Sep 15, 2010

Red China Blues Review

Since pretty much every time I finish a book I feel the need to share it with someone, but rarely do anything about that feeling, I've decided I'm going to start blogging book reviews on recent reads. Or rather, let's call it "my thoughts on some books" because I find the word "review" intimidating.

I originally started this post with something like "here are my thoughts on the six books I've read in the last six months", but after my thoughts for the first one ended up much longer than expected, I realized I'd never finish writing and readers would never finish reading the post if I did five more. So we'll start with the book I read six months ago and I'll catch us up over time:

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong

I originally purchased this book for a 20th Century China class that I didn't end up reading it for. And then it sat on my bookshelf for several years, gathering dust and doing little to tempt me. I knew enough about modern Chinese history to get by and didn't see the point of reading this memoir outside of educational value. And I have a problem where I can't really keep characters straight in any book where they don't have European names (a problem that I would like to emphasize is just how my brain works and does not make me racist). Yes, that is a good reason not to read something.

But "I have nothing to read" set in and...well, it turns out I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, informative, and surprisingly funny memoir of a Chinese Canadian woman's experiences through three decades of Chinese history. One of Time's 10 Best Books of 1996, Jan Wong's memoir is easily accessed by Western readers, as she's a Westerner herself, but gives insight into the culture of China that only someone of Chinese heritage who 100% immersed herself in the day-to-day life of the Chinese could give.

Wong originally left her native Canada for China as a Maoist college student during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution (1972), where she was one of only two Westerners attending Beijing University. The rare glimpse she gives of a world more radical than I ever realized (what have I been doing sitting around reading everything on the French Revolution when there was an equally crazy time more relevant to now that I don't ever think about out there?) is nothing short of fascinating. I particularly appreciated Wong's honesty in describing her starry-eyed view of communism in the early days; she'll admit that she snitched on her classmates and punished herself for bourgeois thoughts. Looking back, she admits she was a crazy idealist, but she presents herself as she was. Through her eyes, I came to understand the Maoist mindset better than I ever had before.

She returns to Canada after a few years and comes back to China as a journalist in 1988. As a reporter, she's much more critical, but her perspective as a former Maoist gives everything she says an unique take. She's happy that the end of the Cultural Revolution means more wealth for many Chinese, but she hates that women no longer braid their hair and men no longer wear Mao suits; what happened to Chinese pride? The battle within Wong over how she feels about China is just as interesting as (perhaps part of?) the battle the nation itself has over its identity over the same time period.

While the whole work is certainly worth reading, in a lot of ways the beginning and end of the memoir are just bookends to Wong's account of the Tianamen Square Massacre. I found her first-hand minute-by-minute reporting of the event completely riveting. The level of detail she puts into the account ("Between 3:15 and 3:23, I counted eighteen pedicabs pass by me carrying the dead and wounded.") makes everything very real. Very intense. Terrifying, really.

For some reason I expected the memoir to get boring post-Tiananmen Square Massacre, but in some ways, that's when things really get interesting. As China starts slowly embracing aspects of capitalism (drugs! traffic jams! penis-extension surgeries!), we get to see the beginnings of the China-As-Current-Emerging-World-Power that we know and love today, and it's kind of exciting (though I, along with Wong, found myself strangely sad to see the communist ideals that originally brought Wong to China fall apart).

The writing style is very straight-up informative. Very little poetry and a lot of facts. Wong is a journalist, after all. No dwelling on the way Tiananmen makes one feel like an ant; let's get some numbers: "Tiananmen could simultaneously accommodate the entire twenty-eight teams of the National Football League plus 192 other teams, each playing separate games." I personally found the writing style rather refreshing. I didn't have to analyze much I was reading; it was simple and extremely informative.

Oh, and I was pleased (though I'm sure some purists hate her for it) to discover that Wong made names as simple for Western readers as she could, liberally using literal name translations (Forest Plum Ma, Scarlet Zhang) and nicknames (Fu the Enforcer, Cook Mu). And she always converts yen into dollars when describing the costs of things. Hooray for helping out my hopelessly Western brain.

There are a few patches where I feel the story telling is a little slow (yes, yes, we get it, you were really into trying to be treated like native Chinese, we don't need another example), but in general, I found the book hard to put down.

The end of the memoir feels a little disjointed, as Wong seems to just be throwing together a bunch of interesting stories with little connection to the larger narrative, but as a 21st century reader (aka someone who routinely reads bits and pieces of different things on the internet with no methodology whatsoever), it didn't particularly bother me; I just cared that it was all interesting.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in modern history, whether or not you have prior interest or knowledge of Chinese history (Wong does an excellent job of filling in most of the basics, if you know who Mao is, you're pretty much good to go). Wong's insight into the changing Chinese world is both entertaining and educational. What more can you really ask for?


Anonymous said...

I have the same problem with non-Western names, and I too feel defensive about it. I remember it being especially bad when reading Dostoyevsky: if you have a six syllable Russian name with a lot of v's and k's and y's and it starts with an F, I'm not going to be able to remember that you are not the same as the other character with the six-syllable v/k/y heavy F name introduced five hundred pages ago. Part of it's a pronunciation thing. If I can't prounounce a name, I have a hard time remembering it. (Plus, there's like a thousand characters in the Brothers K. And half the time they are referred to by their first names and half the time by their patronymics.)


mom said...

You might find this article that was printed a few weeks ago interesting.