When it comes to tales of life under communism, narratives of soul-killing repression, the most-read and most-heard ones deal with experiences in the former Soviet Union. From Arthur Koestler’s fictional Darkness at Noon and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to news stories of the repression of scientists like Andrei Sakharov and over-the-top Hollywood treatments in the 1980s, we’re familiar with that genre.
From China, however, we’ve heard far less. Sire, we have a picture of pre-war China in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. And we have Bertolucci’s evocative treatment in the movie The Last Emperor. But these are views from the outside. Where is the view from the inside? Where is a Chinese writer to stand with Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak?
For your consideration, I’d like to suggest Kang Zhengguo’s autobiographical Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China as a strong contender.
Kang was not (at least not until the end) a political dissident as we think of the term. He was apolitical, bookish, shy, a Walter Mitty daydreamer of sorts. But as his life progressed, from as an upper middle class childhood at the end of WWII, through the Communist Revolution, Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc., we see his insufficient embrace of the new political order drive him further and further downward, with greater and greater deprivations, from his expulsion from the university, to time in labor camps, to laboring on a collectivized farm, along the way losing status, friends, even his family. (After a few surprising twists, he ultimately lands, in the 21st century, at Yale University, as a Chinese language instructor.)
This is the kind of book that is hard to put down. Aside from the gripping portrayal of the psychological toll of communism, eerily familiar to students of the Soviet dissident narratives, this is a fine work of literature in its own right. Susan Wilf’s marvelous translation, and ample footnotes that elucidate unfamiliar aspects of Chinese history, culture and allusions to Chinese classical literature, guide the reader to fuller appreciation of this autobiography. Highly recommended.