THE BITTER SEA by Charles N. Li


Coming of Age in a China Before Mao
Email this review


According to Buddhism, human desires make life bitter like brine, and human suffering resembles an open sea of grief, writes Li (Linguistics/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara). His own life certainly gave him grounds to agree.

In 1945, when the author was five, his cold and distant father, a senior official in the Japanese puppet government, was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek for treason. The family was stripped of its possessions, but Li remembers his new life in Nanjing’s slums as a time of great freedom and warm friendships, as well as hunger, filth and cold. In 1946, his mother sent him to Shanghai to live with a maiden aunt, and for a brief time Li was both well fed and schooled. But law and order broke down as the civil war intensified, and two years after the Communists arrived in 1948, Li and his aunt fled to Hong Kong. He was reunited there with his mother and father, who had been released from prison. During Li’s teenage years in Hong Kong, his father was perennially disappointed and angry with him, while he felt near-constant anxiety and fear. In return for food and shelter, Li was expected to excel academically at the private school he attended. After he graduated, his father persuaded him to return to mainland China, where he was “re-educated” by the Communists in a harsh, strictly regimented reform school. Eventually, he discovered that his politically ambitious father had sent him there as a way of testing his own possible future in Communist China. He lost all trust in his manipulative father, yet his measured tone indicates that he has come to terms with his tumultuous upbringing.

Wrenching memoir of growing up in China during a time of war and upheaval.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-134664-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2007


NonfictionTHE TRAGEDY OF LIBERATION by Frank Dikötter
by Frank Dikötter