Born and raised in Beijing, Bei Dao spent decades in exile in Europe because of his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. City Gate, Open Up is his eloquent, moving memoir in which the foremost Chinese poet rebuilds Beijing, his fond hometown and lifelong anchor, through poignant memories and portraits, rendering the generations who have lived through such surreal, turbulent times.
The fugitive ran north beside the railway tracks, the bleak wastes of the Gobi blanketed in darkness, towards the streetlamps of Zamyn-Üüd glowing faintly in the distance. By luck passing too close to a sentry tower to be visible on radar, Xu Hongci soon realized that the lights of the Mongolian border town were now closer than those of Chinese Erenhot, and that his month-long flight from the mountain prisons of remote Yunnan was at a triumphant end:
I squatted on the ground a few minutes, bidding my weather-beaten, grief-plagued motherland farewell. I didn’t shed tears. I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, ‘On that day, I shall return.’
Between September and Christmas 1964, the Dutch sinologist Erik Zürcher undertook a three month visit to China organized by the state travel agency Luxingshe. It was official and exceptional. China was closed for business, isolated and angry at history. Barely more than a decade previously, Dutch troops in UN Command had been fighting the Chinese People’s Volunteers on the Korean Peninsula.
Resting together after an afternoon climb to the hillside Kyoto grave of her father’s great benefactor, the school principal who provided for the 90-year-old Anglican minister when he was just a penniless, fatherless newspaper boy, Joy Kogawa brought herself to speak: “Dad, I know what you did.”
Guo Xiaolu has always been a writer who has worn both her heart and her integrity on her sleeve, whether tearing pages from her own life for her novels, experimenting publically with form or writing in what is for her an entirely foreign language (something which is the cause for astonishment when an English-language writer even attempts it). So it is hardly a surprise that her recent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A story of growing up, is by turn raw, intelligent, compelling, sad, uncompromising and reticent.
Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.
One might be forgiven for thinking “Oh no, not another book on modern China… What could anyone possibly have left to say about it?” But Alexandre Trudeau does not simply write about what he observes, but, like all good travel-writers, shows us what effect the journey had on him. And he does so without thrusting himself into the foreground; there is no large talking head loudly proclaiming “look at me” in the foreground and with tiny buildings in the background incidentally pointing to a foreign location.