Pearl of China by Anchee Min – Book Review

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Since “Red Azalea,” Anchee Min has populated her writing with strong-willed though sometimes cruel heroines such as Madame Mao and Empress Cixi. In her latest book, “Pearl of China,” she creates a fanciful yet believable world for the Nobel laureate Pearl Buck through the voice of an imagined Chinese woman, Willow Yee, whose unwavering friendship with Buck has endured the test of turbulent times in Chinese history.

Born in poverty, Willow ekes out a living by stealing. After she befriends Pearl, an American missionary’s young daughter who eats with chopsticks and wears a crocheted cap to conceal her blond hair to look Chinese, she is exposed to education and Christianity. This process turns her into a reputable journalist and a great admirer of Pearl’s writing about China and its peasants.

Her friendship with Pearl continues and strengthens despite their brief romantic rivalry and long separations. During the Mao era, Willow’s devotion to her childhood friend, now living in America and being condemned as an “American cultural imperialist” by the Communists, destroys her marriage and family, and causes her to be thrown into a labor prison. But as soon as she has a chance, she embarks on a journey to visit her friend’s grave in the United States.

Willow Yee is the real protagonist of the book. Through her eyes and thoughts, Pearl’s life evolves via many personal defeats and triumphs. Like Min’s other books, “Pearl of China” is charged with high drama involving a deprived childhood, an arranged marriage, abuse and extramarital affairs, love rivalry, war, political scheming and struggling, and mindless violence and torture. Though some circumstances feel contrived, the overall story advances rapidly, spanning 80-plus years of China’s history from the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists and the establishment of the Mao era to the Cultural Revolution and China’s opening to the West.

Min skillfully blends real historical figures such as Pearl’s missionary parents, the renowned Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo, Chairman Mao, Madame Mao and Richard Nixon with fictional characters to authenticate the story’s social and political context. This, in turn, lends more credibility to some of her fictional characters, especially the courageous Willow Yee and the canny, pragmatic Papa Yee, who busies himself converting poor peasants to Christianity.

Min’s imaginative powers are at their best when depicting Willow and Pearl’s childhood in a small town, Chin-Kiang. Their interactions with the townspeople and their fascination with the popcorn man and operas are enjoyable reads. Compared with these, the latter part of the book sometimes seems vapid and undeveloped. Min’s sparse and blunt language, though somewhat conveying the brutality of events such as the Cultural Revolution, undermines the potency of what could have been a much richer account. And the description of Willow burying her husband’s abandoned body bears a marked resemblance to the title story in Xianhui Yang’s 2000 collection, “Woman From Shanghai,” a book about life and death in a Chinese gulag in the 1950s.

Though “Pearl of China” provides a quick glimpse into Chinese history in the 20th century, it often falls short in exposing the magnitude and complexity of certain pivotal historical moments by rushing through event after event. Wooden and sketchy statements, such as “He (Mao) didn’t want to be stretched too thin, so he claimed a nation and named it the People’s Republic of China,” may offer a convenient background to readers, but they greatly diminish the book’s literary merit and historical power.

Such flaws aside, the book presents a welcome addition to Min’s long list of strong female characters, and pays worthy homage to Pearl Buck’s legacy, particularly when it concerns her days in China and how she has been received there over the years.

A Good Fall by Ha Jin – Book Review

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Multiculturism is a luxury, especially to immigrants, to whom being assimilated and accepted in the adopted land is often a far cry. The melting pot in Ha Jin’s new collection, “A Good Fall,” resembles a simmering Chinese hot pot, where varied ingredients complement each other in flavor, yet each keeps its distinct taste, rather than a smooth and well-blended broth.

All 12 stories in the collection unfurl in the United States – mostly in New York – and explore Chinese immigrants. His characters span a wide range: men and women, young and old, intellectuals and blue collars, rich and poor. Despite contrasts in status and background, these people, unmoored and often lonely, face equally the precariousness of life and clashes between the past and the present, familial duties and personal desires, and the Chinese-ness and the American-ness.

For some of Jin’s characters, taking root in America is the top priority. In “Shame,” Mr. Meng, a Chinese professor, decides to stay in the United States illegally because he believes “a human being should live like a bird, untrammeled by any man-made orders.” To earn a living, he becomes a busboy and, when tracked down, he escapes to Mississippi, resolving to “live in complete obscurity, dead to the world.” In “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” a garment worker and his lover, a prostitute, run away from pimps and gangs, dreaming of starting their life anew.

Some other characters are more socially and economically established yet cannot seem to shake off their cultural baggage. In “Choice,” when Eileen Lin must choose between a lover and her jealous daughter, she picks the latter because she simply cannot let her down. A similar dynamic plays out in “In the Crossfire,” in which Tian Chu sacrifices his lucrative accounting job to stop the endless squabbling between his carping mother and his wife, instead of confronting his mother, who once shouts at his wife, “Don’t ever talk back to me in front of others!”

In tackling the cultural awkwardness immigrants often experience, Jin is straightforward at times, subtle and ironic at other times. In “An English Professor,” Rusheng agonizes absurdly over the misspelled word “respectly” in his report to the college tenure committee. Dreading humiliation among his colleagues and the Chinese community, he considers becoming an encyclopedia salesman, even a monk. When he finally gets tenure, he goes berserk. Is he simply paranoid or do apprehension and uncertainty haunt the edges of an immigrant’s subconscious? In “A Composer and His Parakeets,” the love-deprived and lonely Fanlin seeks comfort in a dumb parakeet. When the bird dies, Fanlin’s grief inspires him to write an emotionally fraught opera.

Although Chinese-ness rules throughout this collection, Jin emphasizes Americanness, a seeming homage to his own 24 years of observations and ruminations as an immigrant. His characters, regardless of their miseries and misfortunes, are eager to negotiate with the threatening situation and to take advantage of the newly discovered freedom in America at all levels – financially, politically, socially and psychologically. The narrator in “A Pension Plan” says, “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to learn enough English to live a different life, but I must try.” Her statement echoes the author’s sentiment in a 2000 interview: “When I made the decision to write in English only, I was determined to travel all the way, no matter how tough, how solitary it was.”

In embracing Americanness, Jin occasionally stumbles into pedantry, heightened in the title story when the protagonist is told that America is “a land ruled by law, and nobody is entitled to abuse others with impunity,” and also in “Temporary Love,” when Panbin, preferring a Ukrainian woman he barely knows over his old lover, declares that he won’t date a Chinese again because “every Chinese has so much baggage of the past,” too heavy for him to “share and carry.”

“A Good Fall” is a departure, in terms of setting, from Jin’s three earlier collections, which focus on the Chinese people before the 1990s, when China strengthened its openness and reform efforts. But his masterful storytelling persists – meticulous, droll, convincing, populated with memorable characters – not to mention the indelible portrait of an immigrant life he gives us. What is also consistent is his prowess to study and reveal, often with heartfelt humor, the compromised and damaged heart and soul, and the impact of time and history on ordinary people.

Woman from Shanghai by Yang Xianhui – Book Review

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“If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain,” John Steinbeck confessed in a posthumously published journal. When Xianhui Yang embarked on a journey in 1997 to interview, over the course of five years, nearly 100 former “rightists” from the Mao era, he shared Steinbeck’s faith and modesty.

Set against one of the darkest and least known tragedies in China’s modern history, Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai” is a collection of 13 stories based on his interviews with the survivors of Jiabiangou, a forced-labor camp in China’s northwestern desert. The incarcerated, most of them scholars or senior government officials, were condemned for various reasons: dissenting views with the party, confrontation against party officials or simply nonproletarian family backgrounds. Between 1957 and 1960, they endured hard labor, humiliation, torture and starvation. Out of the nearly 3,000 inmates, only a few hundred outlived the camp.

Starvation and death permeate the stories. To survive, the prisoners ate weeds, rats, worms, tree bark and countless other inedibles, including a lethal “gluey soup” that blocked the intestine. In “Manure Collectors,” Chen and his teammates devour peas found inside piles of horse dung. The desperate conditions even triggered cannibalism. Death became an everyday experience.

“Most people died quietly, in their sleep, without a single moan or any sign of struggle,” Yang writes.

Death, however, didn’t extinguish the yearning for love and dignity. The protagonist in “The Love Story of Li Xiangnian” escapes with the sole intention of seeing his girlfriend. “Jia Nong” describes a group of female detainees’ pampering of a child born in the camp. When Chen, in “Manure Collectors,” buries a dead newborn for a dispirited mother, he builds a little tomb, because “deep down, he felt strongly that this had been a life, a person.”

The title story, easily the most emotional account in the collection, depicts a wife’s love for her convicted husband. The Shanghainese woman travels across half the country only to be told that her husband has recently died from starvation and was buried hastily without a tombstone in the desert. She stubbornly looks for his corpse, eating and drinking nearly nothing for days. When she finally locates his body, it resembles a mummy, with the flesh hacked off.

Determined to bring her husband home, she has the remains cremated. The image of her carrying his charred bones with her to the train is haunting: the chilly desert wind blowing, her green scarf fluttering, she almost disappears beneath the huge bundle.

Born in 1946, Yang worked at various jobs on a military-style collective farm for 16 years before dedicating himself to writing. When it was first published in China in 2000, Yang’s collection had to be disguised as fiction to evade censorship. But this didn’t prevent it from becoming an instant sensation, shocking the nation with its astounding frankness about a history little known to the public and still systematically suppressed by the government. It was hailed as China’s “Gulag Archipelago.” Although it is debatable if Yang’s book equals Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s in magnitude and historical significance, it undoubtedly established Yang as a prominent writer in China.

Solzhenitsyn dedicates his book on the Soviet force labor camp system to “all those who did not live to tell it.” Yang dedicates his collection to “those who now lie under the vast desert sand.” Told in stark, spare yet deeply compelling prose, infused with unsentimental compassion, “Woman From Shanghai” stands out amid the voluminous literature and testimonies about the persecution in Mao’s labor camps. It exposes torture and dehumanization, but is also a powerful rumination on hope, love and humanity.

 

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li – Book Review

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In certain Edward Hopper paintings, several people stand or sit in the same room, each looking in a different direction, absorbed in private thoughts. Despite physical closeness, they’re estranged, their minds far apart, their intentions and ruminations unknown to each other.

That will be the reader’s first impression when opening “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” Oakland author Yiyun Li’s appealing and lucid new collection of eight stories and a novella. The book is saturated with widowhood, loneliness, illness, divorce, grief, death, privation and deprivation. “Welcome to the land of the unfortunate and the deserted,” as a character in “House Fire” summarizes her own fate without self-pity.

 In “A Man Like Him,” retired Teacher Fei’s only companion is his elderly mother, whom he cares for. His disgust for a girl who accuses her father openly of adultery drives him to seek support and sympathy from the wrongly accused. In “House Fire,” six old women, motivated by the failed marriage of one of them, form a detective agency to declare war against extramarital love. While handling a new case, each realizes that she is vulnerable, subject to injustice and unfavorable circumstances “in this treacherous world.” “Souvenir” describes a chance encounter between a young girl and a widow, two perfect strangers, both with too much grief in their lives.

Despite the bleakness of Li’s book, it radiates love, passion and kindness, however trivial and intangible. The piece that voices human warmth most effectively is “Kindness,” the novella.

The narrator is Moyan, a 41-year-old math teacher, who lives alone in a derelict Beijing neighborhood. Moyan’s reminiscences often take her to her spiritually deprived youth. As a girl, she was acquainted with Professor Shan, an old and eerie teacher who read her English books by Dickens, Lawrence and the like. She also came to know Lieutenant Wei while she was in forced military training at college, an aftermath of the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Both Shan and Wei attempted to reach the young Moyan’s heart, noticing her solitude and silence, but their persistence in seeking her friendship failed miserably. And Wei’s somewhat innocent question to Moyan, “Tell me, how can we make you happy?,” remained unanswered until many years later, after both Wei and Shan have died. Only then has the much older Moyan assumed a new perspective about herself, her past, her nonbiological parents and the people who have crossed her path at various stages of her life.

The title story is yet another revelation of the compromise a person must make for the sake of kindness and love, either out of civil duty or a force beyond conscious awareness. In the story, a widowed zoology professor wants her favorite student to marry her son. All three are loners, each with a secret that cannot be shared, and they know that they “would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

By exploring her characters’ innermost worlds, Li sometimes depends too much on fate’s random and mysterious aspects. This can create suspense but can also make certain stories and characters seem contrived and less convincing. “Sweeping Past” describes a woman’s alienation from her childhood best friends because her once-well-intentioned proposal has resulted in a senseless rape and killing. In “Prison,” a middle-aged couple, after their daughter’s death, find a poor country woman, a dimwit’s wife, to serve as the surrogate mother of their fertilized egg. During the pregnancy, the woman threatens to break the contract if the couple don’t give her money to buy back her long-lost son. “The Proprietress” is a story of an affluent and strong-willed businesswoman adopting unfortunate women and kids so she can “reconstruct” them.

Despite its flaws, Li’s collection well deserves a celebration with its sophistication and honesty, which often derive from a deep understanding of the history, culture and politics of China, and of their impact on ordinary people. Li has cited William Trevor as one of her biggest influences. Like Trevor, she tends to write about loneliness, bereavement and compassion; also like Trevor, she sympathizes with all her imperfect characters, even the worst and most difficult ones. This quality can be seen in “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and in Li’s earlier works, her debut short-story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and her first novel, “The Vagrants.”

Reading Li recalls an experience of brooding about the past – painful, disturbing but accepted and rationalized with a mixed sense of wonder and helplessness – near a pond at sunset. Yes, sorrows may arise during times of reflection, but it’s impossible not to fall in love with the privacy and tranquillity of the time and place.