Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

Daughter of the River: an autobiography

Hong Ying
Bloomsbury, (December 1998)
ISBN: 1 86207 220 5
A$24.95 (paperback) 278 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

All those people, voices in unison, with a clear blue sky over Tian'anmen Square, a sanctified place I'd dreamed of even as a little girl, with millions of people fervently devoting themselves to the struggle for the right to speak the truth and to respect the value of all human beings.

In June 1989, Hong Ying was part of the student protests in Beijing. Meanwhile, the day after the massacre in Tian'anmen Square, I was sitting comfortably in an hotel room in Taipei switching between TV channels as I tried to hear the British or American news commentaries which were drowned out by the local Mandarin voiceover. I watched pictures of tanks and troops, fire and death, bizarrely interspersed with classical ballet and American baseball. Later that night, my husband phoned from Australia to tell me that Taiwan was on full military alert. This was not reported in the local news.

Over the next few days in Taipei, carefully controlled, pro-democracy student demonstrations took place near the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and newspapers ran editorials about balloons bearing the 'truth' being floated across the straits into China. Watching the TV reports of the re-deployment of troops to Beijing from all over China, however, it was clear that the potential for large-scale dissent was huge. And equally clear that remote army units with strong leaders might well seize the chance to break away and become independent. The old men governing all of China from Beijing had a terrible responsibility and a frightening task to prevent China from reverting to a chaos of warring states. No political action in China is ever simple.

Back in Australia, I was shocked to find that media coverage was as one-sided and emotionally loaded as it had been in Taiwan. It seemed that not only in China was truth hard to find.

Hong Ying mentions Tian'anmen Square only on the last page of her book and in her acknowledgements, where she thanks four friends who "protected and consoled me when the massacre struck." So we do not learn how and to what extent she was involved. Nor do we learn how, from the great poverty and deprivation of her childhood, she managed to enter Beijing's Lu Xun Literature Academy for Writers at the age of twenty-seven or, eventually, to migrate to England. For a Chinese child from such a background, these achievements are remarkable.

Perhaps it is ungenerous of me to cavil at these omissions, given the inclusive strength of Hong Ying's writing about her childhood. And, to be fair, she sets her eighteenth year as the true limit of her story. It was then that she became adult; then that various puzzles about her position in the family were explained; and then that she learned of her true origins and met her biological father for the first, and last, time.

Hong Ying's autobiography is written like a novel. Biographical details are structured around a mystery which is not fully resolved until the end of the book. Family and others become characters in this story, and details of their own, equally fascinating, stories are gradually revealed. And Hong Ying's first sexual adventure is written with such erotic, imaginative flair, and has such a dramatic ending, that I almost suspect that it was invented to give sexual spice to the book.

Again, I am being unfair. Again, I must plead that Hong Ying's style, her way of writing and her skilful structuring of her story, meant I had to keep looking at the photographs to remind myself that I was reading fact, not fiction. It is not that in my years of living in the Far East I have not seen the sort of malodorous, overcrowded, squalid slums in which she grew up. Nor is it lack of knowledge on my part of the wars, famines and political upheavals which have affected, and still do affect, the lives of ordinary people in China. Nor is it that I have not met other Chinese of Hong Ying's generation whose families have lived through these events. It is, perhaps, that such events are so remote from my own experiences that they come to me second-hand and consequently have a built-in air of unreality.

Hong Ying, or Little Six, is the sixth child in her family. Always, as a child, she felt that for some reason she did not belong. There was, too, a strange man who seemed to follow her and watch her. Only in her eighteenth year did the mystery begin to unfold. From Big Sister, she heard of her mother's first marriage to a Triadman, her escape from him and the subsequent hardship of her life. She heard, too, her father's history, and of accidents and famines which shaped her family's lives. Especially, she heard of the great famine at the time of her own birth, when her mother was lucky (and unlucky) enough to find a way to keep them all alive.

Hong Ying's descriptions of her home, her family and her life are vivid and sometimes harrowing. For those who read Jung Chang's, _Wild Swans_, this book adds another dimension to the picture of what life for the ordinary people of China has been like this century. Hong Ying came from a different background (that of the poorest labourers) to Jung Chang, but both their families suffered terribly.

Strangely, in a recent interview Hong Ying commented that she did not think that she and Jung Chang would have much in common since their families had such different origins. Their families came from different classes, I think she meant. Sadly, even after all the suffering and struggles the Chinese have endured, it seems that power and influence still depend on family connections, and that family history and origins can never be forgotten.

In such a huge and complex country as China, when the Mandate of Heaven has so often fallen on fallible and power-hungry leaders, even in this century, will there ever be the respect for the value of all human beings that Hong Ying and the other students called for in Tian'anmen Square that June? Who can say. But at least we can hope that writers such as Hong Ying and Jung Chang can continue to tell us their stories.


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