Saturday, June 20, 2009

Phoenix Harvest

(Note: pictured here is book 1; the cover is the same as for book 5.)

The fifth book in Han Suyin's autobiography, Phoenix Harvest, presents China's Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a well-educated, well-traveled doctor who had access to people in positions of power. (Although political power in 1966-79 was never a guarantee, a fact that Han Suyin documents well.)

The book is peopled with intelligentsia and cut-up bits of their suffering; Han Suyin discloses their abuse at the hands of rogue Red Guards piecemeal, as they themselves would not reveal much to her until well after the tumult had died down.

The author's devotion to China is evident throughout the book, and her deep love for Chou Enlai (or Zhou Enlai). In the book is a powerful description of the silent gathering of people to watch the "little ambulance" that took Chou's body to be cremated. She also described the hundreds of thousands of white paper flowers made by children to hang on the trees near the memorial, making the trees look like they had just had a snowfall.

I particularly enjoyed Han Suyin's delight at the minority populations near the desert. Her illustrations of the views and the peoples are vivid and inviting. She also talks about Imelda Marcos' visit to China, and how all of a sudden the ladies were doing their hair just like Imelda. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Towards the end of the book, Madame Mao and the Gang of Four get more page time, and this section really highlights the self-censorship and mass delusion that the author had been observing in other people since the beginning of the book. In any case, the Dragon Lady and her cohorts are arrested, and Han Suyin becomes hopeful, and ends her book on a note about love.

Btw, Han Suyin became famous as a writer after she wrote A Many-Splendored Thing, which is "a Eurasian love story (her own)." Now I am torn between reading the book and watching the film, because the poster to the right, which is for the film version, promises lots and lots of extreme cheesiness. I can just imagine the lines... "Oh darling wouldn't it be wonderful if we were married..." "But we are! Or did you mean to each other?" (lines shamelessly stolen from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes)

Next book: The Long Day Wanes by Anthony Burgess (writer of A Clockwork Orange), which apparently contains every Asian stereotype ever. Yesssss.