Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I think in any culture, any history book or story set about that culture, that’s written by an outsider is regarded with a level of hostility. After all, how can an outsider understand the nuances, the culture, the beliefs of a particular set of people?
The e-galley on my  new Nook

This was my mind set, when an email about A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama popped into my inbox. How could she understand China? A person of Japanese descent writing about China? It’s been done before, but Japanese-Chinese relations have always been a little rocky, mainly antagonism over World War II deeds.  (Note: Gail Tsukiyama is of both Japanese and Chinese descent.)

This sentiment of distrust increased when I found out the novel was about Communist China, Cultural Revolution era. It's hard to portray Communist China. 

China then, was in chaos, havoc was everywhere. To strip conditions down to mere theory, that democratic values was good and that communism was bad, and have everything in black and white and no gray, well, that’s wrong. This is not a statement saying communism is good, because that’s definitely wrong, look at where North Korea is right now. What I’m trying to say is whenever history is concerned, people have to look at the time period and the surrounding sentiments. Yes, communism is a theory that will never work in practice because people are selfish, but back then, in the fifties and sixties of China, it offered something that the masses wanted. The masses, mostly the poor, had been oppressed by the few bourgeoisie families for a long, long time. To have someone say, “The bourgeoisie are evil and that everyone share” was like a godsend.  It was a shining opportunity that soon had the support of the masses.

Politics aside because I will never truly understand politics, whether in the past or present, A Hundred Flowers was in the end, a story about the desperation of a family who has lost a family member. It stripped any politics away, down to bare human emotions. It was nice, because it’s rare. Too many stories focus on politics of the time and not enough on the human stories. We’re all human afterall, not theories of how to run the government. Not everything in A Hundred Flowers was clear cut, people and things were not only evil or good. Isn’t that how life is?

A Hundred Flowers is about the loss of a family member, Sheng, to a reeducation camp. Chairman Mao once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”. There’s a saying in China that roughly translates to “Luring the snake to come out of the hole.” Essentially, Chairman Mao did exactly that. He lured all his potential critics to come out of their “holes” so it would be easier to capture them. Sheng, is one of the people who have been lured out.

A Hundred Flowers is told through the perspectives of different people, which works beautifully to tell the story. After all, Sheng was something different for everyone. For Tao, Sheng was his father, for Kai Ying, Sheng was her husband and for Wei, Sheng was his son.  Through the different perspectives, Tsukiyama perfectly portrays the anxiety and need of a family member.

In the end, there’s not a definite ending, but even so, I feel happy. I feel closure. It’s rare that I feel like that, because I usually hate open endings.  They’re too open, and anything can happen. That knowledge bothers me, but with A Hundred Flowers, it’s different. I know what the ending will be, without the author explicitly writing it out. I like that, I think.

It’s hard to capture the exact atmosphere of a particular time, and even harder I think, to truly capture the era of the Cultural Revolution. It was amazing that Gail Tsukiyama could do so, through the experience of a family, without explicitly stating “This is was how things were…”

A Hundred Flowers was a story that grew on me, a bit of a slow start, but now that I’m done reading, I still yearn to read it once more.

Thank you St. Martin’s Press for allowing me to preview such a wonderful work, or as the Chinese say, “Xie xie”.

A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama will be published in August 7th, 2012.

A comment I had about the novel was that there were some inconsistencies with the spelling of Chinese words. Some are given in pinyin and others are given in another Romanization system.  I don’t know if this was an editorial choice, but I was a little confused, since the story is set in Guangzhou (Canton). In Guangzhou, most people speak Cantonese, and their language is romanticized differently. (Bok choy is an example since using pinyin, it would be bai cai. The meaning is the same, but I think bok choy is closer to how Cantonese people would say it (I’m can’t speak Cantonese so I can’t say for sure), whereas bai cai is closer to how it would be said in Mandarin.)

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