Magazine article The Spectator

Childhood Chinese Torture

Magazine article The Spectator

Childhood Chinese Torture

Article excerpt

DAUGHTER OF THE RIVER by Hong Ying

Bloomsbury, 1699, pp. 278

So removed are we in the West from the kind of deprivation, misery and filth of a Chinese slum, so spoilt and cosseted have we been, that to read about such poverty seems almost indecent. Sit in your comfortable chair by the lighted fire, your feet up, a gin and tonic at hand, and read the details of an abortion in a Chinese hospital, learn about a women's public latrine where maggots squirm in the shit, read about frail mothers of six obliged all day to carry 100 kilos of sand in buckets swung from their shoulders, read about hunger, cold, overcrowding, children diving into the dangerously swirling, freezing Yangtse to scavenge some floating piece of rotting vegetable to bring home to add to the family supper, then sip your drink and calmly turn the page.

At times your reviewer wanted no more of Hong Ying's Daughter of the River. To enter into the reality of such a childhood and adolescence seems a guilty thing to do. At times, though, it is possible to imagine that this is fiction, for Hong Ying is a novelist who has constructed this autobiography of her early years as if it were a novel. Basically the story concerns her 18th year and the discoveries she made around the time of her 18th birthday -- discoveries about love, life, death, her own paternity and her feelings about all these things. But it is not until the last chapter, when we see her returning after nearly ten years to her family and her squalid childhood home in Chongqing, that she begins to make sense of the past.

Carefully interspersed with the story of her unhappy day-to-day existence at home and at school -- where she falls in love with a history teacher whose peculiar fashion of courting her is to give her a biology book with carefully labelled pictures of naked men and women - is the story of Hong Ying's past, told through the mouths of Big Sister, the history teacher, and ultimately her mother. …

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