Tuesday, March 27, 2012

To the Edge of the Sky by Gao Anhua.

Gao Anhua was born into a privileged family in Communist China. Her parents were both early members of the Communist party and rose through the ranks to high office. They made considerable sacrifices including the enforced abandonment of their first daughter, Pei-gen, with a widow and her son while they went East with the army liberating China from the Nationalists. When the Nationalists came to the village having heard a rumour that a Communist child was being harboured by the widow, she sent her son into hiding with the child on his back. The widow was tortured but didn't give away where her son was hiding, and after she was killed the son was forced to live rough, eventually finding Pei-gin's parents some time later. Pei-gin was damaged physically and mentally by the experience; her scalp infected for so long by disease that her hair never grew back. She also remained withdrawn, rarely joining in with the rest of the family: Angong, Anhua's other older sister, and Wei-guo her younger brother.

The parents died young: the father of bone cancer and the mother of heart failure, and were subsequently designated revolutionary martyrs. This sad fact served Anhua and her siblings well. Again and again she finds friends and family who will help her, and many times a mention of her parents' reputation opens doors, and in some ways initially ensures her a relatively charmed existence.

Having had to experience life in the countryside twice (which is described in great detail) she becomes determined to avoid a longer term service in the place (unlike most of her peers in the Cultural revolution) and manages to inculcate herself in the army. All goes fairly well, except for the tragic loss of friends in the Vietnam conflict, until the damaged Pei-gin betrays her by reporting her ideologically unsound letters Anhua has been unwisely sending her. Despite this, Anhua again escapes relatively unscathed by landing a job in a factory, again through contacts of her parents.

She makes an unwise match, gives birth to a daughter, uses her skill and interest in English to gain better employment, becomes a widow, but then is arrested by the Chinese version of the KGB, the much feared SSB. She is imprisoned for several months on a trumped up charge of giving away state secrets before being released through the good offices of a judge. This judge then becomes her extremely generous 'big brother' giving her frequent gifts of money and other gifts until in 1993 she begins a relationship with an English pen-friend who eventually asks her to marry him, and at the end of 1994 she flies from China to London to start her new life in the land at the 'Edge of the Sky' (which is how Anhua's mother describes Great Britain when she points it out on a map of the world).

To the Edge of the Sky is rich with detail, and gives a very interesting view of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the rest of the latter-half of twentieth century China from the point of view of a fairly privileged member of Communist society. Gao Anhua is obviously a gifted and highly intelligent woman, and her clear account gives much food for thought.


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