Scientists don’t write autobiographies. That’s strange, really, because in most cases they’re obliged to record everything they do in some sort of laboratory notebook for either patent or publication purposes. Here, though, we have an exception. In Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist, Graham Reels recounts 12 years of wading watercourses, slogging through swamps and beating about in the bushes of Hong Kong.
Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.
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.