Reading Western literature in the 80s China

Several weeks ago I met several local writers, and as we were discussing the books that had made a big impression on us when we were children, I realized that I hadn’t read most of the books they mentioned. When I confessed, one writer said in disbelief, “Really? But these books are famous.”

No, I replied, not in China, not when I grew up. How many Americans have read Chinese classics? If I ask someone growing up in the U.S. if he or she has read or even heard about 《三国演义》 (Romance of the Three Kingdoms),  the chance is that he or she has no clue.

But I did read many western books when I was a child, thanks to my father, who loved to read and had three tall shelves of books, half of them being foreign literature. He was the kind of person who would rather go hungry than not possess a good book.

I grew up on a state-run farm where my parents had lived since 1961. They had been sent there because my mother came from a so-called ‘capitalist family.’

During the Cultural Revolution both my parents endured persecution and punishment. For several years they lived in a cow shed. It was a real one, as my mother later told me, where she and my dad had to spend days removing cow dung before they could move in.

After the Cultural Revolution my parents assumed their previous jobs, my father a teacher, my mother a cotton agricultural scientist.

On the farm it was hot in the summer, the temperature often reaching 40 ͦ Celsius. Insects were abundant. On some nights, when staying indoors was unbearable, people took their bamboo beds outside, splashing water on them to cool them down, and slept there.

I loved those evenings, when the men played cards and chatted over tea and cigarettes, the women talked and laughed while busying themselves with sewing and knitting and the kids played tag and war games till exhaustion conquered them.

On those nights my father would read me Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Yes, there was a beautiful country far, far away where “water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, where there was a princess who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds.” Yes, the kids there were just like me, curious and nature-loving.

The day after my father read Little Ida’s Flowers to me I buried some rose pedals in a match box as Little Ida did in the story. As I covered the box with soil I thought how wonderful it would be if I could travel to Denmark to meet Little Ida and make friends with her.

When I was in the third or fourth grade I began to linger in front of my father’s bookshelves, standing on a rickety stool to look for books with attractive titles or cover art. I was particularly attracted to fairy tales from the ancient Rome and Greek, Aesop’s Fables, Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers, The Dancing Girl of Izu, Jane Eyre, Price and Prejudice, Leaves of Grass, Hemingway’s short stories.

Translated books from the West at that time typically contained a section called ‘Editor’s Comments.’ The section would say first why this book was good and must be read, then it would add that due to the author’s capitalistic or other inclinations, which constituted a disfavored background, the book had flaws and biases in its political and world views.

I would sit in a corner absorbing these books, ignoring new words and difficult passages, and sometime entire pages and chapters if they became too complicated or philosophical. The strange people and places in the books fascinated me—the people and places of England, America, France, Greece, Russia, Italy……

This was my early education of Western literature, and also my first contact with the world outside China.