Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.
Journalist Jan Wong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, she became one of only two Westerners admitted to Beijing University, where she studied Mandarin. She was 19, impressionable and a proud Maoist, so when a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, told her she wanted help fleeing China for the United States — a Maoist “crime” — Jan did not hesitate to tell the authorities.
In one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. […] At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I’d done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it.
Thirty-three years later Jan decides to return to Beijing — dragging her husband and two teenage sons with her — to look for Yin Luoyi. She knows she may never find her — “How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion?” — but feels compelled to try, if only to keep her conscience at bay. But with no plan of action and just a 28-day stay, it truly seems an impossible mission.
Chinese Whispers details Jan’s quest to find the woman she wronged. But the engaging narrative also doubles as a travelogue as Jan describes a city — and a nation — in the grips of a radical transformation. It’s two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and buildings are being knocked down and replaced, seemingly overnight. There are new roads, new cars. The trappings of enormous wealth, rubbing up against poverty, are everywhere. This is not the city that Jan left behind all those years ago — tracking down old friends, foes and comrades is going to be more difficult than ever before.
In many ways this book reads like a detective story, as Jan slowly uncovers clues, stumbles over red herrings and runs into dead ends. But it is also a wonderfully evocative account of China’s recent history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, detailing the changing face of its political, social and economic systems. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best portraits of a nation trying to deal — or not deal — with its past that you’re ever likely to find.
Her narrative style is engaging and effusive and she has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. (I love that she calls her husband Norman “Fat Paycheck” in a nod to the Chinese name of Yulu that he was given when he lived in Beijing for some 20 years — apparently Yu means riches and lu means an official’s salary in ancient China, hence Jan’s tongue-in-cheek translation.)
Perhaps the only problem with the book is that it is now slightly dated — it was first published in Canada in 2007 as Beijing Confidential — but given China’s rapid pace of development, particularly in the past five years, that should come as no surprise.
Chinese Whispers is one of those books for which you need to clear your schedule — once you pick it up, the story is so gripping it’s a wrench to put it down. I made the mistake of starting it in a lunch-hour and then it was a race to get home after work to continue where I’d left off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…