BEIJING -- I'm told over here at Peking University that one book a day is being published in the United States about China. Some of these are excellent reviews of modern events such as "China Wakes" (Random House, 1994) by New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. Others are memoirs like "Coming Home Crazy" and the new "Little Sister" (Viking, 1996) by Julie Checkoway.
I read "Little Sister" on a recent 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong and the small book -- only 230 pages long -- was over much too soon. Checkoway is a graduate of Havard-Radcliffe and the Iowa's Writers Workshop. She currently is an assistant professor in creative writing at the University of Georgia, Atlanta.
Checkoway describes her nearly yearlong stay in the industrial city of Shijiazhuang, four hours south of Beijing, and the stories of five women she meets and becomes friends with. The year was 1987 and she was 24.
She tells the tale of Fan Chun, Comrade Wen, Hong Xin, An and Gao. Fan Chun, a woman with a horribly disfigured hand, tells her the story of the industrial fire that nearly took her life. She watches Comrade Wen, a woman who loves Western dancing, lie to her parents about an engagement and wedding that can never take place because her lover is a married man. An, a divorced woman, is so desperate to find a new man to save her that she submits to a foreign interview by a fat old American cowboy from Montana. An is one of more than 100 women he interviews by having them sing and dance in front of him.
Hong Xin, a physical education teacher, tells her own story of lost love as she describes the man she gave up for the glory of the Red Guards.
She also tells the story of Gao, a TV news reporter. Gao was a member of the Red Guards in the '70s, "a revolutionary with blazing eyes." Although Gao had been raised as a Buddhist, when the Cultural Revolution came along she joined with other students in destroying the temples at which she had once worshiped. When Mao died in 1976 and the Gang of Four fell, Deng Xiaoping eventually came to power and called for more freedom of thought. Gao looked inside herself and discovered she had been unfaithful to everything she had been brought up to believe in.
"I no longer worship Mao Zedong. I no longer worship my husband. I no longer worship any man," she told Checkoway.
Gao's plan to take her daughter and leave her husband hinged on the successful publication of a novel, her own thinly disguised autobiography. When Checkoway first met Gao, the manuscript had been tentatively accepted for publication. Gao had merely to complete the final chapters. But in the spring, Checkoway is with Gao at the publisher's office when the completed manuscript is rejected. Publishing a book on Buddhism is a political risk the publisher decides he does not want to take.
"What if things change in Beijing?" he asks. Gao is heartbroken.
Years later, back in the United States, Checkoway meets up with Hong Xin, the P.E. teacher, who tells her that Gao left her husband and struck out for a new life in Beijing. But her little girl died of leukemia. Her husband remarried and became wealthy selling pianos.
Checkoway asks her friend why any of the five Chinese women opened up to her at all and told their stories.
"You wanted to know about us," Hong Xin replied. "Not everybody who comes to China wants to know the simple stories of women."
Checkoway writes about experiences she had in China nearly a decade ago but tries, I think, to give those experiences more weight than they deserve. She make generalizations that can't be hung on the lives of just five women. She tries to turn a perfectly attractive duck into a swan and strains under the effort. Still, she's a good writer and the tales she tells are interesting. But then get beneath the surface of nearly any Chinese person in today's China and you'll find a fascinating tale.