Warning for the World (1)

Dear MCLC:

Any book that, in the face of the CCP’s current campaign to erase memory of the horrors of late Maoism, should be championed. So good for Alexandra Stevenson in drawing attention to Yuan-tsung Chen’s new book.

But as history the book is seriously flawed.  When the publishers at Oxford wrote me many months ago for a blurb, I read the manuscript and advised that they publish it as fiction. Yuan-tsung Chen had already published good historical fiction (The Dragon’s Village), and this could be presented that way. But I could not blurb for it as history, I wrote.

I was surprised to receive the finished book and to see that an acknowledgment had been added: “Thanks also go to Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and Perry Link, Emeritus Professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair Professor for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, for their encouragement.” Simply not true.  I had not encouraged.

In the book, Ms. Chen writes about how she met Zhou Enlai by chance, when she was just a teenager, and how that was enough for him to remember her many years later, and to have had a secret crush on her.  She writes also how Zhou Yang confided his worries about persecuting Hu Feng with her, a twenty-something-year-old outsider in Beijing, while Zhou remained reluctant to confide in others. How much more credible are these recollections, I have to wonder, than her quite false “acknowledgement” that I encouraged her?

She is 93 years old, and at age 78 I don’t want to use a word like “lie.” Memory in one’s senior years gets less reliable. (Mark Twain did say that in his case memory got stronger: “Now I can remember things that didn’t even happen!”)  So I’m content just to say that Yuan-tsung Chen’s memory is creative, and I do not want to quarrel over whether she herself believes it. Her book is full of dialogue in quotation marks, “recalled” from many decades ago. It is fun dialogue, but I don’t believe it. If she wants to, fine.

I do want to quarrel with Alexandra Stevenson where she writes: “her critics — mostly men — have raised doubts about the details of her recollections and accused her of being a fabulist.” “Mostly men”?  Is there a gender bias in what I (and apparently others?) have pointed out?  Comments like this “mostly men” swipe are unfair for two reasons: 1) they put unfair pressure to shut up on people who, through no fault of their own, were born male; and 2) they are subtly misogynist — their message is “don’t use normal standards when judging women; they’re not ready for it.”

Yuan-tsung Chen’s writing is self-aggrandizing and a bit fanciful.  My own readers will know that I do not hold back when I write about men who have been self-aggrandizing — and considerably worse than fanciful! — so am not going to change just because Chen is female and I am not.

But again: as an antidote to Xi Jinping’s murder of history, this book should be read — as a novel, yes, and a very enjoyable one.

Perry Link

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