Yan Li, in Daughters of the Red Land
(Sister Vision, 320 pages, $10.95 paper), also weaves together three lives: that of Laolao, her daughter Qin, and Qin's daughter Peace, who now lives in Canada and narrates the story. Laolao is a product of pre-Mao China, a culture that bound women's feet and "prized illiteracy as a womanly virtue."
Qin is seventeen when the Communists take over. She is a smart, precocious, beautiful, and very headstrong girl, resentful of the way Chinese society has treated women. She thinks Communism means emancipation and equality, and embraces it wholeheartedly, although her mother Laolao is forced to turn over her entire fortune to the regime, leaving the family poverty-stricken. The new government believes in "prohibiting bigamy and wife abuse, transforming prostitutes into industry workers, and encouraging women to study and work." This suits Qin perfectly. After finishing university, she goes to work at the Beijing headquarters of the air force and marries a well-respected fellow-officer. All goes well for her until her husband is accused of plotting against the government, is abruptly jailed, and is stripped of all his honours. He has become-as Qin, pregnant with Peace, quickly recognizes-a liability to her and her unborn daughter.
Yan Li treats history as much more than a backdrop: history is the story. It affects the characters directly and profoundly; it is not something to write about but to write from within. Her style is straightforward: she tells a compelling, often very moving story, putting a human face on disturbing abstract issues. This is a political novel in the deepest, most admirable sense: it exposes and condemns violence and hypocrisy by allowing us into the lives of those affected. It doesn't just tell; it shows. And not in a simplistic black and white way, either. As in life, moral lines are often blurred, and there is often no clearcut right or wrong choice. It is this recognition of complexity, combined with a firm grasp of Chinese history, that enables Li to document the reign of Mao with such eloquent passion.