A clean, chilling memoir of a childhood under Mao

On Books

February 20, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

This is an era of memoir hell. The cause for all these awful books is manifold: self-indulgence; the victimization fad; the celebration of trivial bathos practiced shamelessly by Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and their imitators; general dumbing down; the decline in the quality of editing in U.S. publishing houses.

It is a moment of particular joy, then, when one discovers a personal story that is crafted with dignity and literary skill. It is with such joy that I greet "Colors of the Mountain" by Da Chen (Random House, 310 pages, $25).

Da Chen is now a 38-year-old New York lawyer. His book begins as his life did, in a southern Chinese village called Yellow Stone, in 1962, the "Year of Great Starvation." Before the revolution, his family had been landlords. Under Mao's Marxism, they were officially humiliated and privately treated as pariahs -- taunted and stoned on village streets, forced savagely to do hard labor.

His narrative is densely reportorial -- filled with sounds and sights and smells and turns of phrases, facial expressions and people in motion. It lays out minute specifics of oppressive party tyrants, of helpless and hopeless people caught up in it all.

And yet the narrative voice is clean, spare, precise -- often cheerfully poetic, with deft little flashes of imagery coming as surprises. Here's one, at age 8, when he was doing heavy field labor: "I got up early and studied my appearance in front of a piece of mirror, broken off from my brother's bigger one. I was as dark as charcoal and as thin as sugarcane."

Da's family's fortunes were ceaselessly whiplashed by the arbitrary policies and personal cruelties of Mao's particularly vicious form of state socialism. The effect of seeing the spirit-wrecking, soul-shattering arbitrariness of the Communist Party's system through the eyes of a child is all the more terrifyingly convincing for the innocence of his voice.

Early on, a teacher showed Da Chen kindness, in defiance of party line. He rose in his class, growing in confidence, becoming the star student and leader. Then the party moved in: "From now on all schools would be governed by poor farmers; all teachers -- a class made up of dangerous and stinking intellectuals -- would be reformed and instilled with revolutionary thoughts before they could return. . . . In the evening, these farmers played poker and drank at the same tables where real teachers used to grade homework. The zoo was being run by the animals."

The battle between Mao's manipulations and a Chinese tradition of honoring learning was fierce and brutish:

"Zhang Tie Shan, an Army recruit from north China, wrote on his college exam paper a big zero, accompanied by the following words: 'To make revolution, one need not answer above questions.' Instantly he became a hero throughout China, epitomizing the true spirit of the Cultural Revolution. School was in chaos. ... Teachers could do almost nothing to remedy the situation for fear of being branded a stinking intellectual or a counterrevolutionary."

Against the backdrop of fluctuating political oppressions, the story is told with tiny domestic detail, but the energy of the narrative, and of the boy, prevents it from slowing down.

Da Chen became part of a small crowd of kids who pushed against the edges of suffocating authority: With a single bicycle, they went 50-miles to a large town to see a movie that had been sold out for days. Their bargaining for black-market tickets with a local manipulator was successful. They had fun.

There was defiance there, but purpose and a kind of natural civility as well. They speculated about girls -- as boys will and do -- but with a delicious innocence, standing firmly on an unquestioned sexual puritanism.

His commune's education board had ordered that his schooling stop before he could begin high school. "My ancestors and family had had enough education; it was time we made do without more."

Harassed, ridiculed, exiled from school, Da secretly learned to play the flute and the violin from family members. He, his parents, his feeble grandfather, his brothers and sisters were assigned to hard field labor.

Mao died when Da was 14, and there was tentative movement toward reviving serious education. Da was ill-prepared, but he returned to studying -- 15 hours a day for 10 months. With that effort and important help from a grandmotherly Christian neighbor, he scrambled back up to get top grades in national exams. His older brother studied beside him, while parents, brothers and sisters did extra shifts of manual labor to make up for their studying.

The story is told with an almost astonishing lack of rancor. Da Chen as a boy and as an adult narrator is always stoic -- despite the traumas. He gets on with his story without a single lamentation on his travails and woes.

Near the end of the book, as he is about to be admitted to a top national university, he distills his assessment of the era:

"Mao, the dictator, ... wanted China in perpetual turmoil so that he could rule forever. He had a simple philosophy: Peace and leisure bred unrest and resentment against leaders. ... That was why, ever since Communists took over in 1949, Mao hadn't stopped making fake smoke over fake fires. One political movement followed another. And strewn down his long path lay the bones of millions of angry ghosts. He hadn't cared about the young generation. ... He had simply wanted them to be ignorant, so they wouldn't be aware of what a fiend he really was."

The book ends as Da Chen leaves for Beijing Language Institute, where he gained a degree and a faculty position, then came to America at age 23 and completed Columbia University Law School. He is now married to a physician, has two children, and is practicing law in a large New York City firm.

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