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A Chinese son seeks a distant father’s love

How a parent’s political ambition took precedence over family.

(Page 2 of 2)

Yet the apparent calm is deceiving. Sheng-wu's political ambition knows no bounds.

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"A Bitter Sea" is not just a book about Li Na's coming of age in a China, but also about the two previous generations of the Li family. However, the more the reader learns about the Li family, the more difficult it becomes to fathom Sheng-wu.

When he, in his own youth, decided to take the college entrance exam rather than work to support his family, it was considered a terrible act of rebellion and created a deep family rift. Later, however, he expects nothing but unquestioning loyalty from Li Na. At one point, he tells Li Na, "A father need not consult his son on what he does or what he plans. If I prosper, you will benefit. If I fail, you will suffer. It's the rule of life!"

Li Na spends most of his teen years seeking his father's love and approval. He is willing to do anything to achieve this. After he graduates from a prestigious high school in Hong Kong, Li Na agrees to return to Communist China to attend preparatory school – something Sheng-wu desires as a means of testing the political waters for himself. As he sees no political future for himself in either Hong Kong or Taiwan, he uses his son to learn about conditions back in mainland China.

Back in Mao's China

Having experienced life in Communist China under Mao, I couldn't help but call out, "Oh, no!" as I read of Li Na crossing the border.

Upon entering China, he's greeted by a cadre member and escorted to a "reform school" where he is to be reeducated in political thought, as well as prepared for the entrance exam. The living conditions he describes at the school are reminiscent of my own college dorm experiences a generation later – crowded dorm rooms, no heat or air conditioning, unbearable bathrooms, poor diet, "self-criticism and mutual criticism" sessions, and endless hours of political study. Above all, there are the fanatical political officers who watch every move and hold the fate of the students in their hands.

In the reform school, Li Na takes us into the "Campaign to Exterminate the Four Pests" and the monstrous insanity of Mao's policies as the entire nation of China grinds to a halt to spend four days swatting flies.

Li Na is finally able to leave China and, as he does, to withdraw from his father. With his mother's help, he becomes a student in America, where today he works as a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Li Na's story overlaps with so much of the drama of modern China that it provides a compelling firsthand view of history. But in the end, what readers will find most haunting is the story of a boy betrayed by both his father and his country.

Ying Chang Compestine is the author of 'Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party.'

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