In this sequel to See’s bestselling Shanghai Girls (2009, etc.), a daughter’s flight leads to further family upheavals against the backdrop of Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward.
Twenty years have passed since Pearl and May Chin left war-torn Shanghai for California, to fulfill the marriage contracts their bankrupt gambler father had arranged. Now, Pearl’s daughter Joy has impulsively immigrated to China to seek her birth father Z.G., who once painted the youthful Pearl and May for “Beautiful Girl” advertisements. Z.G. is not hard to locate—he is now the New Society’s highest-ranking propaganda artist. But he has fallen into disfavor and is being sent to a peasant commune, Green Dragon Village, to reform his bourgeois aesthetic. Joy accompanies him to Green Dragon, excited at the prospect of living the communist ideals that so enthralled her as a University of Chicago student. For a while, the system works: Women are liberated from household drudgery, childcare and cooking (meals are provided by a canteen), crops are plentiful and people are being encouraged to have large families to augment the workforce. Z.G. returns to Shanghai, but Joy, who has married local peasant Tao, remains behind (she’ll regret her marriage immediately after a wedding night spent in a crowded, two-room shack). However, soon the Great Leap Forward, thanks to several wrongheaded strategies (among them, plowing broken glass into the fields, overplanting wheat and a war on sparrows which wreaks environmental havoc), leads to nationwide famine. The once tranquil commune is now riven by strife. Under the rule of a corrupt party official who keeps all the food for himself, starving villagers resort to mob violence and cannibalism. Meanwhile, Pearl has arrived in Shanghai and is living in uneasy community with her father’s former tenants and working as a street sweeper while she plots to rescue Joy and her new granddaughter.
Although the ending betrays See’s roots in genre fiction, this is a riveting, meticulously researched depiction of one of the world’s worst human-engineered catastrophes.