LORI REESEFew writers know the urge to use forbidden words like Chinese novelist Hong Ying. In her superb new memoir, Daughter of the River (Grove; 277 pages), Hong recalls the excitement in the 1970s when students scrawled phrases like DOWN WITH CHAIRMAN MAO on the walls of her high school in the southwestern city of Chongqing. Once the graffiti was spotted, authorities would clamor for a culprit. The fingered child would not only be expelled, but forced to name an adult accomplice, who would promptly disappear. Scribbling a few words could turn you into an overnight sensation, she writes, and what a temptation that was.Hong Ying resisted that particular desire but it inspired her to trample upon taboos in her writing. Summer of Betrayal, her first novel published in English, details the sexual awakening and embitterment of a young poet, Lin Ying, during the tumultuous months of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The story lingers as much on Lin's intimate life as it does on the political events that proscribe it. Critics in the United States complained that the novel was self-centered; China banned it altogether.
Like her fiction, Hong's autobiography derives its disturbing power both from its lucid descriptions of a fascinating time and from her relentless account of the brutalities that have defined her life. Hong deftly weaves the first-hand accounts of China's revolutionary period told by her family and friends into her personal story, in this case a recollection of the momentous events surrounding her 18th birthday. Born in Chongqing in 1962 in a dank slum in the steep hills along the Yangtze river, Hong grew up fettered by extreme poverty and haunted by secrets. Rumors that Chiang Kai-shek left behind thousands of spies when he fled the mainland in 1949 planted deep suspicions among her neighbors, making every person walking on the narrow slope, where filthy water flows, look like a secret agent, she writes. Memories of the impact on her family of the deadly famine that swept China in 1959 and ended in the year of Hong's birth, are fiercely guarded by her mother, who is driven to cruelty by a lifetime of back-breaking labor. You should be glad you were allowed to go on living, her mother snaps cryptically, when the aspiring writer implores her for information about her past.
Hong's quest for knowledge is rivaled only by her desire for the affection that she is denied by her family. She develops a crush on her high school history teacher, a person who seems to embody the honesty she craves. She learns the truth about her birth--that her mother's husband was not her real father--while wrestling with the disillusionment that follows her seduction by the older man. Hong unflinchingly recounts a loss of innocence that prompted her to leave Chongqing and pursue a career in writing. Her uncertain path takes her to the Lu Xun Writing Academy in Beijing on the eve of the Tiananmen protests. Vivid and direct, Daughter of the River offers more than just insights into the generation of Chinese that came of age toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is a startling account of love and poverty that defiantly flouts convention.