He Liyi belongs to one of China's minorities, the Bai, and he lives in a remote area of northwestern Yunnan Province. In 1979, his wife sold her fattest pig to buy him a shortwave radio. He spent every spare moment listening to the BBC and VOA in order to improve the English he had learned at college between 1950 and 1953. For "further practice," he decided to write down his life story in English. Humorous and unfiltered by translation, his autobiography is direct and personal, full of richly descriptive images ...
He Liyi belongs to one of China's minorities, the Bai, and he lives in a remote area of northwestern Yunnan Province. In 1979, his wife sold her fattest pig to buy him a shortwave radio. He spent every spare moment listening to the BBC and VOA in order to improve the English he had learned at college between 1950 and 1953. For "further practice," he decided to write down his life story in English. Humorous and unfiltered by translation, his autobiography is direct and personal, full of richly descriptive images and phrases from his native Bai language.At the time of He Liyi's graduation, English was being vilified as the language of the imperialists, so the job he was assigned had nothing to do with his education. In 1958, he was labeled a rightist and sent to a "reeducation-through-labor farm." Spirited away by truck on the eve of his marriage, Mr. He spent years in the labor camp, where he schemed to garner favor from the authorities, who nevertheless shamed him publicly and told him that all his problems "belong to contradictions between the people and the enemy." After his release in 1962, the talented Mr. He had no choice but to return to his native village as a peasant. His stratagems for survival, which included stealing "nightsoil" from public toilets and extracting peach-pit oil from thousands of peaches, personify the peasant's universal struggle to endure those difficult years.He Liyi's autobiography recounts nearly all the major events of China's recent history, including the Japanese occupation, the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949, Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the experience of labor camps, changes brought about by China's dramatic re-opening to the world after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, and the recent social and economic changes occurring in the post-Deng China. No other book so poignantly reveals the travails of the common person and village life under china's tempestuous Communist government, which He Liyi ironically refers to as "Mr. China." Yet he describes his saga of poverty and hardship with humor and a surprising lack of bitterness. And rarely has there been such an intimate, frank view of how a Chinese man thinks and feels about personal relationships, revealed in dialogue and letters to his two wives.He Liyi's autobiography stands as perhaps the most readable and authentic account available in English of life in rural China.
This surprising book--written in slightly quaint but effective English by a man long removed from his college study of the language--is truly history from the bottom up. He Liyi's ( The Spring of Butterflies ) story is set mainly in a remote area of northwestern Yunnan, but it shows how changes in the world's largest country filtered through the life of one village and of an observant but never bitter patriot. Son of a Kuomintang policeman who was executed, He endured five years of socialist reeducation in a labor camp before returning home in 1962. Trying to create a new life, he accepts his lot as a peasant and marries a virtuous local woman who does not fear poverty. While village festivals are joyous, He is denounced by his work group during the Cultural Revolution and he steals ``night soil'' to contribute his share to fertilizing the fields. With little irony, He recounts family meetings concerning division of labor and their own five-year plan. He's determination to tell his story suggests that the government--``Mr. China''--has not ground out his individuality. Chik, who taught English in China, helped He get a typewriter and edited his manuscript. Photos not seen by PW. (Dec.)
When one recalls how many tens of millions of lives Mao Zedong's revolution destroyed, He Liyi must be considered lucky. Born in 1930 into a poor Bai minority family in rural Yunnan, he studied English in college but ran afoul of political zealots. After five years in a labor camp, he settled into the harsh life of a rural worker. This is the searing story of an extraordinary man who triumphed over unimaginable adversities to resume his calling as an English teacher in a remote mountain school in 1979. His own story is also an invaluable entree into the customs, joys, and travails of his rural neighbors. That he wrote this story himself in simple but often lyrical and exquisite English is a gift to us all that is almost beyond belief. This book belongs in all libraries. --Steven I. Levine, Boulder Run Research, Hillsborough, N.C.
He Liyi's previous book is The Spring of Butterflies, a translation of Chinese folk tales. Claire Anne Chik is currently teaching English as a Second Language at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has taught English at Kumming Institute of Technology and Yunnan University from 1983 to 1986.