by Jan Wong
The tale of the Chinese-Canadian author’s long path from a deluded, naïve red-to-the-core Maoist to a cynical reporter who sees just how wrong she was. Wong’s life is enthralling in its sheer unlikeliness, even if Wong herself comes off as an unrepentant spoiled fool in the first half of the book. Wong dismisses the concerns of her wealthy father (born in Canada, the son of an emigrant) to become one of only two Westerners allowed to attend Beijing University in 1972, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and demands to work in the fields, so she can be “purified” by labor. She is far too stupid to understand that Mao’s policies were insane and destructive, and actually believed what millions of Chinese knew to be madness. If Wong were Chinese, she’d be merely naïve, or a tool of the system – as an educated Canadian who should have known better, she comes off as dangerously stupid, and her book is full of excuses and alibis for her actions. She takes pains to cite the turbulent political times, the anti-American sentiment, her youth… but those are not valid excuses. Millions of Americans criticized their government in the ‘60s and ‘70s without swallowing Mao’s gnomish madness, and tens of millions of teenagers may have impulsive tendencies but manage not to be raving absolutists about things which are obviously untrue.
So the first half of the book is infuriating, though still fascinating. Very early into Wong’s first visit to China, she started noticing that the Cultural Revolution had trashed standards throughout China, that “some people seemed more equal than others,” that food stores were sparse; but still she remains deluded and committed to Maoism. What kind of mind must she have had to be so blind? At one point she is so brainwashed (not, it must be noted, by anyone but her own faulty reasoning and stupidity) she denounces students who want her help to escape China. Wong realizes that this was a low point in her development, but she maintains a defensive attitude about even this, comparing herself to other Chinese denouncers. (She doesn’t seem to realize that they, who had to live there, may have had practical reasons to denounce others, such as to avoid more severe punishment for loved ones who may have been implicated.) As with all brainwashed zealots, it is only after her personal desires or freedoms are impacted that she truly begins to question what she believes: “I was sick of the double standard… How dare he interfere in my life. I had changed… I refused to endure the same kind of humiliation every Chinese endured,” she writes about the authorities’ attempts to prevent her from seeing her future husband. Wong’s stupidity and self-interest is rather pathetic, and she is a highly unsympathetic narrator – but as I say, the book is fascinating, if only because her experiences are so unreal and rare. After her apostasy, the book gets even more interesting, because of Wong’s unique ability to blend in with the Chinese people and get stories for the New York Times. She writes about the lead-up to the Tiananmen reprisals, when students went on “hunger strikes” in turns (with snack breaks), and how it suddenly turned from a rather jovial sit-in to a massacre. She gives in-depth reports on execution fields and the practicalities of summary executions; she visits entire villages made retarded and dwarfed by pollution; she investigates modern women trafficking; and she marvels at the breakneck pace of China’s embrace of capitalism, with its McDonald’s run by ex-cadre leaders, the new extravagance of penis and breast reconstruction (though the former has roots in China’s early rural economy, when boys had their penises bitten off by feral pigs as they defecated in fields at night). “Even my maid had a maid,” she writes, bemused at the changes. At this point Wong seems very clear-headed, but even late in the book, she claims that China was “an unrelentingly pure country” in 1980 because guards didn’t take bribes, compared to the pervasive bribery rampant in China today. But surely she realizes that bribery sprouts from lawlessness, and the lack of bribery is more likely rooted in fear of a mad despot than some ideological “purity” that never existed? It left me wondering if Wong ever really learned a lesson, or just got tired of being treated like a Chinese person. That aside, it’s a fascinating look at Chinese written from a unique perspective.