This collection of short stories set against a backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution is remarkable primarily for its unstinting authenticity. Even if I weren’t acquainted with the author, I would know from depictions of the places and events and from the rendering of the characters and their conflicted loyalties that this is a writer who knows what she’s talking about. Whether most Americans will be able to connect to the tales is another question, but for a reader who is at all familiar with or interested in modern China, the book is deeply rewarding.
The long story “Disciple of the Masses” is a standout example. Shanzi is a high school graduate who is at once patriotic and naïve. She is sent into the countryside, as was customary, as an “insert” to work with the peasants. Although she begins her assignment with idealism and energy, she discovers that villagers resent her, in large part because she is raw and untrained, but also because she will be a drain on their limited resources—they have too little to eat as it is without feeding another mouth imposed on them by the state. This isn’t quite the revolutionary zeal we might have read about elsewhere; these are farmers who hide a portion of their production so that they will not have to turn it all over to the authorities. These are practical, traditional people who have not wholly subscribed to the tenets of Maoist thought and are more inclined to adhere to their traditions and culture. A neighbor couple has argued about their baby because she is a girl. Shanzi reminds them that “Chairman Mao said women can hold up half the sky,” but she discovers that the new ways are not yet accepted here. They tell her, “That’s in your city. In our place a girl is just a dowry-debt.”
Shanzi herself is not ideologically pure. She has rescued from her father’s library a forbidden collection of Tang Dynasty poetry, now covered in plain paper. Gradually she comes to understand more about the plight of the villagers. Although she tries to help them, she is still not welcome among them and her overtures are too late.
“Second Encounter,” the only story in the collection set in the U.S., may also be an eye-opener for some readers. Two high-tech workers meet in a Boston technology firm. Both are from Chongqing (although the story’s point of view character, Wei Dong, tells Americans that he’s from Sichuan because he knows they will recognize that name but not the name of his home city, even though it is huge and once was the country’s capital) and, as it turns out, fought in opposite factions of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Each faction claimed that its own interpretation of Mao Zedong thought was correct, and their clashes were sometimes violent and deadly. Perhaps because the late 1960s were also volatile in the U.S., this aspect of the Mao period in China may not be remembered.
The other stories in the book also reveal important features of life in China during a time of great upheaval that shattered many families. But even in turbulence, young people came of age, developed attachments, and learned that what they were taught was not always true. For the reader unfamiliar with China, these tales will still resonate because the narratives ring true.
While the setting and details are credible and precise, the language of the stories is occasionally, to my ear, somewhat awkward. Paradoxically, however, this awkwardness only adds to the writer’s authority, because the rhythm and vocabulary serve to underscore the collection’s Chineseness. And it is that Chineseness—the transport to a time and place that is so unfamiliar to most readers—that makes Apologies Forthcoming a special book.
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