Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Daughter of China - The true story of forbidden love in modern China

Something I bet you were waiting for!! A book review! Yeah!

daughter of china

Actually, love is the least involving aspect of this page turner!
This doesn't mean to be a negative comment: the plot turned out to be completely different from what I expected - much, much better!
My interest for Chinese contemporary authors is reaching obsessive levels...

The story is settled in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution.
Meihong Xu is a strong-willed and determined young woman, born in a country village in a family of peasants. A passionate idealist and a dreamer, fascinated by the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army since her childhood, and with so many examples of heroic behaviour in her family to guide her, she becomes a member of the elite intelligent corps. And she is asked to spy on a professor of hers, the American Larry Engelmann.
The more Meihong gets to know him, the more she believes he is just a innocent, naive man. And she is attracted by him. Needless to say, the professor can't help being fascinated by this brilliant woman from such a different and charming country, who unlike her compatriots talks to him and even enjoys it...

This is just the beginning of a thoroughly enthralling true story, where a forbidden love affair is just the beginning of a chain reaction that will end up destroying Meihong's life in China and giving her a chance to start a new one.
In my humble opionion, things would have ended up the same way even without Larry Engelmann, at least as far as Meihong's faith in China and the Communist dictatorship. But well, the American element adds some Hollywood style and a sort of happy ending.
Happy ending... Larry calls it like that. I think he is trying to convince himself rather than us.
Personally, I found it very sad.
I mean, compared to the heart-wrenching real-life stories wonderfully described by Xinran in "The good women of China" and even in "Sky burial", Meihong's story has an happy ending indeed. Still, I feel so sorry for this woman.
I sympathize with her very much. She is clever and enthusiastic about learning something new.

She is a dreamer, an idealist; she is extremely ambitious and she needs to be independent.
It seems to me that she doesn't fit in anywhere, that she wants too much from life.
I believe that this is the destiny of any hopeless dreamer.
At the same time, I cannot help wondering if her life is just an other life stolen by the Communist dictatorship, just in a more subtle and less 'physical' way than the poor victims in the books mentioned above. Why was Meihong luckier than them? Probably because she was a high-ranking officer of the PLA and because she had very good connections.

What I like of this book is... Almost everything.
It gives a very interesting portrait of China during the cultural revolution, most interesting for me because from an high-ranking officer's point of view. You can follow step by step a detailed psychological analysis of an enthusiastic child and later cadet who grows up and finds it harder and harder to repress her feelings of distrust and disenchantment and who eventually just fights for her own life, against the country and the party she literally lived for.

Also, besides Meihong's life, we learn about her parents' and grandparents' lives, and
personally I was deeply touched by all of those stories, at least as much as I was by Meihong's story. There are also the other students of the academy, especially the other eleven Pandas (the only girl cadets), secretly bound by the same unrevealed feelings and loyal to each other like to nobody else. There are two men, Lin Cheng and then Larry Engelmann, deeply in love with their ex-wife. And there are a lot of other characters, the General, the Colonel, the man who gives Meihong a lift, the train conductors, even the nameless students of Tiananmen Square...
All of them give their contribute to make this story unforgettable.

There is something I have to say though. The story is told from Meihong's point of view, but Larry is the writer. The story is said to be a true story, but how much has been censored? How much filtered? How much embellished?
Meihong herself was trained to lie and proved that she could do it amazingly well.
Isn't there a chance she deliberately omitted or changed some parts of the story for some reason? Or that Larry himself wanted to make the story more romantic or dramatic or whatever?

Anyway, I guess this doesn't matter after all.
Whether fiction or not, this is a book you will not only enjoy but fall in love with.

A link to a very interesting review:
Weekend Reading: Daughter of China