It's hard to know what to think or to say about China. We go back and forth in our assessments, from quick demonizations simply because we see China as a controlled society, to admiration for the surprising economic "miracles" it is presenting to the world. In recent months the media - of different stripes and kinds - have portrayed China with a number of ominous images, signaling yet another turn in American-Chinese relations. The press was extremely critical of Prime Minister Wen Jaibao calling a meeting in Copenhagen without inviting President Barack Obama. To China's chagrin, Obama met with the Dalai Lama, reminding us far apart dominant American and Chinese images of Tibet are.
When Washington approved the sale of $6 billion of arms to Taiwan, one heard congressional and media voices dismissing China's objections and its claims to national sovereignty as a communist threat. Despite signs of narrowing differences, China has yet to share American fear over nuclear weapons in Iran. It's hard in the American imagination to cut much slack to a country still ruled by a communist party.
A brief look at the two books under review here is the occasion to reflect on the tenacity of our continuing mistrust of China. The first is a novel written by one of the Chinese writers whose books have been reviewed to acclaim in the English language press. The other is Mike Mansfield, whose voice on China for more than a half-century has had a large effect on how many of us view China.
Except for the fact that both books were written in English, the differences between the writers - in native language, in generation, in audience, and in their experience with China itself - are the more telling. The setting for both is the 1970s, spanning the time when President Nixon visited China, through the end of the Cultural Revolution and into the years immediately following. Li's novel is placed in the year 1979, while Mike Mansfield's report to the Senate after his sixth visit to China was submitted in 1976.
Mansfield was the first prominent American official to meet with Chinese leaders after Mao Zedong's death. He began the lengthy report to his Senate colleagues with reflections on America's historical images of China, which he saw dividing roughly into two kinds. The first were the positive ones of Marco Polo, Pearl S. Buck, Charlie Chan and heroic resistance to the Japanese during World War II. The second were the negative images of "cruelty, barbarism, violence, and faceless hordes ... the China of drumhead trials, summary executions, Fu Man-chu..." - the fears of the "yellow peril."
In a marvelous way, Li Yiyun's novel challenges the image of "faceless hordes" by giving face, names and personality to ordinary Chinese people who suffered in the years of the Cultural Revolution. Her portrait of the dark cruelty and injustice of life in China more than 30 years ago makes for depressing reading, though the novel itself is so well written, it is hard to put down. The daily lives of her characters resonate with Chinese today who have benefited from their country's remarkable progress and modernization, yet are caught up in the swirls of social, economic and cultural dislocation. Their stories play out in the small town of Muddy River on the eve of the era of Deng Xiaoping.
The young girl Gu Shan in the story is the thread that connects the opening page in the novel to her tragic execution as a counter-revolutionary later in the novel. Ten years before she had been an idealistic Red Guard carrying the little Red Book and chanting Mao slogans. But not long after, she became disillusioned and was imprisoned, along with many other Red Guards, for criticizing Mao and the Communist Party. In every way her execution is senseless and cruel.
Gu Shan's father, Teacher Gu, is portrayed in the novel as the model of kindness, unlike most of the characters, though he, too, suffered for being on the wrong side before the revolution in 1949 and turns to a dark cynicism before his death. As a Red Guard, Gu Shan had violently attacked a neighbor who was pregnant, kicking her in the stomach and causing the child, Nini, to be born with severe birth defects.
In an attempt at redemption, for his daughter's cruelty to Nini's mother, Teacher Gu befriends Nini, who is a neighbor. With her glaring disability she is an outcast and even treated like a slave within her own family. Scrounging for food herself and living on the streets, she is befriended by Bashi, an older boy, himself shunned by the town for his odd behavior and outspokenness and for his complicity, we begin to see, in the sordid burial of Gu Shan. Most unlikely, Bashi befriends Nini, even as he is perverted and takes advantage of her youth and desperation. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees. She is only 12.
The one thread of redemption in the novel is that of the real vagrants in town, Old Hua, who is a rag picker, and his wife, Mrs. Hua, a street sweeper. Over the years they had raised four abandoned baby girls, who by now had married and left them for their husband's families. As the poorest of the poor in Li's novel, the Huas befriended Nini, but as vagrants they are forced to move on. By then Bashi has been imprisoned for his complicity in Gu Shan's burial, and Nini, stranded and all alone, is befriended by the Huas, who take her with them as they leave town.
The characters in Li's novel are as captivating as any I can think of from Chinese literature available in English - as sharp as Wang Lung and Ou Lan in Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth." The dark side of life in China is not news to historians - the wars and political chaos of the 20th century, the recurring famines, the violence of revolution, and the harsh years under Mao. Li, who lives now in San Francisco, anchors the darkness of her writing in her own memories, growing up as a little girl during the Cultural Revolution and enduring a year of forced exile in rural China for participating in the Tiananmen Incident of 1989.
When asked if the "picture she paints is an unfairly negative view of China," she replied, the story just "happens to be set in China" and her characters "happen to be Chinese." Her responsibility, she said, is only to her characters. Li writes in English and for an English-speaking audience. She says she will not translate the novel into her native tongue, because of the difficulty of capturing the nuances in Chinese. Translation is truly a challenge all of its own. But to refuse to put ideas in another language, no matter how complex, into one's native tongue caught me off guard.
The year of the story, 1979, was a bad year in many ways, but by then Mao was dead and China had begun to open up. Deng Xiaoping did quash the Democracy Wall, soon after his visit to the United States as a guest of President Carter, and the wall serves as frequent point of reference throughout the novel. But openness to the outside and within China had already begun with the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of intellectuals, writers, and party members who had been attacked during the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four, headed by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, had by then been arrested and imprisoned.
Indeed, the China of the year of Mansfield's visit and report in 1976 was worse than 1979 in many ways. Yet he chose not to see China only through a dark lens. Despite the unimaginable turmoil and dislocation, just at the time of the Nixon visit when China began to appear on American television screens, Mansfield was impressed, counter-intuitively almost, with China's success in tackling the large problems of "food, clothing, shelter, health care, and primary education." His points of comparison were the chaos and poverty at the time of his first visit to China as a U.S. Marine after World War I and his visit again in 1944 during the war with Japan, as a member of Congress, sent by President Roosevelt.
As with many scholars and observers of China in the West, Mansfield did not know in 1976 of the terrible suffering of the Cultural Revolution. Still, working with a larger brush as a historian of modern East Asia, he ended his report to the Senate with a simple yet profound observation that "China is old and we are young." In his mind "there is much that we can learn from each other." Chinese society, he urged, should not be "judged by American standards" and on the "basis of emotional catch phrases." As an echo to Sun Yat Sen's confession three-quarters of a century before that "Knowing is hard, doing is easy," Mansfield reminded his Senate colleagues - and us today - that "the beginning of wisdom is to understand how little we know."
Philip West is the Mansfield Professor of Modern Asian Affairs at the University of Montana.