(Re)Writing China

Reviewed by Sijia Cheng

Lydia Kwa’s novel Oracle Bone, set in seventh-century China, and Katherine Luo’s memoir The Unceasing Storm: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, set during the second half of twentieth-century, both pertain to the (re)writing of a China that is beyond dominant historical narratives though they differ in form and style. Kwa writes in a dreamy and vigorous manner, as she brings history, Chinese mythology and magic together, and crafts an ancient China where a supernatural world of magical objects, demons and animal spirits meets Chinese imperial history, with a remarkable focus on female characters. Drawing on the court ascendancy of Wu Zhao—the first and only female Emperor in Chinese history—the story is primarily about the growth, and a quest of revenge, of an orphan girl Ling and a Daoist nun Qilian, with subplots involving prophecy and destiny, adultery and conspiracy, a power struggle between Buddhism and Daoism, and a cosmos where time is a nonlinear construct.

The characters at the centre of Kwa’s story are usually found at the margins of conventional historical narratives. Kwa’s female characters are strong and determined, while her men, even those who have attained power, tend to be weak and insecure. As the “third kind of creatures,” Qilian and Ling transgress various boundaries and invite us reframe our understanding of the world. Questions of sexuality and identity-formation are also explored at moments such as Wu Zhao’s epiphany that her destiny is inevitable as she satisfies her own desires, and when the Buddhist monk Harelip reaches an understanding of his sexual impulses, which leads to his spiritual awakening. With the text’s fairly open ending, a future that is yet to come remains unattained. Nevertheless, the implication that the history of a prosperous nation is potentially shaped by the empowerment of female characters and by a queer monk enables Kwa to reconstruct an ancient China that arguably unsettles and disrupts traditional tropes of Chinese historical epic. Her magical, ancient China opens up a speculative space that invites deeper understanding of our desires in and relations with the world.

If Lydia Kwa’s reconstruction of an ancient China offers a futurity that lets readers imagine a history and world beyond a heteronormative framework, then Katherine Luo’s depiction of contemporary China in The Unceasing Storm resolutely renders a past that cannot be wiped away by the dominant discourse, and openly questions the Chinese government’s refusal to recognize the history of the Cultural Revolution. The book consists of thirty-seven non-chronological essays about lives during that era. Topics range from her own frustration as she navigates through that dark period with her family’s “oversea capitalist” class background, to accounts of close relatives like her brother and her uncle who were treated wrongly, to discussions of ordinary people who encountered unbearable obstacles even though they had no extravagant desires. Varying in form and styles, these seemingly disjointed stories coalesce across time and space to retrieve personal lives that refuse to be erased by official memory. As trauma haunts the narrative, these intimate accounts of individual lives during turbulent times showcase how personal histories were sacrificed under an official, homogenizing narrative that privileged nation building premised on revolutions and on subservience to Party. This memoir articulates Luo’s tenacious struggle to extricate herself, and all those who were involved, from historic violence and collective amnesia.

Luo’s heartbreaking yet truthful record of a post-revolutionary China interrogates relations between individuals and the nation. Perhaps one weakness of the book is her oversimplified and idealized account of Canada as the beautiful “land of democracy and happiness “a characterization that fails to recognize the ongoing violence of settler-colonialism while reinforcing another potentially deceptive grand narrative of nationalism. As the book brings back to life erased memory, for its critical potential to challenge a history framed by dominant ideology, readers should push beyond Luo’s depictions of Canada as a utopian site of peace and liberty in binary opposition to an unfree China controlled by the government, and instead consider how personal histories can present critiques of limited and problematic accounts of homogenous nation-building that keep a repressive social and political order in place. The critical function of Luo’s writing remains productive, and offers political possibilities that resonate with politics of today’s China and Canada that are still largely framed by ideological and national paradigms.

This review “(Re)Writing China” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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