Hong Ying's autobiography, Daughter of the River, is doubly astonishing. First, it's an account of the Cultural Revolution that's not written by an intellectual. There's a certain genre of Chinese memoir that looks at upheaval under Mao through an elite lens, and I have to admit, I've been growing tired of those books. But Hong Ying comes from a very different background indeed.
I saw her speak at a literary festival in Jaipur, India in 2011, where she told the audience how she grew up along the Yangtze River in the slums of Chongqing — China's largest and most crowded city — and survived the great famines and Mao's failed political campaigns as a bastard child in abject poverty. I bought her memoir immediately. Her speech had touched me — but her book blew me away.
Using prose that's often gut-wrenching and unflinchingly frank, she opened my mind to a stark world of porters, garbage-pickers and day-laborers fighting for crumbs in their squalid riverside quarters. She vividly describes some of the most cataclysmic years of natural and man-made disasters under Mao.
And this is the second extraordinary thing about Hong Ying's memoir: its unapologetic honesty. There's not a shred of pretension, nor any effort to sugarcoat the truth — whether it's focused on the author's life or China's history. Her straightforwardness is remarkable, because in China there's still a strong unwritten code that you don't air dirty laundry in public — whether it's your family's or the nation's.
And there's plenty of dirty laundry in this memoir. Little Six, as Hong Ying is called in the family, is the youngest of six children. Growing up, she suspects something is amiss, that she doesn't belong somehow. Her older siblings all seem to hate her and are constantly finding fault with her. There's also an older man who seems to be following her everywhere from a distance.
On her 18th birthday, she's let in on the secret — she's the illegitimate child of her mother and a lover, the older man. She also learns about the hardship and the destitution that shaped her parent's lives, particularly during the great famine that struck shortly before she was born. She absorbs the shame her mother brought on the family, but never manages a proper reconciliation with her natural father, because he dies while she's still young.
The book is a journey through a young woman's coming of age and an inquiry into her past. The images of unrelenting hunger, grinding poverty and desperate daily struggles are some of the most powerful and devastating I've read about China's recent past. But Daughter of the River also rises above the subjective to look at the inequality, injustice and sacrifice of Mao's visionary society. During the famines, there was surplus food sitting in government warehouses earmarked for the cities, Hong Ying points out, even as millions of people in rural areas starved to death.
When I'm in China, I often feel that that people from the older generation — including members of my family — want to avoid speaking about the famines and the Cultural Revolution years. It's an amazing case of collective amnesia, given how these nightmares had haunted the world's most populous nation for almost three decades. Hong Ying's courage in breaking this code of silence has given voice to millions of working-class people who either perished in the maw of this twisted history or continue to suffer in silence, largely forgotten.
Daughter of the River is not always an easy book to read. Many of the people depicted aren't easy to empathize with, and the extreme deprivation can be discomforting to read about with an iPhone beside you and a flat-screen TV in front of you.
But it's not all dark; this is ultimately a book about hope and the resilience of human nature, as we watch Hong Ying rise out of destitution and family shame to become an accomplished writer. And even in the depictions of suffering, there's great power. In this book, I found a new understanding of poverty's toll not just on the body, but on the psyche, on the family and on a nation.
Karen Ma's latest book is Excess Baggage, a novel.