“The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan” by Chi Pang-yuan

When Chi Pang-yuan was a young girl, her father Chi Shiying was wanted by warlord Zhang Zuolin and his son, Zhang Xueliang. The crime was siding with a rival general, Guo Songling, at a time when the Republic was still relatively young and northeast China in constant turmoil. For most of her childhood and teenage years, Chi Pang-yuan would frequently be on the move, between Manchuria and all the major cities along the Yangtze River: Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing and Shanghai.

Many China memoirs take place during the turmoil of World War II and the Chinese civil war, and Chi Pang-yuan’s The Great Flowing River is, like these others, a vivid account of China during those war-torn years. What the memoir may lack in dramatic pacing and succinctness, it makes up for as a personal record of its time: it uniquely focuses on Chi’s education in China and how she became instrumental in promoting literature from Taiwan as an adult. When she entered Wuhan University in the early 1940s, she was still among the first generations of women to attend university in China.


The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan, Chi Pang-yuan, John Balcom (trans) (Columbia University Press, July 2018; Penguin SE Asia, December 2019)
The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan, Chi Pang-yuan, John Balcom (trans) (Columbia University Press, July 2018; Penguin SE Asia, December 2019)

Chi Pang-yuan’s parents were progressive; she  was expected to receive an education. She started out as a philosophy major but quickly switched over to the English department, where she studied English poetry.

Chi’s mother, Pei Yuzhen, acted as a surrogate mother to young soldiers from the Central Military Academy in Nanjing, one of whom was a pilot named Zhang Dafei. He and Chi Pang-yuan wrote to each other during Zhang’s years of flying for Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, the letters amazingly reaching each other despite Zhang Defai being constantly on the move and Chi Pang-yuan’s Wuhan University campus being relocated to Leshan, Sichuan. Zhang was a Christian and hoped to become a minister after the war; his faith inspired Chi Pang-yuan to become baptized.

Chi didn’t care for politics and in her telling of the sequence of events during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Manchukuo (Manchuria) at the conclusion of WWII, she blames the Soviets for giving key northeastern cities to Mao. She wondered what might have been:


If in 1945 the central government had been able to catch its breath, and the people regain their livelihood and rebuild China with an attitude of protecting the country, could China have risen up earlier, avoiding millions of deaths due to class struggle and a protracted period of suffering for several generations?


For a young woman with a degree in English literature, Chi Pang-yuan found many options for employment after WWII. But she was torn between settling in Beijing, where her family was living then and Nanjing, where she had spent many years as a child. When a chance encounter with an old family friend resulted in a job offer in Taiwan, Chi felt like it was meant to be.


I’d be able to break free from the deadlocked situation of wavering between one city in the north and one in the south. Moreover, the whole country was caught up in a political whirlpool in which if you weren’t left, then you were right, and there was no place [to] put your head in the sand like an ostrich.


It was September 1947 and Chi’s journey to Taiwan occurred two years before the frantic escapes as the Communists closed in on total victory. Chi’s parents were reluctant to see her travel across the Taiwan Strait on her own, but felt it wouldn’t be permanent. Chi Pang-yuan, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. “My father bought a round-trip ticket for me, but I knew I would be buried in Taiwan.”

A bestseller in Chinese, and here translated by John Balcom, The Great Flowing River takes an extensive look at a transitional  time in Chinese and Taiwanese history, especially when it comes to education and literature.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.