Better dead than read

A romance in Communist China, stained with old stereotypes

Let's face it, the media is great at creating and perpetuating stereotypes. Take Asians: inscrutable and mysterious, sly and calculating, from the shuffling house boy to the prostitute with the heart of gold, from Ming the Merciless to Miss Saigon.

Just how pervasive those stereotypes can be is evidenced in "Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen," the English-language debut of Chinese-born writer Annie Wang, who has previously published five works in Chinese. That a writer of Asian descent could perpetuate such portrayals is especially disturbing; clearly, the youthful Wang, who was born in 1972, cut her teeth on Hollywood's demeaning versions of the inscrutable East.

With a subtitle like "A Novel of Tiananmen," a reader might expect something on the serious side. But except for a brief mention of Mao's looming statue in the infamous square, those events leading up to the tragic scene of terror when student revolutionaries demanded change from the stifling government, do not actually play a role in the book until it is almost over.

Admittedly, the potential for the novel is vast - a coming-of-age story about the only daughter of two professors who were condemned as frivolous intellectuals during China's Cultural Revolution. The conditions under which Lili must survive - from rape to displacement to imprisonment - are torturous and heart-breaking.

But what emerges is drivel. The triteness of the story verges on insulting: the big-nosed but handsome, bleeding-heart, white journalist who wants to save the lost little Asian girl set adrift in the cruel world because he thinks of her as exotic and mysterious.

Lili is nothing until she meets her great white savior, Roy, who astonishes her with his desire to know everything, experience everything. In contrast, Lili has survived by remaining unattached and apathetic.

At first, Roy annoys her with his grand ideas on how to fix all of China's woes. Then he begins to fascinate her with his wide-eyed idealism, so she shacks up with him in the "Forbidden Nest" - so named because living with a foreigner is illegal in China's absurd legal system. But Lili is a woman with a wild past and is more than ready to break any laws.

Meanwhile, Roy enthusiastically tackles his role as savior, doling out money to anyone who asks, even after Lili reveals to him that she once knew those street hustlers who hire crippled children to mislead deep-pocketed foreigners.

He travels to a remote mountain village to witness the suffering of the rural inhabitants. While there, he attempts to adopt the unwanted infant daughter of an unmarried young woman, with tragic consequences. His naivete is astounding, then annoying.

But he remains Lili's hero, nevertheless. "You should care about rural China because you're a Chinese citizen, and it's your country and your people," he patronizingly chides her. And perhaps those months of cohabitation awaken some latent sense of social responsibility by the book's end. Something propels Lili to Tiananmen, although she nor the reader is ever quite sure what that impetus is.

In the end, the convenient, self-revelatory conclusion is hardly worth the 300-page journey. At one point, Lili remarks, "I feel like a fugitive in some Hollywood movie, fleeing with my partner to the Mexican border." Indeed, there's a reason she feels like this cliche.

Leave Lili and invest your time elsewhere. With the recent infusion of superior titles that reveal the bleakness of China's Cultural Revolution, there is hardly a shortage of choices. Try Da Chen's "Colors of a Mountain," Ha Jin's "Waiting" (winner of the 1999 National Book Award), or "Soul Mountain," by Gao Xingjian (winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize). Now there's revelation - and revolution.

Terry Hong is books columnist for aMagazine: Inside Asian America.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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