I recommend this book very highly indeed.


Betty Bao Lord was born in Shanghai in 1938. In 1946 her father was sent to New York City as a diplomat for the Chinese nationalist government. He was supposed to go alone, but he insisted on bringing his wife and two older daughters, Betty included, with him. His youngest daughter stayed behind for the supposed two years.

While he was in NYC, the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War, and Bao could not return to China with his family. None of them saw the youngest daughter again until 1962. Meanwhile, Betty married Winston Lord who later became U.S. Ambassador to China under Ronald Reagan. They returned to China several times, during which she interviewed many Chinese people on life in the People's Republic, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. She was also a witness to the protests in 1989 which led to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Legacies is the result of those interviews and her experiences, both growing up in China and returning home. Bao is an excellent writer. Besides Legacies, she is the author of Spring Moon, a bestselling novel about China. While Legacies is depressing at times, overall it is a very moving experience which I recommend highly.


Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, is the author's memoirs about growing up during China's Cultural Revolution. Naturally I could not help but compare this book to Wild Swans, an unfortunate comparison since Min is nowhere near the writer that Chang is. But once I overcame that disappointment I enjoyed Red Azalea tremendously since it is a strong, gripping book itself.

Like many young Chinese of her generation, the author was sent to live on a farm commune, a move designed by Chairman Mao to isolate the Red Guard he had stirred up so much that even he feared their uncontrollability. Min's time on the farm was very depressing, buoyed only by a tender love affair with a fellow female worker. Then Min was fortunate enough to be selected for a screen test to play the title role in Madame Mao's movie Red Azalea. But in Maoist China even testing for a screen role was complicated by politics and ambition and another bittersweet love affair, this time with the movie's male director. But it all became fruitless when Mao died and his wife and her Gang of Four were subsequently arrested by the new government and the movie was cancelled.

All three of these books provide a good introduction for people who want to learn more about life in 20th century China, especially during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.


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