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Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women from the Middle Kingdom to Middle America

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In 1937, the year Leslie Chang's mother was born, the city of Nanking was destroyed by Japanese invaders with instructions from the Emperor to "kill all: destroy all; burn all." Eleven years later, when the Red Army marched into China, Han Man-li's family fled to Taiwan. It was there, at an elite girl's school in Taipei, that Han Man-li met Xiao Mei, Ling, and Ma-hua. They became close friends, sharing secrets, confidences, and the uncertainty of a country in turmoil. A few years later, they would leave their ...
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Overview

In 1937, the year Leslie Chang's mother was born, the city of Nanking was destroyed by Japanese invaders with instructions from the Emperor to "kill all: destroy all; burn all." Eleven years later, when the Red Army marched into China, Han Man-li's family fled to Taiwan. It was there, at an elite girl's school in Taipei, that Han Man-li met Xiao Mei, Ling, and Ma-hua. They became close friends, sharing secrets, confidences, and the uncertainty of a country in turmoil. A few years later, they would leave their homeland, passing through the "narrow gate" of the First Girl's School on their way to America. Student visas and scholarships brought them to the United States, but for Han Man-li, Xiao Mei, Ling, and Ma-hua - now Mary, Dolores, Suzanne, and Margaret - their journey was just beginning. In cities as far apart as New York and Los Angeles, from the biology lab of a women's college to Wall Street to the gilded Chinese ghetto in California's Palos Verdes, Mary, Dolores, Suzanne, and Margaret made their choices and their compromises. That is part of the legacy they have passed on to their children. And the memories. Beyond the Narrow Gate is the story of four women whose lives took divergent paths, yet who will always be bound by their shared heritage. It is a moving, insightful portrait of what it means to be a foreigner in America, to move from world to world without ever belonging to either - a truth that is at the heart of the immigrant experience.
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Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Ching
...[O]pens the doors to the Chinese American suburban landscape....Chang moves into an uncharted realm of biographical nonfiction that is worth a look by young and older readers alike. —A. Magazine
Library Journal
The first-generation immigrants whose intersecting life stories comprise the warp and woof of this promising first book managed a degree of assimilation into mainstream America that historically has been the achievement of the second generation. Escaping the tumult of the Chinese civil war in the 1940s, they all graduated from an elite girls' school in Taiwan before emigrating to America, where they reinvented themselves while holding on to fragments of their Chinese identities. Chang, the daughter of one of these women, is a talented if somewhat self-indulgent young writer with a fine understanding of her subjects, although by her own admission she has only a vague grasp of her own cultural traditions. Sadly, Chang's skills cannot disguise the reality that the American incarnations of these four women are banal to the point of being insipid. Long on style and short on substance, the book unwittingly presents a chilling portrait of cultural deracination. For general readers.--Steven I. Levine, Mansfield Ctr., Univ. of Montana, Missoula Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jennifer Ching
...[O]pens the doors to the Chinese American suburban landscape....Chang moves into an uncharted realm of biographical nonfiction that is worth a look by young and older readers alike.
A. Magazine
Judith Newman
[A book] about surviving, even thriving, in the face of upheaval and almost unimaginable loss....Chang uses the women to explore her own love-hate relationship with Chinese culture in general and her own family in particular.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
First-time author Chang rather falteringly describes the flight of her mother and three friends from the Communist takeover of China to middle-class lives in the US. The four women met first in Taiwan, to which their families, supporters in one way or another of Republican Chiang Kai-shek, had managed to escape the advance of Mao Zedong's Communist troops. There they attended a premier girls' school, the "narrow gate" that could lead them to the Confucian ideal of higher learning and eventually to America. The author's mother, Mary, made it to Hartford, Conn., where she married an insurance executive, also Chinese, and settled down in a WASP neighborhood. By sheer dint of personality, she made a place there for herself and her family. Twenty years later, she organized a reunion for her Taiwan classmates, beginning the reconnection that led to this book. Because her mother was virtually silent on the subject of her past, Chang began to tease the story out of the classmates, settling on three (here called Suzanne, Dolores, and Margaret) who had also married and launched their new American lives more or less successfully in Pennsylvania, California, and New York City. The author struggles to understand both mother and friends, as well as to clarify her own role as a Chinese-American who does not speak Chinese but still sees whites as "the other." With neither the intensity of The Wild Swan nor the intimacy of The Joy Luck Club, this story of Chinese immigrants in America falls flat, partly because of its tangled structure. The story moves from family to family, from past to present, from Taiwan to Queens to Maui, with no clear purpose. Life, of course, is tangled—the lives of thesewomen perhaps more than most—but Chang's eye for detail and willingness to probe can't overcome prose that reads like a final project for a writer's workshop.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780525942573
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.84 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


CHINA


The Battle of Siping, which happened in May of 1947, changed everything. China had been at war, off and on, for an entire decade already. At first the country had been battling the Japanese, but after the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, China began fighting itself. A long and bloody civil war followed. It would kill millions of people and ruin the lives of hundreds of millions more. It was as if the sleeping dragon, goaded by the samurai, finally woke up to turn and bite its own tail.

    The two sides in the struggle divided along every possible fault line: politics, economics, social class. To the right were Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang party. The top American military advisor to China, "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, used to call Chiang "Peanut" behind his back. Peanut preferred the title "Generalissimo." His Nationalist government claimed to be the rightful heir to the republic that Sun Yat-sen had founded in 1911. It had the support of the capitalist rich, the urban professionals, and, most importantly, the United States.

    On the left were the broad-faced, pandalike Mao Zedong and his ragtag People's Liberation Army. They used Russian weapons and wore crude sandals hand-made of straw. They introduced the local peasantry to the joys of land reform. Much of their support came from the impoverished and the idealistic. At the end of World War II, they had fewer than half as many troops as the Kuomintang. On paper, the Communists seemed like a longshot at best. A seasoned gambler would shake his head and walk away atthe sight of their odds. But odds only tell part of the story.

    In truth, the Kuomintang was beginning to founder. By 1947, inflation had risen thirtyfold since the end of World War II. Corruption and ineptitude ran rampant in the ranks. Many of the army's vaunted numbers came from peasant conscripts who were involuntary, ill treated, and ill trained. The Communists hunkered down in the countryside to the north and west, patiently waiting for the Kuomintang to come to them. Chiang, more interested in the symbolic reunification of the country than in strategically consolidating his power base in the south, did just that.

    He sent his best troops to Manchuria to wrest its resource-rich lands away from Mao. For a year and a half, fierce fighting mingled uneasily with American-negotiated cease-fires. Then, in January of 1947, the American mediators threw up their hands and left. For the first time in over a century, China was on its own.

    Full-scale war resumed in Manchuria. A series of Communist-led attacks began that spring, culminating in the Battle of Siping. It was an unremarkable place save for the fact that it was a railway junction. Victory there allowed the Communists to go on the offensive. They boldly severed supply lines and cleverly isolated the Nationalist forces in the cities. The war would drag on for two more years, but the Kuomintang would never recover. At the time, few in China realized the import of Siping, but its outcome would change the course of all their lives.

    Much has been written about what happened to the Chinese people in China after the civil war, but this is the story of four Chinese girls who left. At the time of the Battle of Siping, they were still children and strangers to one another. A few short years later, they would be neither.

    Xiao Mei was only eight years old in 1947 and living in the Nationalist capital of Nanjing, where her mother was a representative in the National Assembly. Everyone called the girl Xiao Mei, or Little Younger Sister, because her own sister and only sibling was almost a decade older. She was a friendly, happy child, unusual only in that her parents were divorced and that she was very precocious. Two years later, in Taiwan, she would enter junior high school at the age of ten. Most of her classmates were already twelve. This was all right with her. She was used to being the youngest. She was used to being taken care of. Many years later in America, she would become Dolores Fung, but in some ways she would always remain Xiao Mei.

    In the southern city of Guangzhou, another little girl, named Ling, lived in a two-story Western-style house with six servants and a guard at the front gate. Her father served as senator for Guangdong province. He was so busy he did not know the birthdays of his six children or even what ages they were. In contrast, Ling's mother flawlessly attended to every detail of the household, including deciding what clothes the children would wear each day. She kept the home deadly calm, a vast, cool tomb of silence. In spite of her large family, Ling felt adrift and alone. Later, when she was a young adult, she would move to America, where she soon became Suzanne Chen and then, years afterwards, Suzanne Koo. Still, as hard as Suzanne tried to shake her off, the girl Ling would remain, a constant presence, like a guilty conscience, in the back of her head.

    Much farther north, in Beijing, known under the Kuomintang as Beiping, lived another family with six children, all girls. The middle child was known as Ma-hua, a name that later smoothly anglicized into Margaret. The ease of the process and the name itself both fit the girl. She was sensible, practical, and always suitable. She could adapt to any situation without complaint. It was a useful skill, one that she may have acquired in part from her father, a man of many different trades—banker, academic, businessman, and even high-school principal. But it was also a skill that would take her where she did not want to go. Much later on, after she had left China and settled in America, she would realize that she had spent so much time living up to other people's expectations that she had never had the chance to live up to her own.

    To these girls, the Battle of Siping was a hazy news item from a faraway place, in spite of the consequences the Communist victory would eventually hold for them all. It was not so for a fourth girl, who lived in an elegant walled compound on the site of what is now Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Her name was Han Man-li, and she is my mother. Her father was a general in the Kuomintang army, stationed in Manchuria. He was killed in the Battle of Siping. My mother still remembers kneeling in white burlap at a railroad station on a warm May afternoon, waiting for the train that would bring her father's bullet-riddled body home. She became weightless that day, a leaf to be blown about by the wind. Eventually, she would land in America, where she would become Mary Chang and, almost twenty-three years to that day at the train station, give birth to me. By then, she would already have three other children, a husband, and numerous friends, but some part of her would forever remain unsettled.

    The China that these four girls had been born into no longer exists. Back then, the country was in a period of transition, marked, as many transitions are, by the coming together of the old and the new—ancient customs at loggerheads with radical ideas. Imperialism, republicanism, factionalism, communism, fascism all vied for power in a world that was still largely dominated by the hierarchical system proposed by Confucius two thousand years before. In this hierarchy, scholarship dominated. Accomplishment in this arena gave even emperors greater stature than they otherwise would have enjoyed. The path to power, prestige, and even wealth lay in the government; and for centuries, entry to the government had been granted through the Imperial Examination system. Government positions in ancient China were wholly unlike those in America, which are in place to serve the people. In China, rather, the people were in place to serve the government. Tax dollars and tributes all flowed upwards, not down. In America, the wealthy entrepreneur is paramount—the robber barons of the Gilded Age, the oil magnates of TV soap operas, the cyberkings of Silicon Valley. In China, hard as it may be for a Westerner to believe, it was the government official.

    Although the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 led to the dismantling of the ancient system, the prominence of scholars still did not wane. It merely transferred from those who had passed the Imperial Examinations to those who had studied abroad. Graduates from American and European universities studded the upper ranks of the Nationalist government. An anecdotal statistic from the book Family, Fields, and Ancestors by Lloyd E. Eastman reveals how, even in the private sector, returned scholars, as they were known, were accorded the utmost respect. In the 1920s, a graduate from a Chinese college could only with experience hope to get a position at a commercial press for 80 Chinese dollars a month. He would also get a 3-by-1½-foot desk. A graduate from a Japanese college would receive 100 to 120 Chinese dollars and a 3-by-2-foot desk, while a graduate from the Japanese Imperial University could expect 150 Chinese dollars, a 4-by-2½-foot desk, a bookshelf, a crystal inkstand, and a rattan chair A graduate from any Western college would receive the same plus an additional 50 Chinese dollars. Finally, if the graduate came from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge, he would get 250 Chinese dollars, the bookshelf, the crystal inkstand, the rattan chair, and, most importantly, as could only befit such an accomplished scholar, a custom-made desk—all this without any experience required.

    In more serious matters, the value of such an education, as my own family history reveals, could literally be priceless. After returning to China, my paternal grandfather parlayed his studies at Harvard into a place with the State Department of the Nationalist government. Eventually, he rose to head the desk of North American Affairs during World War II and then to serve as a delegate to the United Nations. It was this position which eventually gave him the diplomatic passport that would allow him, his wife, and their three children—my father among them—to enter America during the civil war. At the time, millions were struggling to leave China. In the United States, there existed an immigration quota of 105 Chinese per year.

    Returned scholars occupied a special niche in Chinese society, one that was without analogue in the West. Even including ones who had studied in Japan, they still numbered in the mere tens of thousands, a minuscule minority in a country that by the midtwentieth century had a population of well over 500 million. An enormous gulf separated these scholars from the masses. They lived in cities. They espoused Western thinking. Often, their wives were also college graduates. With the exception of those who had gone to school in France—Chou En-lai was the most notable of this number—they almost all supported the Nationalist government. It was into this milieu that Dolores, Suzanne, and Margaret were born.

    Both of Dolores's parents had studied in America, her mother at Berkeley. Suzanne's father had attended the University of Heidelberg. Margaret's father had gone to Oxford. Even if, like Margaret's, they did not have a great deal of money, the families that made up this unique world still benefited from the enormous prestige that accompanied their degrees. In a country with a deposed emperor and court, they formed a sort of aristocracy.

    My mother's situation was somewhat different, but in some ways even more privileged. Traditionally in China, the soldier occupied one of the lowliest positions on the social totem pole, but, since the fall of the Manchu dynasty, militarism had dominated the country. The chaos of the era demanded it. In fact, the first president of the republic was not Sun Yat-sen, who had founded the revolutionary movement, but a general named Yuan Shi-kai, whose claim to the position lay largely in the fact that he controlled the army. For years after Yuan's own downfall, warlords waged territorial battles, dividing the country into numerous fighting factions. Into this fray stepped Chiang Kai-shek and his band of elite military officers from Whampoa Academy, the West Point of China. Their Northern Expedition of 1927 subjugated the warlords and united the country at a time when internationally, military might was becoming crucial. In this way, the army gave Chiang his true legitimacy as China's leader, not the people nor his principles. During the 1930s and 1940s, with the Japanese invasion and the advent of World War II, military officers enjoyed a level of prominence and prestige in China which surpassed even that of the intellectuals. Scholars may have regarded soldiers with the same sort of disdain with which old money views new, but in those violent times they looked to them for protection.

    My mother's father was an army general and a graduate of Whampoa. It was to attend school there that, as an eighteen-year-old, he had left his home and ridden his horse twelve hundred miles. Growing up, I had known none of this. The strongest images I had had of my maternal grandparents came not from any memory of my mother's but from two photographs that sat on the piano in our living room. One was of my grandfather in his army uniform. He stands tall, his jaw set. On his feet are dusty leather boots, which proclaim his rank as clearly as any epaulets or medals. In the Nationalist army, no one under the rank of a general wore boots. In Mao's army, no one did. In the photo, my grandfather is standing next to a smiling, handsome man sitting in a camp chair. I had known since I could speak who he was, but I was startled when someone, a white person, picked up the picture one day and said with surprise in his voice, "That's Chiang Kai-shek." Of course, I had thought, who else would it be? The two men were inextricably linked in my mind.

    In the other picture, my grandparents stand together. Again my grandfather wears his army uniform. At six feet, he towers over my grandmother, who is wearing a white dress and has large, worried eyes. Her face is shaped like a square with rounded edges, and I used to imagine that I saw a hint of her jawline in my own. I grew two grandparents out of those black-and-white images—he dashing and stern, she beautiful and childlike. I had no real idea. They had both died long before I was even born, when my mother was still a girl. I knew nothing of them save what I could glean from those two old photographs and the scraps of information that my mother almost incidentally tossed my way.

    When my mother had said "I just don't want to remember" to me, she meant this, her childhood. I had to pry bits and pieces from her like a hunter digging buckshot out of a pheasant's dead carcass. In the same way, she gave her memories up—inertly but still unwilling. Only now that I have reassembled them can I understand why.

    The first important corner of the puzzle came to me one fall afternoon. My mother and I had just eaten lunch together in Chinatown and were walking down the street towards East Broadway. I was going to the library, she to the brokerage house where she traded her stocks. It was a mild day, but windy, and as we walked, the detritus of Chinatown life swirled about our feet—pieces of red crepe paper, cabbage leaves, a napkin from the Häagen-Dazs on Bayard Street. We stepped aside to let a man carry a bucket of fish into a store. Water splashed over the sides.

    "My father killed a man," my mother said suddenly.

    I stared at her. It was so unlike her to volunteer any information, much less something so shocking, that, for a moment, I wondered if she was kidding. Perhaps the atmosphere of Chinatown had gotten to me. By now, we had arrived at Pell Street, where Chuck Connors, the self-anointed "mayor of Chinatown," had once held court a century before. He had specialized in taking credulous white people on tours of the area, complete with staged knife fights, phony opium dens, and appropriately exotic slave girls. Now, a hundred years later, I was a tourist here too, this time to my mother's past. Perhaps she, like Connors, was just giving me what I had come for.

    She was not. Her father had really killed someone. He was a soldier, after all. It was his job. But she was remembering one time in particular because it happened while she was there.

    As an army man, my grandfather moved constantly, taking his wife and children with him. Once, during World War II, he was transferred from Ningxia to Gansu, and the whole family went by way of the Yellow River. Along one empty stretch, they encountered another boat with two men on board. One of the men was a deserter from my grandfather's division. My grandfather ordered him on board and saw that the soldier was just a boy. He could not have been more than fifteen years old, and he begged on his knees for mercy.

    "Let him go," my grandmother said.

    Instead, my grandfather commanded two guards to take the boy to shore. They dragged him into the woods. Beyond that, my mother could not see, but she could hear. At the time, she was about eight or nine. The sound of the pistol shot cracked across the loess-filled waters that make the river so famously yellow, and lodged itself in her brain. It remains there today.

    "A fifteen-year-old boy," she said to me. "Imagine."

    Old women pushed past us on their way to market. A car stereo blared a Hong Kong pop song.

    "Somehow," my mother said, "this is all connected."

    "What do you mean?" I asked.

    "I think," she said, "my father shot this boy, and then the things that happened later ..." Her voice trailed off.

    "It's all connected," she repeated.

    "Like karma?" I asked, trying to understand. I still did not know to what things she was referring.

    "What's karma?"

    "It's energy," I explained. "You create energy by your actions and send it out into the world. That energy eventually comes back to you. If your actions are positive, the energy is positive. If they're negative, the energy is negative."

    We had reached East Broadway, where we stood on the corner, waiting for the light to change so we could go our separate ways. The wind blew dust into our eyes.

    "In Chinese, we have a different word for it," my mother said. "We call it revenge."

    Two years after the killing by the banks of the Yellow River, my grandfather was dead. When my mother and the rest of her family, which included an older brother and two younger sisters, went to the station to greet the train that carried his body from Manchuria to Beijing, they knelt respectfully on the platform. Dressed in coarse burlap robes of mourning white, they bowed their heads to pay obeisance to their most recently departed ancestor. That train station no longer exists, but my mother remembers the moment clearly. She was not yet eleven at the time. She had closed her eyes and was trying not to fidget in the warmth of the late-spring afternoon when she felt someone pull her up from behind. Startled, she looked around, but there was no one there. Her relatives knelt nearby, oblivious to what was happening. She shrugged and closed her eyes again.

    At the time of my grandfather's death, the family was living a privileged existence in Beijing. They owned a traditional walled compound known as a si hu yen. Theirs was built around two courtyards, the sort of aristocratic home that has rapidly disappeared under the modernizing plans of the Communists. My mother's house, the deed to which she still holds, was razed years ago, along with scores of other similarly elegant and ancient homes, to make way for Tiananmen Square. The family summered in Manchuria and had servants of every sort—a cook for the kitchen, maids for the other rooms, amahs for the children. My mother studied piano with a White Russian émigré. A Jeep and driver waited at my grandfather's disposal. Army guards stood at attention by the compound gates. They even followed my mother and her brother to the park where the children went skating. My grandmother feared that someone would try to kidnap the boy, her only son. If my mother went to the park by herself, no guard would go along. A girl held no value.

    All of that changed after my grandfather's death. The Jeep and driver disappeared along with the summer home, the piano lessons, the army guards, and many of the servants. Now when the children went to the park, one of their mother's brothers would take them. The only thing that did not change was my uncle's position in the family as the oldest child and only son. If anything, my grandmother increasingly pinned her hopes on his success.

    One day in October of the same year, my uncle came home from school to find his mother waiting for him. My mother was in another room, but she could hear the sounds of an argument. And then there was a loud noise and then screaming.

    When my uncle had gone into the room where his mother was, she had begun to reprimand him for getting poor marks. She wanted him to switch schools and study harder. The scolding had escalated into a fight. They say that my uncle always carried a revolver with him. It had belonged to his father. Suddenly, he drew it from the heavy cotton jacket that he had put on that morning for protection from the autumn chill.

    "Stop," he said, "or I'm going to shoot myself."

    I don't know if my grandmother did not believe him or if she reached for the gun too quickly or not quickly enough or if my uncle simply felt he had to carry out his threat or he would lose face. At the age of thirteen, face means everything. But in an instant, before his mother could stop him, he had stuck the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger before her horrified gaze. My grandmother never once mentioned the incident after it happened. My mother heard the news from a servant.

    The day at the train station, five months earlier, came back to her. She remembered the mysterious tugging on her shoulders.

    "I think," she told me, years later, "it was my father lifting me up, telling me that I was going to be the oldest in the family."

    Or what was left of it. A younger sister had already died of food poisoning some years before. Now only my mother and two other little sisters remained.

    I was many months into my book research before she mentioned this story. She had never even told me before about her brother's existence. My sister had told me. Once, as a teenager, I had asked my mother outright if she had once had an older brother.

    "No," she had said, shaking her head and feigning confusion. "No, I didn't."

    This time, she let the information slip in her typically casual way; but as she spoke, her face grew more expressive. She told me about how the newspapers had circulated stories about her brother after his death, how they had reported on his good looks and popularity, on how his classmates would miss him. They had written that he had killed himself out of grief over his heroic father's death. At this last, her voice grew heavy with feeling, the first time I detected such a note thus far in our conversations, but it was not the emotion I expected.

    "He was spoiled," she said. "He always got everything he wanted. Then the papers say he killed himself because he's sad about our father? That's not true. I know. He killed himself because of bad grades."

    For a moment, I could not place her tone. Then I realized, with a start, that she was disgusted. What seemed so obvious and so sad to me, raised as I was on an American diet of talk shows and psychobabble—that her brother had killed himself from pressure and grief, that the argument over grades was only the catalyst, not the reason—seemed merely pathetic to my mother. She needed to despise her brother for his weakness, needed for all these years to believe that he had committed suicide over something so trivial as a report card. If this was the case, then her brother was abnormally fragile, incapable of survival under any circumstances. If this were not so, then she would have had to confront the fact that she did not live under just any circumstances but under inconceivable ones. Time and again she would face tragedy without flinching because she had convinced herself that tragedy was normal.

    The year following my grandfather's death marked a turning point, not just in my mother's life but in China's history. The chaos at home matched the chaos outside. By the time of my uncle's death in the fall of 1947, the Communists controlled virtually the entire northeast countryside from Manchuria to Shandong while the Kuomintang clung to their power in the cities. Inflation swept the nation and destroyed fortunes in single strokes. Families who relied on a fixed income or kept their savings in paper money were ruined. By the end of one six-month period in 1948, prices were 85,000 times higher than they had been at the beginning. In Shanghai, a bottle of Coca-Cola cost 250,000 yuan, which worked out to about $83 U.S. That was if one changed money at the black-market rate of 3,000 yuan to one dollar. The finance minister T. V. Soong, brother of Sun Yatsen's widow and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, used his power to change money at the official rate of 20 yuan to one U.S. dollar and then resold the dollars on the black market, using the profits to buy gold. Ordinary citizens did not have that option. They simply carried around unwieldy bundles of paper currency. Transportation authorities had to put a weight limit of forty pounds on the amount of money travelers could carry on board. People carted their bills around in wheelbarrows just to do the morning shopping. When they returned home, the wheelbarrows would be empty—unless, of course, there was nothing to buy. Often there was not. Shopkeepers hoarded their goods rather than sell them for paper money, the value of which lessened with each passing hour.

    Unlike many others, the families of the women in this book did not go hungry. Their special status protected them from the worst. Even my mother's fatherless family owned gold, ensuring that they would have a place to sleep and rice to eat. But the relative wealth and privilege of these people did not protect them from the violence that daily threatened to crash in on them. If anything, they were even more vulnerable, because they were marked. They were families whose members either worked directly for the Kuomintang or at least supported them. They lived off money gained, more likely than not, from Kuomintang corruption. Not surprisingly, they feared that when the Communists came, they would come for them. They fled ever southward, looking for refuge. Each family's story is different but somehow still the same. Fear, flight, desperation, confusion mark them all.

    In April of 1948, Luoyang, the city of my mother's birth, fell to the Red Army. May saw the almost certain defeat of Chiang in Manchuria. My mother's family moved constantly that year, ever southward in search of a haven. The first airplane flight my mother ever took was from Beijing to Nanjing. She came down with cholera that summer and spent three months in a hospital. She was the youngest in a ward of twenty patients. One night, she woke up screaming: a rat had chewed through the mosquito netting which covered her bed. Outside, the Communists continued to grow in strength and number. By the end of that long summer, they had a complete stranglehold on the areas surrounding the Nationalist-held cities. It was only a matter of time before the cities fell too.

    Inflation continued to skyrocket. The price of a seventy-one-pound sack of rice, according to historian Jonathan Spence's book The Search for Modern China, rose from 6.7 million yuan in early June to 63 million yuan in August. A forty-nine-pound bag of flour went from 1.95 million yuan to 21.8 million yuan, and a twenty-two-gallon drum of cooking oil soared from 18.5 million yuan to 190 million yuan. In the summer of 1937, these prices had stood at 12, 42, and 22 yuan respectively. Discontent with and distrust of Chiang's regime grew almost as rapidly as inflation. In July of 1948, five thousand students marched on the residence of the president of the municipal council in Beijing to protest the government's indifference to refugee conditions. Troops fired at the demonstrators, killing fourteen students and wounding over one hundred others. The cracks had appeared long before. The foundations had already started to shift. The social order was crumbling into dust.

    The autumn proved even worse. My mother's family fled to Fuzhou, where my grandmother's sister lived with her husband and children. My great-aunt behaved like a character out of Dickens toward her sister and her sister's children, treating them like unwanted orphans. Without a husband to protect her and give her status, my grandmother was at the mercy of others. In her sister's household, she and her three girls were not quite servants, but they were not family either.

    Outside, the cities had begun to fall: Jinan, Mukden, Changchun. In December of 1948, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson took his famous photograph of panicked people crushing against each other in line at a bank in Shanghai, desperate to change their money before it depreciated any further. In Fuzhou, my mother paid her school tuition in rice because the administration refused to take paper currency. The Communists captured Tianjin in the first weeks of the new year. And on January 31, 1949, the Red Army entered the walled city of Beijing, ancient seat of China's emperors. By now, my grandmother, her sister, and her brother-in-law were making preparations to leave along with masses of other Kuomintang loyalists. Overcrowded trains arrived daily from northern cities bearing refugees, many of whom sat on the roofs of the cars because there was no room inside. Only the very lucky had the resources to escape abroad.

    My grandmother's two younger brothers were living in Shanghai with their mother, the tiny-footed opium smoker. The brothers were young men who, like so many other youths, had lost faith in the Kuomintang. Although they had lived in my grandmother's household since she was first married, they decided not to leave China with the rest of the family. My great-grandmother chose to stay with them. According to Confucian tradition, sons look after their parents in old age. One brother agreed to meet the family in Fuzhou, sail to Taiwan with them, and then return to Shanghai. At the time my mother did not expect that she would never see her other uncle or her grandmother again. But that is what happened. Nor did she predict that she would see the uncle who accompanied them across the strait so soon after he left them in Taiwan. But that, too, is what happened.

    They set sail in March on a boat that carried just four families. Traveling with them were my grandfather's Japanese concubine and her baby son, my mother's half-brother, who had been born after my grandfather's death. The trip lasted three days. The boat was so small and the waters so rough that the passengers threw up the entire way. My great-aunt feared that they would sink. At the end of the voyage, my grandmother stepped off the boat and vowed that she would never travel again.

    "I will die in Taiwan," she said.

    Shortly afterwards, the Communists took the Kuomintang capital of Nanjing. In May, they captured Shanghai. Xian, Lanzhou, and Changsha fell in August. In October, Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing. His army had rolled like a cartoon snowball from the top of China to the bottom, gathering speed and strength as it went. It had crushed some in its path and collected others—peasants, ex-Kuomintang backers, and the indifferent—into its giant mass. Ahead of it ran Chiang Kai-shek and his ever-smaller band of supporters. It looked certain that the snowball would crush them too. But on December 8, Chiang fled across the Strait of Taiwan with the ragged remains of his army and government, and in a classic cartoon ending, the snowball stopped short at the water's edge. Behind it lay a gaping wound of a country. Before it, a leaf-shaped smear, an island that had never even been a nation in its own right, waited 150 miles away.

    Like that, childhood had vanished: the oranges tucked under my mother's pillow every New Year, the tennis court on the grounds of Suzanne's grandfather's estate, the plump and ancient amah who would care for Dolores while her mother was away on business, the sisters in Margaret's family who were shipped by ones and twos farther and farther south to safety. But like the frogs in Wen Yi-to's poem "Dead Water," the girls had managed to survive in spite of the waste and destruction around them. They remained the privileged ones. Wen, a leading poet, intellectual, and activist of the earlier republican movement, had himself died in 1944, shot down in the street for daring to criticize the increasing authoritarianism of the Kuomintang. In the time since, still greater devastation had occurred. An era had ended, to be followed by one of an even harsher regime, one of the worst the world has ever known. For the next quarter century, no song would rise from the dead water of China's mainland—only from those frogs who had managed to leave. These lucky few numbered a scant two million; people with the means and connections to fashion an escape. For those who remained behind, life was only to get worse. For themselves, they hoped, life could only get better.

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