Autobiographical look at China; Dragon's Village, by Yuan-tsung Chen. New York: Pantheon Books. $10.
For the last three decades a constant stream of propaganda allegedly describing the progress of the revolution on the Chinese mainland has been directed at the outer world. The "liberation" of the peasants, the destruction of landlords, the re-education of the intellectuals, the details of mass meetings have become familiar, if increasingly unconvincing, information, together with those photographs of strangely smiling individuals testifying to their present utopia.
"Dragon's Village," a serious autobiographical novel, presents a valuable and refreshing change from this sequence, tragic reading though it is. The author herself was for many years a cadre member; having now defected, she is able to write freely of her experiences.
The story begins with the young Ying-ying (the writer) living luxuriously with her rich relatives in Shanghai. The Communists are advancing upon the city; her family and friends are debating whether it would best serve their own materialistic interests to throw in their lot with the new rulers or to flee with the Nationalists. Ying-ying, uninformed and basically uninterested, is suddenly shaken out of her lethargy by the unexpected appearance of a former schoolfellow, a girl who has turned Communist through conviction and is in considerable danger in Shanghai, still in the hands of the Nationalists.
Ying-ying, essentially kind and amiable, protects her, and is gradually drawn into her ambit, till at last she decides to join the young activists, without really understanding what this will mean. She becomes a cadre and is sent to the province of Gansu, far in the northwest. The village of Longxiang (Dragon's Village) to which she is assigned is an arid, desperately poverty-stricken region; its inhabitants are abysmally ignorant, suspicious, and generally brutish.
While attempting to present the wonders of the revolution to a bewildered peasantry, Ying-ying uncomplainingly endures a life of extreme hardship; she proves herself brave, resourceful, and resilient. The cadres' only guidelines in their effort to push forward a vast social and political experiment are to be found in the new Constitution; they have no legal training, and little conception of impersonal justice. Gradually, through bitter experience, some of them come to realize that they are riding a tiger and cannot control the explosive situations they have helped to engender.
Ying-ying makes the reader aware of her own development in these crises. At a self- criticism meeting she confesses to the "crime" of having, as a child, admired her American missionary teachers and, because of them, their country. She admits, too (though not to her colleagues), that she is sometimes shocked by what she finds herself advocating, astonished by her own cruel and arbitrary judgments. The story ends with her preparing to leave the village and thinking, "I could not love Longxiang, its bleakness and violence horrified me."
The style lacks grace and subtlety; much of the writing is without depth; and the characters are only partly defined. Yet they are not puppets; though the language is meager, yet we are persuaded that the author is sincere, and we trust her account. She makes no attempt to moralize; this novel by its own weight of evidence becomes another illustration of the truth that the ends never justify the means.