A woman recounts her upbringing in China as the country struggles to gain full entry into the modern world.
Debut author Wang was born in China in 1966, and before she was 1 year old, her mother entrusted her to her grandmother, in whose care she would remain until she was 12. While the author lacked official status as a resident, her father managed to get her into a Beijing school, where she developed a lifelong love of reading, an avocation sometimes challenged by the widespread lack of electricity: “As the room grew dark, I would unconsciously move to the faintly stronger light of the window, to squeeze out every last bit of sunlight before I was finally defeated.” Wang attended Peking University from 1984 to 1988, the volatile years of social change and protest that ultimately climaxed with the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event that she describes with impressive nuance. An unsuccessful microelectronics major, she later became a student of Chinese literature. The author lived on the dizzying precipice of two warring worlds: an older, more traditional version of China—her grandmother had endured the brutal practice of foot binding as a child—and one that yearned for the prosperity and sophistication of the West and experimented gingerly with an open market economy. She would later leave China—she pursued graduate work in the United States, had her second child in New Zealand, and finally settled in Vancouver, where she studied film.
Wang’s memoir artfully braids the personal and the political—she fits the arc of her own life into the trajectory of China’s tumultuous, often painful transition away from autocracy in a way that’s ultimately illustrative of both. Her China is an intellectually challenging one, filled with contradictions, intent on “opening up its economy while tightening its political control.” And while she of course laments those killed in Tiananmen Square, she also criticizes the “reckless and impatient” demonstrators (“We believed that change could come instantly in response to our protests”). The author’s remembrance can be overly detailed and as a result meandering, although her candor—her first unbelievably awkward sexual encounter involved a knife being pulled on her—is remarkable. Furthermore, she vividly and astutely paints the horizon within which Chinese popular angst emerged—the contest between a government humbled by foreign invasion and lack of progress, and a people furious with a lack of immediate reform and swelling inequality. But the most impressive feature of the account is its unwavering circumspection—even when denouncing totalitarianism, Wang is careful to chasten any hint of strident dogmatism in her judgment: “I believe that democracy and autocracy can never coexist in harmony. I believe that democracy works better than autocracy, though in the last thirty years or so, China’s economic development seems to argue otherwise.” This is an analytically rigorous and exceedingly thoughtful autobiography that intelligently chronicles the grand forces of history without ever forgetting about the lives caught up in them.
A moving recollection of personal and national identity.