A warm, human book about oppression in communist China? There must be some mistake. No, it is just that Ruth Earnshaw Lo (in sensitive literary partnership with Katharine S. Kinderman) has managed a remarkable task: to exemplify on the printed page the qualities that obviously were not extinguished in her or her family by all the Chinese state could do to them.
The result is more than may be suggested by the jacket description: "An American woman shares in the upheavals of China's Cultural Revolution 1966-1978 ." But the story goes beyond its setting to illuminate what friends and families are about, as well as revolutions.
Mrs. Lo returned to the United States a couple of years ago after four decades in China. She and her Chinese husband taught at a university in the Canton suburbs. He was a victim of the on-again, off-again denunciations that interrupted or ruined so many careers. Their son and daughter were sent off to work with peasants. They were in the midst of the factional conflicts which oddly, like everything else in Canton, could be suspended for the midday siesta.
These are the broad outlines of what Mrs. Lo looks back on: "the idealism of the early days of Liberation; the rise to power of the opportunists within the rigid structure of an unchallengeable authority; the harassment of the politically vulnerable by local leaders; the overthrow with violence and vengeance of those 'persons in authority taking the capitalist road'; the spectacular public punishment of those 'monsters'; the restoration of the same 'monsters' to their original seats of power; and now the rehabilitation of their victims by a higher power again."
But it is the details that bring the experience home to a reader from afar. A piano is sealed up as a bourgeois imperialist instrument. A humble woman worries that admitting to possession of a walnut tree will put her in the class of "well-to-do middle peasants" instead of "the now more prestigious poor peasants' category." There is an antic scene of mixed emotions when the family receives a small legacy in the anticapitalist atmosphere of moral discomfort over unearned money.
Mrs. Lo can't help wondering, "Why, when manual labor was supposed to be honored, was it chosen as punishment for wrongdoers?" Her forbearance can take on a nice edge of irony; her humor about herself and the situation is never far away. She conveys how bureaucratic lunacy can cause feelings to waver between "seething indignation, blind panic, and hysterical amusement."
As the Cultural Revolution began, she speculated on what could transform "the courteous, pleasant, delightful people whom I had come to love into yelling personifications of hatred." As the ordeal went on, she treasured up instances of those who defied the prevailing winds in courageous gestures of natural human kindness. The impact is extraordinary when, in an extreme hour of need worsened by official temporizing, a student simply says, "Just let me do whatever your son would do if he was here."
Mrs. Lo reaches to the core of understanding China with three essential points: "There are a billion or more Chinese occupying a limited living space; there is never enough food for everyone; there is no traditionally sanctioned, generally accepted way for the masses of the people to express dissatisfaction and initiate change."
After her ailing, beleaguered, always optimistic husband passes on, Mrs. Lo realizes that "I was my children's mother, my husband's wife, my student's teacher, but in China I didn't exist separately." Later, when she is allowed to see Western periodicals again, she catches up with the American civil rights and women's liberation movements of the '60s. Still later she sees that she has been slipping into what she considered one of the greatest weaknesses of China, "the people's toleration of what ought to be intolerable." She decides not to slip any further.
Thus, in the most unforced way, the book becomes, along with the story of China's eventual emergence from isolation, the story of a woman emerging into the separate individual existence that had been obscured. She is not going to be phased out. She is not just going to sit in her cubicle, even though the garden view is beautiful.