Books: Little Six and the Great Leap Forward

Daughter of the River: An Autobiography

by Hong Ying Bloomsbury pounds 16.99

'We shall lie no more," proclaimed a banner in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations of 1989. On the last page of her autobiography, Hong Ying writes that to her this was "the most meaningful slogan in the entire demonstration"; Daughter of the River attempts to put that slogan into practice.

This book, however, is not about the Tiananmen massacre; it is the autobiography, albeit written in a narrative vein, of the daughter of a Yangtze River boatman and a factory worker. The last of six surviving children, Hong Ying, or Little Six as she was called, was born into abject poverty in 1962 and grew up in the slums of Chongquing in Sichuan Province on the banks of the great river.

The two eras in the history of modern China which figure prominently in Daughter of the River, as in most contemporary Chinese writing, are the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1965-1976). The former, Mao Tse-Tung's attempt to increase industrial and agricultural output to levels equal with developed countries, had disastrous consequences. Hong Ying was conceived during the great famine - the Three Hard Years as they were surreptitiously called in an attempt to play down the gravity of the situation. The famine was of unprecedented proportions. Recent demographic studies estimate the toll for the 1959- 61 period to be between 17 and 27 million deaths.

Following the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, Mao retired from taking an active role in Chinese politics for four years, only to instigate a new campaign in 1966. The ideological basis of the Cultural Revolution was to eradicate the "bourgeois tendencies" that were appearing in society, and to breathe the spirit of revolutionary fervour into the young. In real-politic terms, however, it was Mao's tool to regain political control.

The result was crippling. Education was all but suspended and a reign of terror ensued. Accusations of bourgeois tendencies and counter-accusations criss-crossed the social fabric. All actions were suspect: activities which were seen as following the tenets of the Cultural Revolution one moment could be read as corrupt the next.

It is against this harsh backdrop that Hong Ying unfolds her story. The painful memories that she extricates from her family about the years preceding her birth, and her attempts to find some security or certitude about whom and what to trust, makes for harrowing reading. But her tale does not only reveal the collective scars on China's psyche: darker, more personal, secrets haunt this daughter.

Most of the book centres on Hong Ying's eighteenth year. In quick succession she discovers her parents' heroic and at times horrific past and her own true identity. In that same year Hong Ying's crush on her history teacher takes on new proportions, and his own dark secrets related to the Cultural Revolution unfold step by step as they become lovers.

Written in a dispassionate tone that often borders on the pitiless, Hong Ying's autobiography brings out the naked truth about those at the bottom end of Chinese society, grappling to eke out a living in the shifting currents of political turmoil.

As in much of the post-Cultural Revolution writing that has been labelled "scar-literature", Daughter of the River indulges in self-pity and petty resentments towards family members and the world at large, but ultimately it is redeemed by a ruthless honesty which does not spare its author.