Love is tested against revolutionary intrigue during China’s Cultural Revolution.
In this sweeping 1956 novel, one of two Chang was commissioned to write by the United States Information Service, two earnest young students meet, quietly fall for each other, and are then separated by the currents fracturing their society as Mao Zedong’s government looks to fundamentally alter Chinese culture. Chang, who was born in Shanghai in 1920 and moved to the U.S. in 1955, finds tension in both revolutionary schisms and everyday betrayals. In the novel, she balances the pastoral and the unsavory: Early on, for instance, she juxtaposes cicadas chirping at dawn and sunlight tenderly lighting the walls of buildings with a less comforting scene: “[H]uman excrement dotted the ground near the walls.” The scene is a small rural village, where Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan first meet. It’s a landscape of idealism ridden with denunciations and paranoia: “It was whispered among the members of the Corps that Go Forward Pao and the chairman of the Farmers’ Association were smuggling large quantities of rice and flour out of the granary.” At times, the collapse of idealism into infighting feels predictable; Liu and Su Nan are appropriately star-crossed, but the broad strokes of the plot can feel heavy-handed. In its quieter and more humorous moments, however, the novel shines: Liu tracking the increasing handsomeness of cinematic depictions of Stalin over time; gender-neutral revolutionary clothing proving handy after two characters must present themselves quickly after a tryst. And it’s telling that this novel ends on a personal note rather than on a political one.
Chang’s novel can be less than subtle at times, but its description of small compromises and grand despair are both affecting and compelling.