A candid memoir about growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, adapted by the author from his Colors of the Mountain, published by Random House.
Da Chen was born in China in 1962. The grandson of a landlord, he and his family were treated as outcasts in Communist China. In school, Da was an excellent student until a teacher told him that, because of his "family's crimes," he could never be more than a poor farmer. Feeling his fate was hopeless, Da responded by dropping out and hanging around with a gang. However, after Mao's death, Da realized that an education and college might be possible, but he had to make up for the time he'd wasted. He began to study-all day and into the night. His entire family rallied to help him succeed, working long hours in the rice fields and going into debt to ensure that Da would have an education. When the final exam results were posted, he had one of the highest scores in the region and had earned a place at the prestigious Beijing University. Now his family's past would not harm their future.
Adapted for young adults from Chen's memoir (Colors of the Mountain), this coming-of-age tale traces the author's boyhood in Maoist China. Born in 1962, Chen grows up in privation and humiliation as the grandson of former landlords. His family has been stripped of property and is cruelly treated by fellow villagers and politicos. Chen's siblings must quit school to become farmers, his father is fired from his teaching job and repeatedly hauled off to labor camp, and his grandfather is publicly beaten. Chen's only recourse is to excel at his studies ("I shone, despite their efforts to snuff me out"). The pacing here lurches a bit; what may have worked well for adult audiences could throw younger readers. However, humor and unflinching honesty inform the narrative, which is shot through with lyrical descriptions ("my fate stood undecided, wavering in the wind like a blade of grass along the Dong Jing River"). Some of the most involving scenes revolve around the boy's gradual inclusion in a Huck Finn-esque gang that cares little about his privileged background. Young adults interested in this area of history may wish to read Ji-li Jiang's recent Red Scarf Girl, which chronicles her adolescence at the time Mao was taking power. Chen's reminiscences add another intriguing perspective on this turbulent time. Ages 12-up.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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January 13, 2003
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Excerpt from China's Son by Da Chen
I was born in southern China in 1962, in the tiny town of Yellow Stone. They called it the Year of Great Starvation. Chairman Mao had had a parting of the ways with the Soviets, and now they wanted all their loans repaid or there would be blood, a lot of it. Mao panicked. He ordered his citizens to cut down on meals and be hungry heroes so he could repay the loans. The superstitious citizens of Yellow Stone still saw the starving ghosts of those who had died during that year chasing around and sobbing for food on the eve of the spring Tomb Sweeping Festival. That year also saw a forbidding drought that made fields throughout China crack like wax. For the first time, the folks of Yellow Stone saw the bottom of the Dong jing River. Rice plants turned yellow and withered young. Dad wanted to give me the name Han, which means "drought." But that would have been like naming a boy in Hiroshima Atom Bomb. And since the Chinese believe that their names dictate their fate, I would have probably ended up digging ditches, searching for water in some wasteland. So Dad named me Da, which means "prosperity." The unfortunate year of my birth left a permanent flaw in my character: I was always hungry. I yearned for food. I could talk, think, and dream about it forever. As an infant, I ate with a large, adult spoon. I would open wide while they shoveled in the porridge. My grandmother said she had never seen an easier baby to feed. Ours was a big family, and I was at the bottom. There were a great many people above me, with, at the top, my bald, long-bearded grandpa and my square-faced, large-boned grandma. Dad looked mostly like Grandma, but he had Grandpa's smiling eyes. Mom seemed very tiny next to my broad-chested dad. Sister Si was the eldest of my siblings, a big girl who took after Dad in personality and physique. jin, my brother, had Mom's elegant features; we still haven't figured out just who my middle sister, Ke, looks like. Huang, who is a year older than me, grew up to be a tall, thin girl, a beauty with enormous eyes. We lived in an old house that faced the only street in Yellow Stone. Our backyard led to the clear Dong Jing River, zigzagging like a dragon on land. The lush, odd-shaped Ching Mountain stood beyond the endless rice paddies like an ancient giant with a pointed hat, round shoulders, and head bent in gentle slumber. We rarely left our house to play because Mom said there were many bad people waiting to hurt us. When I did go out to buy food in the commune's grocery store a few blocks away, I always walked in the middle, safely flanked by my three sisters as we hurried in and out. Neighborhood boys sometimes threw stones at us, made ugly faces, and called us names. I always wondered why they did that. It was obviously not for fun. My sisters often cried as we ran and dodged and slammed our door shut behind us. From the Hardcover edition.