Sunday, April 01, 2012

Colour of the Mountain by Da Chen

I heard Simon Brett give a talk recently. He said that comedy has its roots in tragedy, and I think one of the most tragic events in the last fifty years must have taken place in China during Mao's Great Leap Forward. The memoirs I have read so far reflect this tragedy and are understandably miserable. They are also written by women. Colours of the Mountain is written by Chen Da, a man. He proves himself to be a robust and extraordinary human being and he tells his story with the wit of Mark Twain .

As the grandson of a landlord he and his family are forced to live under a stigma. His grandfather is not welcome on public places and has to write a daily diary of his activities. In consequence he becomes nocturnal. Da's father is forced to go to labour camp and the rest of the family subjected to name-calling and discrimination. Da's older siblings are forced to leave school early and work in the fields. They come to accept this as their future. Da himself is forced to a series of humiliations at school, and eventually becomes so disenchated that he falls in with a quartet of slightly older hooligans. They have the fabled honour of outlaws, and through them Da finds a way of coping and establishing himself in the society of the Mao's Cultural Revolution. By this time teachers and learning are generally despised and all that is being taught is Mao's politics and philosophy.

After Mao's death everything is turned around again and learning is in vogue. Da and his elder brother crib for the entrance exams to university and are ultimately successful. It is a triumphant tale. His sisters, however, are left tending to the commune farm, and although Da and his bother are grateful for their efforts in providing for the two male scholars this aspect of the story did seem unfair to my Western mind.

It is a classic rages to riches story, telling much of interest along the way; its great strength coming from the humour of the writing and the indefatigable nature and humanity of the writer.


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