Sounds of the River: A Memoir

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Teenager Da Chen gathers soil from the riverback near his village before he leaves to attend the University of Beijing. Those grains bear witness to his past and contain the now-silent sounds of the river. Later spilled onto the dry soil of the North, they will merge two part's of Da's life in the second volume of his lyrical trilogy of memoirs.

Facing wretched living conditions, a suicidal roomate, and corrupt professors at the University, Da remains determined to learn "all ...

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Teenager Da Chen gathers soil from the riverback near his village before he leaves to attend the University of Beijing. Those grains bear witness to his past and contain the now-silent sounds of the river. Later spilled onto the dry soil of the North, they will merge two part's of Da's life in the second volume of his lyrical trilogy of memoirs.

Facing wretched living conditions, a suicidal roomate, and corrupt professors at the University, Da remains determined to learn "all things Western." His dream is to go to America, and in a richly textured tale—by turns poetic, ribald,hilarious,and heartbreaking—Da keeps his indomitable spirit, but will his goal be any closer?

Joining Memoirs of a Geisha, A Gesture Life, and Waiting in a growing library of Asian-American literature, Sounds of the River chronicles a remarkable journey...a travelogue of the heart.

About the Author:
Da Chen is also the author of China's Son. An accomplished flutist and brush calligrapher, he lives with his wife and two children in New York's Hudson Valley.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"Colors of the mountain will never leave our door/Sounds of the river will linger forever in our ears." Da Chen took the title of his first memoir, Colors of the Mountain, from the first line of this Chinese couplet, and now he borrows words from the second line for the banner of this inviting sequel. Chen's roll call of the challenges he faced at the University of Beijing could raise the eyebrows of any American undergraduate: corrupt professors, wretched living conditions, a suicidal roommate. Nevertheless, Sounds of the River is by turns poetic and hilarious, never surrendering its sense of human integrity.
Publishers Weekly
This book begins where Chen's extremely well-received second memoir, Colors of the Mountain, published last year, left off. Coming from the small town of Yellow Stone in the southern province of Fujian, 16-year-old Chen moves to early 1980s Beijing to study English at the university. More anecdotally driven than Colors, this book's thumbnail character studies and small moments of triumph and defeat do most of the narrative work: the amazement of the other students at Chen's deep tan from working in the fields; the serious professor who teaches the class the multiple uses of the word "fuck"; a Buddhist monk who surreptitiously loves the theater; a friend who introduces high heels, torn T-shirts and jeans to Beijing. Chen delicately weaves his own personal story of maturation into that of the slow shaking off of the Cultural Revolution; he still faces potentially serious difficulties when he uses Sidney Sheldon along with Shakespeare to teach his students English, or meets a psychoanalyst and a musician who are secretly Christian missionaries, are just two examples. But Chen states from the outset that the point of his studies was to get him to the U.S. While this book isn't as constantly engaging and thoughtful as Colors, by its end, when Chen's visa is granted, readers will already be looking forward to the next installment. (Feb. 9) Forecast: Colors, which followed Chen's childhood chronicle China's Son, was widely reviewed and continues to sell in paper; a seven-city tour and an NPR campaign should help all three books. Look for major reviews, some that possibly take issue with Chen's version of '80s Beijing, and bestseller numbers. The story of Chen's arrival in the U.S. at 23 "carrying just 30 dollars and a bamboo flute" (as the galley notes) and subsequent full scholarship to Columbia Law School should be the subject of Chen's next book and of the countless interviews this one should generate. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Da Chen follows up his critically acclaimed Colors of the Mountain (Random House, 1999/VOYA August 2000) with a wonderfully engaging account of his college years. He left his tiny southern Chinese coastal village at the age of sixteen and traveled three days by overcrowded train to the Beijing language institute where he studied English, absorbed the intricacies of academic politics, and garnered a wide range of lessons in life across the next four years. Chen recounts conversations with his parents, brother, new roommates, and teachers in idioms that today's youth can understand, bearing irony, sweetness, and grief that make this memoir a universally accessible tale of college life. Across the years, Chen roomed with an iconoclast, who eventually committed suicide, and found that the English he believed at home was excellent could barely be understood when he was among urban-educated students. He illicitly commandeered many boxes of cigarettes that could be used to pay for his visit to the Buddhist temple when he returned home on vacation. Upon graduation, he landed a job with the Sports Ministry just in time to translate for the NBA team visiting in China to film a commercial atop the Great Wall. Although the events here took place nearly two decades ago, Chen's remembered ingenuousness comes through without sentimentality or later-day reinterpretations of events as he experienced them. This book will appeal to a wide range of high school readers, and it also can serve as curriculum support in English and social science curricula. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and YoungAdult). 2002, HarperCollins, 307p,
— Francisca Goldsmith
Library Journal
In this follow-up to the best-selling memoir Colors of the Mountain the second in a trilogy Da recalls coming of age far from home in China's wild north, all the while longing for America. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In an equally beguiling sequel to his acclaimed memoir, Colors of the Mountain (2000), which chronicled growing up during China's Cultural Revolution, Chen vividly details his years at college in the early 1980s as Mao's successors now encourage moneymaking but are loath to loosen the reins of power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641521812
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/1902
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Da Chen
Da Chen

Da Chen lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife and children.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Beijing-Fujian Express! I had dreamed about the train, not once but dozens of times, in color. Each time it was different. Once, it had wings. Another time, it had the formidable head of a golden bear, the curling tail of a Eon, and flew off to an outlandish place where strange headless animals danced and welcomed me with slimy arms. I had awoken in a sweat. But this was reality. The express loomed large before me as I stood on the platform with my brother, shaking hands.

"Don't forget where you come from, little brother," my quiet brother Jin said, sucking in a large mouthful of smoke. His hands were a little shaky. "And watch your luggage closely. There are bad guys out there. Even when you're asleep, try to wake up once in a while to check on your things."

I nodded, all choked up, looking at my toes. From now on, it was just me against the world -- an exciting but dangerous place. The three-day journey on this monster would take me to the capital of China. Soon Yellow Stone, the small village that had nurtured me for the last sixteen years, my family, and my grandparents' tombs would be far away. The blue Pacific would be but a memory.

I hugged Jin. With tears in his eyes, he held me in his sweaty arms. The train whistled long and sharp, echoing against the mountains. Jin pushed me away and bit his lip. "Go, brother. Write us as soon as you get there, and then one letter a month like we promised Mom and Dad, okay? Don't let us worry."

I nodded and jumped onto the train. The mixed odor of sweat and some unnameable smell attacked me as I studied the route tomy seat. The overhead luggage racks reminded me of a butcher's store. Bags big and small were packed right up to the ceiling. Lots of other objects hung from the rack, swinging overhead. Old farmers were squatting, lying, and sitting against their large sacks of farm produce, jammed in the aisle. They smoked pipes and chattered away. I wished I had wings to carry me through this throng to my seat in the middle of the compartment. It looked like I might even have to step on the old men's heads and shoulders to get to my destination. I bent down, found a tiny space on the floor to set my feet, and moved slowly along, murmuring to the old farmers, "Grandpa, please let me through."

I was six feet deep into the crowd when one funny-looking old man smiled at me with his yellow teeth. "First time on the train, young man?" he asked in heavily accented Mandarin.

I confessed with a nod.

"You might wanna go back and empty your pot before coming through again."

It made a hell of a lot of sense, so I shoved my way back to the beginning of the compartment again, visited the windy loo, and slowly made my way back with an empty bladder as the old man suggested. I picked my way to my seat, stepped on a couple of toes, and received a few slaps on my leg for punishment. I sighed as I stood before what I believed to be my seat. An old lady was sitting in the spot matching my ticket number, looking out the window with a smirk on her face.

What should I do? If I followed the tradition of Yellow Stone, I should bow to her since she was my elder, and beg with politeness for her to let me use my seat. As I weighed my opening line, six pairs of eyes stared at me. The old lady winked, held her head high, and looked out the window again. She was playing it cool.

"Grandma, if I am not mistaken, you are actually sitting in my seat," I said, forcing a small smile. My other seatmates looked on with jaded curiosity.

There was no response from the lady, not even the slightest movement of her proud head.

"Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat, old comrade!" I said in a firmer voice.

"Me, in your seat?" She turned and sneered at me, wrinkling her already wrinkled nose. The whole crowd turned their heads.

"Yes, here is my ticket."

"It don't do you no good. I was here first." She shook her head and crossed her chubby arms over her big chest.

"No, no, you are wrong again. I was here first, way before you were. See the luggage up there?" I pointed at my pathetic two pieces, now buried under the heavy pressure of some huge sacks of dried goods. "And these people saw me here also." I looked to the four men and one woman around me, begging for support. Their expressions remained blank. What a lame crowd.

"No, I'm not moving. You, young man, can stand till we reach my stop. Then you can sit."

Finally a bespectacled seatmate spoke up in a weak but precise voice. "This young man was here first, and he has the ticket. You ought to move."

A few of the other people nodded their agreement. High time!

"See? Please move. I have a very long journey."

"How long?" she asked.

"To the last stop, Beijing."

"Then there's no hurry for you to sit. You will have plenty of time to sit. My stop is only the first from now."

"Where is that?"


I wasn't too sure, but it sounded very far away. I hesitated.

"Young man," the bespectacled man said, "you don't need to think about it. It's twenty-four hours away from here."

Another man joined in. "Old lady, you ought to get out of here."

She sat there stubbornly.

"I'm going to call the conductor," I said firmly, deciding to leave the sticky old lady to the hands of authority.

Sounds of the River. Copyright © by Da Chen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2004

    A College Kid in Beijing

    This is the second volume of a 3-part memoir (the first was 'Colors of the Mountain'), the story of a young Chinese sent from his South China village to study English at the university of Beijing. A personal story with unexpected turns, a village boy striving to excel in an unfamiliar setting and an unfamiliar field. To the American reader China seems distant and exotic, even 'inscrutable.' Even if this was ever true, it is rapidly changing, and Da Chen's tale illustrates the transition. His life is changing, from classical Buddhism, herbal remedies (one of which might have saved his life), night pots and classical Chinese flute music, to the world of university life, dress fashions, cigarettes, rock music and above all, dreams of that far-away land called 'America.' The story takes place in the early 1980s, with memories of the disastrous 'cultural revolution' still fresh, and while communist party members of 'cadres' are still powerful, they can also be bribed. It is also a time of social ferment, in a society where enterprising individuals have always stood out. Friendships and networking matter enormously, as does one's extended family, even that one uncle in Taiwan. Men under 28 may not legally marry, but mothers prowl to locate the best mates for their sons, and at least in villages, marriage brokers are also in business. If there is one (slightly) jarring aspect here, it is the way Da Chen tends to dramatize his writing, also to embellish it with emotional and flowery phrases. The story by itself is good enough! But the book reads well, though it may not feel as spontaneous as other prevalent American prose: that may be the style of Chinese writing. The author should be commended for building a bridge linking his culture and ours, impressing his reader that even as China is rapidly absorbing Western culture and technology, it still remains Chinese to the core, and is likely to remain so.

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