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Review: Chinese Whispers, Jan Wong

During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong traveled to China to attend university.  As a third generation Canadian Chinese, she was one of the first two non-native Chinese admitted since Mao took power, and much of that was undoubtedly due to her belief in Mao’s principles.  In actuality, she believed in the watered-down version she’d been taught, and had no idea of the real depth and consequences for people who disagreed with Mao.  As such, when she told a teacher that a girl she’d just met had asked her how to leave China, she had no idea that she was irrevocably changing that girl’s life.  As an adult, she deeply regrets her actions, and decides to head to China and find the woman she betrayed to ask forgiveness.  In the meantime, she discovers how much Beijing has changed and continues to change to meet the 21st century.

I found this book utterly fascinating.  I’ve read a few books now on the experiences of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution, but never one from the perspective of an outsider like this one was.  Mainly, I was amazed that despite growing up as a Westerner, Wong became obsessed with China and her Chinese past.  I was also quite surprised to discover that much of Mao’s regime had been whitewashed, so even when she was in China she had no idea what was really going on.  I think that got across more of the deception than a few of the other books had; growing up in China, you would quickly realize that life was very uncertain and a heartbeat separated you from ruin.  Growing up in Canada, Mao’s China simply seemed like a place where everyone worked for the betterment of society.

Standing in vivid contrast to Wong’s memories is the Beijing of 2008 (when she returned) with its glitzy buildings, intense consumerism, and ever-expanding apartments.  She’s amazed that apartments formerly admired, reserved for only the highest of professionals, now look worn and tiny in comparison to the immense ones her old contacts have achieved.  There are shopping malls everywhere, even if no one shops in them, the smog is so thick you can’t see the sky, and there are so many cars in Beijing that you’re risking your life by stepping onto the road.  They’re also steadily pulling down the remnants of China’s past in favor of skyscraper after skyscraper.  This is Beijing, which means I hope that the rest of the country still has a few historic palaces, but the rampant destruction of perfectly good historical architecture made me very sad.

It makes Jan Wong quite sad, too; even the China she knew no longer exists, but some of it is still around.  China is still a police state, so the government can do mostly whatever it wants.  That means large, endless building projects that no democratic country would ever approve.  Wong spends time reminding us of those contrasts as well.  In terms of her search for the woman she’s betrayed, she finds it extraordinarily difficult to find her because the country has in effect wiped away the Cultural Revolution.  Records mysteriously vanish from that period and no one wants to tell her what has happened to Lu Yi.

I really enjoyed Chinese Whispers.  I thought it perfectly combined the history of the Cultural Revolution, with which I’ve been so fascinated recently, to modern day Beijing.  Since Wong is Canadian, I felt like I received a whole new perspective on the period, and as a result I’m very happy I read this book and would recommend it to anyone else interested in modern China.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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