Sunday, July 05, 2009

Red China Blues

I found Jan Wong's Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Nowso compelling. It's a memoir of Wong's relationship with China. In the late 1960's Canadian-Chinese Wong convinced her dismayed parents to let her go to Maoist China to learn the language and soak up some Maoism. They couldn't fathom why their daughter wanted to go back. Why would a middle class girl opt for bad food, cold showers and deprivation?

But that's what Wong wanted. She donned the whole Mao look from cotton Mao jacket to black cloth shoes. She and a Chinese American Yale student were the two first foreigners to study in the new China. She lobbied against the comforts like a private dining room to the dismay of the staff. Who'd want to eat gruel twice a day? It was fascinating to read about her relationships with her roommate, other students, teachers and the administration. She begins very idealistic view of Maoism early on, and holds on to it for quite some time, but does question her beliefs as she bumps into the secrecy, restrictions, sexism and hypocrisy that was part of this system.

Her one year language immersion becomes a longer stay as she is allowed to enter Beijing University as a bona fide exchange student. Her studies coincide with the Cultural Revolution and she participates in the peasant labor and marching that entailed.

Eventually Wong marries another Sinophile, an American man who'd grown up in China. As she becomes fluent in the language and can pass as a native, she gets a position as a New York Times reporter. Except for a brief stint in the U.S. when she and her husband get graduate degrees she remains in the country to witness the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Tienanmen Square protests and massacre, and the beginning of China's economic boon as a reporter for Toronto's Globe and Mail.

She provides fascinating background on both the personal and political events she experiences. Readers learn about Chinese history and her firsthand experiences working at Big Joy farm, about such issues kidnapping and selling brides and her travails getting the interviews with these girls. There's no comparison between Wong's description of the Tienanmen protests and the tepid account by Jin in The Crazed. Clearly, Wong lived the experience and it changed her. Jin must have just heard about it - third hand.

The question of what was all the suffering during (and due to) Mao's tenure which sought in part to eliminate inequality, exploitation and materialism plagues Wong and I think must at least nag at outsiders like me who now see the new China. If you know the history, you have to ask that.

This book was absorbing. If you're curious about China, read it.

What to read for an encore? That is a dilemma but I'm a quarter of the way through Lesley Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. So far it's just as engaging and even better written in my humble opinion.

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