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An anguished tale of poverty and betrayal from a survivor of China's Great Famine

By Lauren Byrne

MARCH 1, 1999: 

DAUGHTER OF THE RIVER: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Hong Ying. Grove/Atlantic, 208 pages, $24.

A recent report in the New York Times claimed that as many as 500 women a day attempt suicide in rural China. Novelist and poet Hong Ying's account of her childhood and adolescence in the teeming alleys of Chongqing, on the Yangtze River, makes that figure grimly comprehensible.

Hong Ying grew up in the South Bank slums of Chongqing, where the stink of rotting garbage and open sewers was so great she often wondered why she and her neighbors were punished by having noses. The houses had no running water, and villagers shared communal toilets. In these vermin-infested latrines, Hong Ying once saw a roundworm emerge from a young girl's screaming mouth.

"Reminiscent of Angela's Ashes," a Kirkus Reviews quote announces on the front of the dust jacket. Hardly. Frank McCourt's account of his impoverished childhood in Ireland reads like a romp through Disneyland next to this. When Hong Ying was growing up in the 1960s, her world was defined by hunger; fantasies of food consumed her. Whoever managed to bring home the most food scraps was rewarded with a larger portion of the meal: "One day, when Third Brother returned with some turnip leaves, he strutted proudly around the house, and when it was time to eat, he was actually crowing." But when Hong Ying bought two meat pies from a local vendor, intending to share them with her parents, they recoiled in disgust. During the Great Famine of 1959-'62, the vendor's pies had been much in demand until one day a customer bit into a fingernail. Cannibalism was a reality in China in those years.

Great art comes out of great poverty, Hong Ying is told by her history teacher. But her story is a more accurate depiction of the old Chinese saying, "Poverty gives birth to evil personalities." In the slums of Chongqing, neighborliness is a matter of relishing the disasters of others, and doors are closed only when you have something good to eat and don't want to have to share it. Only the cadres, the card-carrying members of the Communist Party, have access to the meager advantages that make life bearable. After his mother's death from starvation, a cousin of Hong Ying's wrote out an application to join the Communists "in which he praised Party leaders for their wise agricultural policies. . . . His mother was dead and all the complaints in the world wouldn't bring her back. . . . Lies by cadres at all levels had caused the famine, and it was only by keeping to the lies that one could hope to join the cadres."

The youngest of six children, Hong Ying was born in 1962, at the end of the Great Famine. How her mother, a laborer, carried her to term when she already had five children to feed and her injured boatman-husband lay in a distant hospital was a mystery to Hong Ying, as was the presence of a man who shadowed her throughout her childhood. She grew up feeling like an outsider, made to bear the brunt of her family's resentment.

At times, Hong Ying's complaints about her special suffering verge on the grating, especially where the writing descends to the hysterically banal: "Why, I wondered, was I born into a world where happiness did not exist? Why did I have to experience so many slights, so much negligence and sorrow?" Perhaps the English translation can be faulted for not doing justice to Hong Ying's original Chinese. Certainly her siblings seemed not to have fared much better than she.

Big Sister, for example, was considered a troublemaker because she objected to criticism leveled at her by the Communist Youth League for walking in public with a young boy in her last year at nursing school. She was shunted out of the city by the cadres and forced to spend her life in a coal-mining town, where her many marriages went sour, and her infrequent visits home were marked by raging arguments with her mother. Fourth Sister attempted suicide when her boyfriend threw her over for the daughter of a party secretary with the power to advance his work prospects. Fifth Brother, a silent fixture in the house, had a harelip horribly mangled by an incompetent doctor who had attempted to correct it.

Hong Ying's sense of not belonging was vindicated when, on her 18th birthday, she learned from her mother the story of her birth and the identity of her natural father -- the mystery man who watched her. These revelations intersected with her infatuation for her history teacher.

Ultimately, Hong Ying's sense of being somehow different made it easier for her to escape the predictability of her family's impoverishment and a life of "carrying sand, emptying chamber pots, and raising kids." But having made up her mind to leave Chongqing, she found herself pregnant from her one sexual encounter with her history teacher. Determined to move on, she went to Beijing's Municipal Gynecological Hospital for an abortion. The account of her barbarous ordeal there says more than a thousand pages of history about life for China's women.

Hong Ying's story concludes with her participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Out of that period came her sad, luminous novel Summer of Betrayal. Both that book and its author have been banned in China, and she now lives as a reluctant exile in London. In an interview she gave to the Telegraph newspaper prior to the publication of her autobiography in England, she said, "After finishing this book I know that nobody can save me apart from myself. Writing is the only way I can cure myself." Hong Ying paid a terrible price for our better understanding of life for modern China's poor.

Lauren Byrne is a freelancer writer living in Arlington.

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