BY JAN WONG ATLANTIC BOOKS, £12.99
The author, a journalist, is a thirdgeneration Chinese Canadian. In 1972 she was invited to spend a year at Beijing University. During her time there she got to know a fellow student, a Chinese girl called Yin, who had confided to her that she wanted to visit America. Such an aspiration in Mao’s China was tantamount to treason. Wong, who by her own admission was a “true believer: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent”, informed on her acquaintance to the authorities.
For many years Wong forgot her youthful betrayal. Then, discovering her student diary of her Beijing sojourn, she was confronted by this buried memory and stricken with remorse.
What if her action had “thoughtlessly destroyed a young woman I didn’t even know”? Thus she returns to Beijing three decades later and takes on the seemingly impossible task of tracking down Yin.
After the Cultural Revolution – in full swing in 1972 – was over, the Chinese deliberately erased it from history and public consciousness. Former students Wong had known were reluctant to talk, even when she was able to track them down; “pretending nothing happened is perhaps the only way to cope”. Finally there is a breakthrough; she meets the victim of her thoughtless action, apologises and is forgiven. Apparently, Wong’s accusation had been only one of 30 “crimes” Yin had been accused of at that time; she had been forced to leave the university and do hard labour in a remote province. Pardoned years later, she had made the longed-for trip to America. So the story ends happily.
Much of the book concerns Wong’s struggle to understand her own behaviour: why had this “middleclass Montreal Maoist” thrown herself so enthusiastically into the Cultural Revolution? The Communists, she argues, did eliminate the triads, the local militia, the armed thugs and the prostitutes; they had built roads, reservoirs and irrigation systems. They had forced their creaking civilisation into the 20th century. Yet the author does not examine what cost in human lives this might have entailed.
Alongside her quest for Yin, Wong treats the reader to a vivid and humorous description of modern Beijing: seemingly a vast and heavily polluted building site, with permanent smog and surveillance.
I read the book during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4 1989. This, the author discovers, is never spoken about; indeed, a whole new generation, preferring pop music and dancing, knows nothing about the ultimate sacrifice made in the name of freedom by their student precursors. “People have no goal except to get rich.” There are also those she terms the “walking wounded”, the older generation who suffered during Mao’s regime, whose scars run too deep for excavation.
The author herself has embarked on a worthy journey; but what if she had learned that she really had been responsible for destroying the life of another student? It would have meant exploring darker territory; indeed, the stuff of literature rather than this lively travelogue.