Tag Archives: Cultural Revolution in China

Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

DecodedThe layers here are astonishing, revealed through the filtered lens of an unnamed narrator who gathers the shared experiences, memories, and words about an enigmatic, brilliant man who has lost his sanity by the time the narrator’s research begins. The subject is Rong Jinzhen – orphan, mathematical genius, unparalleled code breaker, national hero. In spite of the narrative spotlight, he is allowed a mere two instances to speak for himself: in a message written in his own blood professing lifelong devotion to his adoptive mother, and in a lost-then-found blue notebook that can only be partially divulged as a redacted afterthought.

The Rong family’s fortune accumulated through salt, until a peripatetic member of the seventh generation becomes “the first person … to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic.” After an education overseas, he founded what would become “the famous N University.” The most illustrious of the eighth Rong generation is an extraordinary woman who assisted the Wright brothers take to the sky, but childbirth takes her life. Her genius is reborn in her illegitimate grandson Jinzhen.

The narrator spends “two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events” that comprise Jinzhen’s major life events: his birth, his early years as “Duckling,” his adoption by relatives, his university life as a teenage prodigy, his sudden induction into Unit 701 – the most elite division of code-breakers for China’s secret service – and what follows in the decades hence.

As Jinzhen attempts to decipher the impossible, the anonymous narrator works assiduously to graft together his subject through multiple voices with varying degrees of reliability. The Rashomon-esque story is filled with countless phrases meant to reassure: “to tell you the truth,” “to put it another way,” “in other words,” and yet that truth remains elusive throughout. Regardless of all who weigh in with scattered glimpses of family, mentorship, marriage, and career, Jinzhen’s own personal ‘codes’ remain incomplete and unknowable.

First published in 2002, Decoded was Mai Jia’s first novel; since its debut, Mai has catapulted into top-selling stardom in his native China, including winning his country’s top honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. He writes seemingly what he knows, having spent almost two decades as a soldier and possible spy in China’s “intelligence services,” according to his publisher bio. Decoded marks Mai’s arrival Stateside in translation; smart, compelling, exceptional as it proves to be, it should ensure more of his titles will be western-bound.

Tidbit: Not wanting to sully the novel itself, I’m adding this warning here: Choose the page. Why does a novel set in China, populated mostly by Chinese characters, need to be narrated in fake-Chinese-inflected English? The implication is that the characters are incapable of fluently speaking their own language. Really?! Because it’s a Chinese novel-in-translation that needs to be slapped with spurious exotica to sell it stuck in the ears? Narrator Ryan Gesell (an L.A. native clearly not of Asian descent) uses a similarly fabricated accent in Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, giving U.S.-born Asian American characters a ching-chong flair. Is this aural yellowfacing offensive to anyone else?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (China), 2014 (United States)


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié, translated by Edward Gauvin

Chinese LifeNo other word than epic describes this almost 700-page tome. It’s epic in content: six decades of one ordinary man’s extraordinary life, told through detailed, rich depictions in swirling black-and-white pen and ink that never seem to still. It’s epic in context: 60 years of tumultuous history in a country still in the throes of unrecognizable change. It’s epic in heft: just carrying it around should add a few sinews of muscle (although once you start, you just might read it through in a single sitting).

In 2005 Beijing, a foreign publisher and writer present a Chinese artist with a plan. His response? “My life as a comic book? Nonsense! I’m just one Chinese person among millions of others! Who’d be interested in the story of someone as ordinary as me?” he questions. But the pair are insistent: “… that’s exactly where the appeal is. Through the life of an individual like yourself, foreign readers could come to understand China.” In a clever twist of the final panel of that short preface, the child who was Li Kunwu – known by his childhood nickname, Xiao Li, as in “Young Li” – looks up at a faceless voice calling out to him, “Someone wants to see you! Odd fellow. Says he wants to send you to the 21st century.” And so the journey begins …

In “Book I: The Time of the Father,” Xiao Li’s parents meet, marry, and bring two children into an uncertain world. The People’s Republic of China has just been birthed and the young country is struggling itself into existence under the leadership of Chairman Mao. Xiao Li is born in 1955, miraculously survives the Great Famine of 1958 which lasts three years, followed  in 1966 by the brutal sufferings during “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Shockingly, Xiao Li’s devotion and loyalty to the Communist Party never wavers.

Mao’s death in 1976 – which ends Book I and begins “Book II: The Time of the Party” – brings forth sweeping changes of leadership .. and opens the country to a new ‘socialism’ depicted in the aptly named “Book III: The Time of the Money.” China is ready for reinvention, testing foreign ideas, welcoming foreign contact and exchange, and developing the seemingly unlimited potential of foreign investment.

As the contemporary Li looks back over the decades, he recognizes well that his China is “not the land of ‘Made in China,’ skyscrapers, the Olympic Games and the World Expo.” But of course, “we’re proud of what we’ve made, even if it’s not perfect yet. Especially since it doesn’t come from the profits of armed conquest, however legitimate. Or from the exploiting of rich subsoil or from inherited capital skillfully managed to bear fruit.

“You will find nothing but sweat here. From our brows and our children, to whom we bequeath lives that will also be made of hard work and sacrifice for we still have a long way to go down the road that will lead us from poverty, the road to development.”

Sharing Li’s journey proves unforgettably epic – that word once more! – because by the final page, you’ll feel like you, too, have borne witness to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century … with the promise of more yet to come.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Chinese

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu with MeiMei Fox

Bend, Not BreakThis is not a spoiler: If you take a good look at the cover of the recent memoir Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, you know the pages will deliver a happy ending … okay, if not happy, then certainly marked with all the signs of outward success. Author Ping Fu’s name is clearly annotated with “Founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc.” At top right, the single blurb from Tony Hsieh – the founding CEO of Zappos.com, who authored the New York Times #1 bestseller Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose – makes his public declaration of support for Fu’s journey to “the top of the American tech world.” Turn to the back cover where further endorsements are many, from bestselling authors, publishing executives, and well-placed journalists. The book all but shouts, “Get your next great American success story here!”

No shortage of feel-good, do-good, against-all-odds survive-and-thrive true stories line the bookshelves in libraries and bookstores. Some are just okay, too many are predictable, but every so often, a few are stunners. Bend, Not Break falls in that last category. Think you’ve heard it all? Try just the first chapter of Fu’s story – three English phrases (“hello,” “thank you,” and “help”), a generous stranger, a kidnapping, two mothers, two fathers, a stolen childhood – and see just how far you get. I’ll confidently predict all the way to the final page. Written with clarity and purpose – choosing journalistic-like detachment over self-pity in the worst of times, allowing for open vulnerability and empathy in moments of achievement and joy – Bend, Not Break is a significant accomplishment befitting Fu’s extraordinary odyssey from privilege to deprivation to imprisonment to lasting freedom.

For the first eight years of her life, Fu grew up in a grand house, the adored youngest child to five older siblings in a well-educated, wealthy family. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution arrived in Shanghai – its sophisticated, international veneer no longer able to protect its cosmopolitan citizens from the onslaught of Chairman Mao’s less-than-equal communism. Wrenched from her family, Fu was sent alone to Nanjing, where she spent the next decade in room 202 of a Nanjing University dormitory.

She learned with great shock that she was not a pampered Shanghai last daughter. Instead, she was the firstborn of a couple she believed to be her aunt and uncle. She arrives in Nanjing just in time to see her birthparents forced away by the Red Guards for destinations unknown. With a desperate shout from the crowded truck, Fu’s Nanjing mother transfers total responsibility for the left-behind 4-year-old Fu thought was her cousin. Still so much a child herself, Fu becomes sole parent – nurturer and protector – to an even younger sister she never knew she had.

Marked as a “black element,” Fu is stripped of all rights for the crime of being born into an educated family. Endlessly, she is told she is less than nothing. She is ridiculed, dismissed, beaten, and forced to eat “bitter meals” made of dirt and animal dung. At age 10, when unspeakable horrific violence is perpetrated on her already deprived little body, she is labeled a “broken shoe,” an insult so severe she will not comprehend its heinous implications for years to come.

Fu survives, sustained by moments of unexpected kindness in a bewildering world of daily abuse and deprivation. An unknown generous soul leaves much-needed food outside her door. A faraway uncle visits, bringing with him unimaginable delights contained in forbidden Western novels. A first best friend – whose peasant roots make her an ideal citizen – risks her own safety by becoming Fu’s brave companion and outspoken champion. […click here for more]

Review: Reviews, Nonfiction, Bookslut.com, February 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Chinese American

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

Little White Duck is a visual feast that showcases the childhood memories of author Na Liu, and vibrantly enhanced by her artist husband Andrés Vera Martínez. Liu introduces herself with an adorably grinning “Ni Hao!,” explaining that she was born in Zhifang, a suburb of Wuhan, China in 1973. Her family name is Liu, her given name Na, but as Chinese children are usually called by nicknames (so that “bad luck and spirits couldn’t find you if your true name was never spoken out loud”), she is called Qin, which means ‘piano.’ When her little sister comes along a year later, she becomes Da Qin (Big Piano), and her little sister Xiao Qin (Little Piano).

Eight short segments detail Da Qin’s youthful experiences, from her role as big sister to accompanying her mother to school, to joining her mother in tears over the death of ‘Grandpa’ Mao, to learning to never waste food, to performing good deeds, to celebrating the holidays with extended family, to visiting estranged relatives whose lives are drastically different from her own.

At first reading, especially for younger readers, Da Qin’s childhood about growing up in a faraway place decades ago is not unlike a vaguely familiar fable. Older audiences, however, will recognize the story as an important, even unsettling historical record of a pivotal time. Liu briefly mentions the one-child policy as “a new law” which her parents were able to avoid because her “little sister was already on the way.” When only one child is officially allowed to enroll in school, Liu’s sister becomes the sole student while Liu was lucky enough “to get a good start on my education” by joining her mother’s classroom in the elementary school in which her mother teaches. Liu’s mother explains how Mao’s policies allowed her the surgeries she needed to walk again after being paralyzed by polio, but also recalls how the Great Famine destroyed so many lives.  The inequities Liu experiences in her father’s remote village – her “flat-out mean” grandmother, her dirt-stained aggressive cousins who know nothing of books – brings new insight to a world beyond the comfortable life she shares with her immediate family.

Liu and her sister represent China’s “transitional generation – a generation caught in between one way of life and another, between the old and the new.” As children, they bear witness to the emergence of a new China on the international stage, from the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution toward gradual economic and technological modernization.

“I read in the writing of Confucius that there are three ways to learn,” Liu concludes. “First: by studying history, which is the best. Second: By imitating someone or something which is easiest. And third: Through your own experience, which can be heartbreaking.” Liu’s childhood in China “was a special time,” which she wisely chooses (after “some convincing” from hubby Martínez) to “preserve … through pictures and stories.” Their joint production is spectacular.

TidbitDuck is one of the most complete books ever. The already memorable story is significantly strengthened with back-of-the-book supplementary materials which includes a “Glossary of Mandarin Chinese Words and Other Words and Names,” a timeline from 551 BCE to Mao’s death in 1976, a more detailed biography of Liu, country and province maps, and – most impressive of all, something I can’t remember seeing in any other book, regardless of target audience! – a page of “Translations of Chinese Characters” of the signs, posters, plaques, and other calligraphy throughout the book. WOW! Talk about feeling utterly grateful to be able to enjoy every detail!

Readers: Children, Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Latino/a

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

Yan Lianke’s latest (Dream of Ding Village, Serve the People!) arrives superbly translated by Duke professor Carlos Rojas and auspiciously stamped with China’s Lao She Literary Award.

Welcome to Liven, a mountainous haven populated by the disabled who enjoy bountiful lives, so remote as to have avoided governmental controls since its legendary Ming dynasty founding. Liven – from a local word meaning “enjoyment, happiness, and passion” – joins the “new society” after an injured Mao Zhi, the Red Army’s youngest female soldier, settles there and becomes the de facto village leader. Half a century later, Liven’s citizens play a pivotal role in a county official’s ludicrous scheme to buy Lenin’s embalmed remains from Russia, and reentomb them in a tourist-destination mausoleum of magnificent proportions.

Reading this work requires physical participation of turning sections back and forth (e-reader not recommended) as Yan presents his nonlinear, multi-layered narrative in books, chapters, and essential endnotes – using only odd numbers. Notes Rojas: “[T]he work’s discontinuous numbering expresses the tragic sentiment of the novel as a whole (since in China odd numbers are considered inauspicious).”

Verdict: Sprawling, comical, and calamitous, Kisses is not for the faint-hearted (humanity rarely fares well in Yan’s fiction) or the impatient. Diligent readers will be richly rewarded.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, October 1, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr

Yu Hua is a grand master of subversion. Just as his title – China In Ten Words – promises, Yu “compress[es] the endless chatter of China today into ten simple words … to finally clear a path through the social complexities and staggering contrasts of contemporary China.” Through laconic reduction, Yu exposes a China far beyond current Western assumptions based on adoptable baby girls, fears about Chinese überstudents out-performing America’s own, and the looming US-to-China foreign debt.

Yu is well known for his internationally award-winning novels – including To Live (which became a lush Zhang Yimou film), Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, and Brothers – but China in Ten Words is his first nonfiction work in English translation. “In the thirty odd years since Mao’s death China has fashioned an astonishing economic miracle,” writes Yu from his insider’s vantage point, “but the price it has paid is even more astounding.”

Here, he combines history, sociopolitical analysis, economic observations, with his own personal experiences to illustrate for readers the contrast between the deprivation that defined the Cultural Revolution of his youth and the extravagance of contemporary China.

Yu begins almost nostalgically with “the first words [he] mastered”: “the people.” During Mao’s rule, “the people” projected power and gravitas, from Mao’s directive to “‘serve the people,’” to the People’s Republic of China, to the country’s most important newspaper, People’s Daily. Three decades later, Yu muses, “I can’t think of another expression in the modern Chinese language that is such an anomaly – ubiquitous yet somehow invisible.” In a new China “where money is king,” ‘the people’ have been “denuded of meaning by Chinese realities.”

Yet even more than ‘the people,’ “the word that has lost the most value the fastest during the last thirty years … would surely have to be ‘leader,’” Yu’s word #2. “Many years after the 1976 death of a genuine leader” – Chairman Mao – today’s Chinese are in the midst of cutthroat competition for mere survival: “the strong prey on the weak, people enrich themselves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and unscrupulous flourish.”

Yu balances such vehemence with three chapters of personal reflection on “reading” (word #3), “writing” (word #4), and “Lu Xun” (word #5). In “reading,” Yu recalls the oppressive scarcity of books during the Cultural Revolution only to have books become worth less than wastepaper three decades later.

In “writing,” he shares some of his own literary history, from his early career as a small-town dentist to his aspirations toward “a loafer’s life in the cultural center” as a writer; he laughs off the critical praise he eventually receives for his “plain narrative language” as little more than the result of his untrained, limited vocabulary.

Yu confesses to his youthful disrespect toward China’s most influential 20th-century prose writer, Lu Xun, who was revered then reduced to a mere “catchphrase.” As a mature, acclaimed author himself, Yu is finally able to recognize and reclaim Lu Xun’s literary potency.

Continuing on through the second half of his 10 words, Yu’s sharp gaze proves unrelenting. He traces the evolving violence of “revolution” (word #6) over a span of 30 years, and examines the resulting “disparity” (word #7) between those who absconded with ill-gotten luxuries and those who remain trapped in “desolate ruins.” He captures the ruthless determination of “grassroots” (word #8) citizens, “who have nothing to lose, since they began with nothing at all,” who don’t allow concerns about morality or legality to obstruct their unwavering path toward financial gains.

When such ends seem to justify any means – methods employed can be described by words such as “copycat” (#9) and “bamboozle” (#10) – then “Harvard Communications” can use President Obama to sell their “Blockberry Whirlwind 9500,” and the penthouse allegedly leased by Bill Gates during the Beijing Olympics will “convert an obscure housing development into an apartment complex famous all over the country.”

Chapter by chapter, word by word, Yu drolly pulls off the proverbial white gloves, exposing one finger at a time until the guilty hands are stripped bare. Unblinking, Yu muses at the ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’ reality that is today’s China: “Here, where everything is tinged with the mysterious logic of absurdist fiction, Kafka or Borges might feel quite at home.” As a consummate author, Yu contemplates “writ[ing] such a story myself. Bamboozletown might be its title.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2011

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Chinese

Brothers by Yu Hua, translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas

Yu Hua’s unforgettable tome requires a solid commitment in time and patience, yet your reward for finishing the final page will make your investment amply worthwhile.

The opening paragraph begins with the end: “Baldy Li, our Liu Town’s premier tycoon,” sits contemplating his life on his “gold-plated toilet seat” and realizes he has little left of value in spite of his massive wealth. Covering four decades and almost 700 pages, Yu Hua gloriously captures a family saga woven through what will certainly be considered one of the most tumultuous periods of modern history – China’s transformation from the deprivation of the Cultural Revolution into an unparalleled 21st-century capitalist powerhouse.

Baldy Li and Song Gang become brothers as young boys when their respective widowed parents marry. Baldy Li, one year younger, is brash, selfish, and virtually fearless; Song Gang is gentle, caring, and painfully thoughtful. Opposites here attract, and their bond is immediate, cemented by brutal events, bearing witness to their parents’ suffering. As they mature, Baldy Li’s obsession with the town’s beauty, Lin Hong, will eventually estrange the two brothers, but their mother’s dying words will never separate their fates.

Brothers is tortuous, comical, condemning, celebratory, horrific, wrenching, and so much more. The tiniest moments of humanity are intensely disturbing next to gestures of senseless cruelty. The head-shaking disbelief alone will keep you reading, from Baldy Li’s preadolescent sexual discovery, to his wedding gift vasectomy, to fortunes literally built on garbage, to traveling salesmen peddling hymens, to a virgin beauty contest without a virgin in sight, to cosmetic surgeries of the jaw-dropping variety.

“OMG” can’t begin to describe Yu Hua’s gritty, unapologetic, ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ epic.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

Min opens her latest with guilty sobs recalling her “brainwashed” teenaged self in 1970s China, when she was forced to denounce Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck to Madame Mao. That guilt clearly drove Min (Red Azalea) to write this “based on the life of Pearl S. Buck” novel about a fictional friendship between Buck and her Chinese best friend, Willow. Unfortunately, by book’s end readers are left with little more than caricatures of a Chinese Saint Pearl and her long-suffering sidekick, both ultimately victims of the easily vilified Madame Mao. Buck and Willow bond as turn-of-the-century girls, and Min uses their lifelong relationship to chart China’s tumultuous history.

Verdict: A novel about Buck could have been interesting, but this one is marred by insipid dialog (Buck’s husband should be more understanding because of his Cornell degree, her would-be lover wants to know if she “love[s] like a Chinese woman”), jolting gaps (Buck’s adopted daughter, Janice, disappears after one mention), and apocryphal pronouncements (Buck apologizes via “Voice of America” for casting Western actors in Hollywood’s whitewashed version of The Good Earth). Buck’s story deserves better. With two autobiographies and 80-plus titles to choose from, readers can easily access Buck directly.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, April 15, 2010

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale by Belle Yang

Already lauded for her exquisitely illustrated family stories – Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders, The Odyssey of a Manchurian, as well as numerous children’s titles – Yang debuts her first-ever graphic memoir, a multi-layered creation that details her own story of becoming an artist/writer finely interwoven with the family tales her father shares with her.

Gravely threatened by an abusive, dangerous stalker boyfriend soon after college, Yang and her parents are forced to drastically readjust their lives. Yang finds temporary escape in China, where she immerses herself in traditional Chinese traditional painting. One of her teachers there is Deng Lin, the daughter of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Wandering and sketching the wide country, Yang meets the scattered relatives who will help reconstruct the challenging lives of her extended ancestors when she returns home to the California coast.

Day after day, night after night, Yang listens to her father tell his captivating stories, from the family’s epic beginnings as “the dregs of Chinese society” as butchers and opera singers to prominent members of the landed scholar-gentry class, to the fraternal fighting that eventually shatters the family’s landed position, to their near destruction during the 20th-century Communist terror. Yang draws strength from her ancestors, finding her own power to claim the very unique voice someone else tried so hard to destroy.

Yang, whose Chinese name Xuan means “forget sorrow,” was presciently named by her storyteller father … in hoping to forget his own sorrow of familial suffering as he delights in the promise of his daughter, so too, does that daughter learn to finally let her own sorrows go by creating a memorable testament to that ancestral past. With her latest title, Yang has most definitely found a medium that perfectly blends her many talents, creating a most unforgettable feast for us lucky readers.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese American

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu

Although the cover of Bi’s novel displays a character for “triple happiness” – ostensibly representing the eponymous three sisters – readers shouldn’t expect a happily-ever-after tale. After seven daughters, Party Secretary Wang sees his self-esteem redeemed with the birth of a son. Firstborn Yumi, the de facto matriarch, reclaims the family’s dignity by parading the prized baby before her father’s mistresses. But Wang’s philandering shatters Yumi’s own marriage prospects, and Yumi leaves the constrictive Wang Family Village as the lesser second wife of an older city official. Third sister Yuxiu eventually joins Yumi’s household, having nowhere else to go as she is “ruined” after being brutally gang-raped. The promise of an education helps seventh sister Yuyang escape, but her academic career is hardly stellar.

Verdict: Bi (The Moon Opera) is an award-winning Chinese novelist and screenwriter, but his presumptive efforts to capture the three sisters’ deepest thoughts and feelings prove superficial and unconvincing. Readers interested in the challenging lives of China’s ordinary citizens during the Cultural Revolution will better appreciate such resonating titles as Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, or Xinran’s nonfiction The Good Women of China.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 15, 2010

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese