Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sunday Salon: Daughter of the River by Hong Ying

I have read several memoirs over the Christmas break. One, Daughter of the River by Hong Ying was of especial interest. It was kindly sent to me for review by Bloomsbury Books.

Ying was born in 1962 in Chongqing into a time of famine. Flooding had followed drought, and these natural catastrophes exacerbated by an inflexible regime. Under Communism land was no longer owned by anyone but the state. People worked together in communes and their crops dictated by a distant bureaucracy. Looking back it sounds like an audacious experiment; and an attempt by man to control something infinitely more powerful. As I write this I have just read that the airports in Beijing are closed due to snow and the expectation of the lowest temperatures for 40 years. This follows an attempt in October to control the weather and make blue skies, but instead they summoned snow. The weather, it seems, responds to higher forces, and the social experiment in China failed in consequence.

The effects of this famine in China lasted for several years, and during this time millions starved to death. Ying describes desperate tales of suffering and sacrifice, but also, perhaps more poignantly, points out the inequality and unfairness. There was food, she says, but it was in warehouses earmarked for the cities, and so the local population starved to death.

Even though people knew this they said nothing; the slightest complaint, she says, could lead to a labour camps for re-education. In these camps there was no food at all and death came very soon.

The kernel of the book is a quest. It starts when Hong Ying is aged eighteen and she almost sees a man who has long been stalking her. She becomes determined to find out more, and in doing so discovers more about herself, and also the people around her who all seem to resent her. Ying's life is not only impoverished but lonely. Her relationships - with her mother, father and five siblings - seem strained. Even in the wider community she seems despised and her only solace comes from the occasional strange attentions of her history teacher - with whom she falls in love. This, like everything else, ends unhappily and she eventually runs away to Beijing and enrolls at university.

This almost unrelentingly bleak tale then ends in hope because despite all these obstacles Hong Ying eventually wins through. More than anything else Hong Ying is brave and seems determined to tell it all - how the millions of ordinary Chinese lived in the second half of the twentieth century. Water comes from a single tap which sometimes issues yellowish water. The community earth closets are squalid and the citizens have to wait each morning in line. One morning there is a particularly unfortunate little girl in front of her.
'She was about ten years old, moon-faced, with a long thin neck, about my age. She lived on the street where the grain store was located. I'm not sure what brought her to our public toilet, maybe she was just passing by, or maybe the queue at her toilet was too long. I'd made it inside and was second in the queue for one of the pits.

She was squatting over the left-hand pit, when he mouth snapped open, her eyes went round, and her nostrils flared; her whole face underwent a terrifying change as a roundworm emerged from her mouth. She screamed and collapsed amid the muck on the floor. The stumpy woman ahead of me walked over and dragged the girl out of the toilet, warning me on the way out: "That pit's mine, don't you dare take it!"'
Later Hong Ying suffers from the same affliction - and is cured by her father's use of a noxious brew of Chinese medicine.

This was a different Chongqing from the one I saw. When I wandered around the streets near my hotel the place I saw was lively and cheerful: small shops were busy with people trading, goods were piled high, and even the nearby park bustled with people practising musical instruments or Tai Chi. People were clearly not wealthy, but they didn't seem dejected or overwhelmed by poverty either - and had time to enjoy the sensation of being alive.

This relaxed air I found nearly everywhere I went. People seemed to be busy but they were rarely frantic. In the zoo people showed their children the animals or sat at tables and played at cards. In the old streets of Chongqing - the porcelain town established around a thousand years ago in the Song Era - there was again this purposeful bustle.

It was crowded - but not too badly so

As in Ying's account the houses jostling each other for room up the hill in the fog

and porters with poles and baskets

like Ying's mother - although her load had been heavier, and her back bowed where the pole had wedged.

Today the food-shortages seem over:

street vendors spun sugar in different colours to make sweet flowers

for three modern maids;

while a skilled noodle maker entertains a crowd by stretching

and shaping his dough

into long cocoons

of sweets spun nearly as finely as silk.

There is real silk too. The seamstress, passively busy at her trestle table, lines miniature garments

- in shades of lucky pink - with wads of silk ready for winter.

Yet reading Hong Ying's book I realise how fragile this air of affluence must be, and perhaps how local. At the other side of the river, she says, there was and maybe still is, another world. Looking back now I wonder if I caught short snatches of it: there in the sudden noxious whiff of something decaying, or in that glance from the old trinket-seller just after I'd passed, or in that quiet that I seldom heard, but must be there in the early hours when the doors of the shops are shut.

For another very interesting review on this book see this post by Michael Gross.