A Comrade Lost and Found
Journalist Jan Wong chases through modern China in pursuit of a comrade whose life she may have ruined in the Maoist era.
In 1973, Jan Wong did a terrible thing. She ratted out a fellow student – perhaps ruining the girl’s life in the process. Then she forgot about the whole thing.Skip to next paragraph
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At least, for 21 years she forgot. When she finally remembered, she became obsessed with finding the woman and – if she was still alive and it were possible – making amends. So begins A Comrade Lost and Found, a sharp, keenly observed chase through China’s past and present that somehow manages to be poignant, comic, alarming, and informative all at the same time.
Key to understanding Wong’s story is grasping the fact that she was not malicious. But she was naive. An ethnic Chinese raised in Canada, in 1972 Wong was invited to become one of only two Western students to study at Beijing University.
The country was still in the grips of the Cultural Revolution and Wong thrilled to the ideals of Marxism. Quickly she became enamoured of the idea of China as a workers’ paradise. It did not occur to her that the students and teachers who surrounded her were carefully selected and then coached to conceal from her the country’s ills.
It was only years later that Wong grasped that, “I had been an enthusiastic participant in my own brainwashing.”
While still in thrall to Marxism, Wong was approached by a fellow student named Yin. Yin wanted to go to America and she asked Wong if she could help. Indignant that anyone would want to flee the socialist state that provided a free university education, Wong reported Yin to a party cadre.
Then she went on about her own life.
Fast forward to 1994. Wong is now a journalist finishing a six-year stint in Beijing for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. She knows China inside out – and she understands China’s history well enough to realize how thoroughly she was once duped.
As she prepares to go home to Canada, she decides to reread diaries from her student days. She stumbles upon her own account of the incident with Yin. Suddenly, she says, “I knew with blinding clarity what I had done. At the age of twenty, I had thoughtlessly destroyed a young woman I didn’t even know.”
At that point, however, Yin seems unfindable. Wong learns that she was expelled from school but after that the trail grows cold.
For a decade, Wong frets over Yin’s fate and then finally realizes, “I’m fifty-three now and I am running out of excuses. It’s time to find Yin.”
So with her husband and two bored teenage sons in tow, Wong sets out for four weeks in China. Her goal is to find Yin and then “apologize and try to make amends.”