A personal memoir that details the hardship of political tumult in China during the first half of the 20th century.
In 1937, when Cheng (The $240 Million Professor, 2016) was only 3 years old, he and his family were forced to flee their hometown of Nanjing, due to the imminent arrival of Japanese invaders. The Chengs narrowly escaped the fate of those who chose to remain and suffered cruelty at the hands of the Japanese military. They took a boat down the Yangtze River to Chunking to start a new life, but they soon faced a series of heartbreaking trials. Cheng’s sister died from pneumonia, and then his grandmother died as well. When the family moved to a desperately poor farming village in Quay-chow, Cheng’s younger brother died from an illness due to drinking the fetid water. The author himself was nearly killed when a chillingly malicious neighbor lured him into the woods and abandoned him there. Then a colonel in the military orchestrated the theft of the family’s valuable jewels. Eventually, Japanese forces moved dangerously close, so the family fled yet again, this time back to Chunking. Cheng’s father was a soldier who was often deployed with his platoon, so the boy taught himself how to fish to supplement his meager diet. When the war ended, he finally returned to Nanjing with his family, which was now in ruins, but when civil war erupted, they ultimately had to decamp for Shanghai to escape Chinese Communists. This is the first volume in a series of four that will track the author’s life from his infancy in exile to his successful career as a professor and businessman in the United States. But it’s not merely an autobiographical recollection; it’s also an incisive history of 20th-century China as the country was caught in the throes of geopolitical upheaval. Cheng delicately weaves his own story with that of his homeland’s, rendering the plight of a nation in profoundly human terms. He also sensitively and candidly recounts the complexity of his sometimes-tortured relationship with his father: “I loved Baba very much, but I was afraid of him, not just because of how he would punish me for my wrongdoings but because of his quick temper and those piercing eyes that could see right through my own eyes into the very thoughts in my head.” This is an engrossing tale that will whet readers’ appetites for a sequel.
A gripping look at China’s historical turbulence from someone who experienced it firsthand.