Another memoir about growing up in Communist China? There are enough of these now to form a well-established genre, from Tung Chi-ping’s The Thought Revolution (1967) and Ken Ling’s Red Guard (1972) through Liang Heng’s Son of the Revolution (1983) to Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991) with many, many others in between and since. Surely the market is saturated? In any case, there are now so many mainland Chinese in North America that you can hear all this stuff from your colleague in the next office if you feel inclined. What’s going on?
What’s going on is the search for the next Angela’s Ashes. Publishers are an unimaginative lot. If you enjoy memoirs about hardscrabble childhoods, better set aside some serious reading time. Here is Random House’s entry, the tale of a boy growing up in poverty and ignominy — Chen’s family were the “wrong” class according to Maoist doctrine — in a small south China town during the 1960s and 1970s.
Is it any good? I cannot say I think so. Not that it is a bad book in the sense of being malicious, or deliberately dishonest. It is just not very interesting. The last third of it, for example, is concerned with the author studying for and taking an examination — an ancient Chinese obsession, to be sure, but not one that makes for a very engrossing read. Nor is there much sign that Chen understands the great events that shaped his life. Of the year of his birth, for example, he says:
They called it the Year of Great Starvation. Chairman Mao had had a parting of the ways with the Soviets, and now they wanted all their loans repaid or there would be blood, a lot of it. Mao panicked. He ordered his citizens to cut down on meals and be hungry heroes so he could repay the loans …
This account of the origins of the dreadful famine of 1959-61 is false. The famine followed directly from Mao’s domestic policies. The tale about Soviet loans and threats was a lie the Communists told to the Chinese people to save their own face. The true facts about the famine have been available in the West for fifteen years and were gathered together for a general readership in Jasper Becker’s 1996 book Hungry Ghosts. (This particular whopper is exploded in chapter 19 of Becker’s book.) Da Chen claims that the famine permanently marked his character. That he shows so little interest in ascertaining the truth about it bespeaks a breathtaking lack of curiosity.
Nor does Chen, heir to a glittering tradition of scholarship and art stretching continuously all the way back to the Bronze Age, make any attempt to give spice and color to his narrative by drawing on that tradition. The glory of the Chinese language arises from its treasure trove of idioms, accumulated across three thousand years of history and literature. To anyone with a feel for words, surely the temptation to dip into that great store cannot be resisted? Da Chen resists it very steadfastly. Time and again he has the opportunity to illuminate a situation with one of the ancient stories, or to link his personal experience to the great dramas of Chinese history. He passes on every one, giving us instead the dreary legacy of the Creative Writing course — feeble similes (white clouds “chased each other like lovers”), one-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect, and a few leaden aphorisms:
A wise man once said that the difference between going to college and not going was the difference between wearing genuine leather shoes and going barefoot.
It does not help that the editing is atrocious. In his acknowledgments Chen thanks “the Random House team who labored over the book with love and enthusiasm.” But without an atlas, apparently — the Chinese place-names are almost uniformly mis-spelled. I did not read Angela’s Ashes, being violently allergic to professional Irishness, and therefore I cannot speak for the Frank McCourt fan club; but if you want to know what it was like to grow up under Maoism, I can recommend half a dozen books much better than this one. Or you could just ask the guy in the next office.