Author George Lee talks over his memoir on the Chinese cultural revolution
Dancing in the River by award-winning Chinese-Canadian author George Lee is an inspirational and moving memoir in fictional form, revealing how the oppressive regime of China’s Cultural Revolution tried to dehumanise and foster hate, and how personal growth only came when the doors to learning were reopened.
By Gwyneth Rees
These youths were deprived of a formal education, prime years and a normal family life. Now people call them the “lost generation”.
Already an award-winning work of literary fiction, Dancing in the River is a harrowing yet enlightening story of growing up in the epitome of a repressive regime – a must-read for today’s turbulent world where political extremism is, alas, once again on the rise.
A powerful memoir in fictional form, it tells the story of a young boy, ‘Little Bright’, growing up in a village on the Yangtze River in central China during the country’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.
Crossing linguistic, literary, cultural and political borders, the novel captures author George Lee's traumatic experiences in an unforgettable way: raw and deeply personal yet transcendent and universal in the lyrical majesty of his scintillating prose.
Fitting into the genre of bildungsroman – works that deal with the protagonist’s formative years and spiritual education – Dancing in the River is divided into three parts that, together, weave a tapestry of inspirational and positive personal growth in defiance of imposed ideological constraints.
Chinese-Canadian author George Lee was born at a time when China had been turned upside down by its leader Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the architect of the Cultural Revolution (formally known as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’).
For one dreadful decade, between the years 1966 and 1976, Chairman Mao sought to purge the nation of any capitalist or Western sympathies in a bid to preserve Chinese communism.
Suddenly, millennia of traditional culture were stripped from, and forbidden to, a helpless populace while the middle and intellectual classes were persecuted remorselessly, with the newly formed Red Guards being the muscle of Mao’s might.
A few years ago, reading about those troubled times, with their denunciation rallies and legitimised violence, would have seemed like something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Now, however, you don’t have to look too far to see exactly the same blood-stained blueprints being enacted by a new generation of dictators.
Dancing in the River by George Lee is a stunning work of literary fiction that reveals the horrors of rampant ideology and the balms of intellectual and spiritual freedom.
If you want to gain a better understanding of how such ideological fevers can damage and destroy the backbone of a society, you need look no further than Lee’s painful reminiscences.
The gentle, poetical style of his writing only amplifies the abuses heaped upon him – and countless more like him – by the ever-present shadow of the CCP.
This world is one of heavy indoctrination and brainwashing, with the West – namely, America and Britain – viewed as the enemies, and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, containing his ideas about a pure, communist Chinese nation, seen as the Holy Bible.
It is a chaotic, paranoid, and brutal environment where books are burnt and eating forbidden fruit is banned. Instructions and strict moral codes must be followed at all times; friends and neighbours are pitted against each other; informants lurk on every corner, and one tiny mistake can see you dragged off to a correction camp, possibly never to be seen again.
The fact that this behaviour was both normalised and encouraged is, frankly, terrifying, and that the author was able, in time, to overcome the sheer psychological injury speaks volumes to his strength and bravery.
One moment in particular from his youth comes to mind, when he is publicly accused of wrong-doing at school – by a classmate – for the heinous crimes of taking his book without asking and entertaining “three Aladdin wishes that are contrary to our Party’s wishes”.
Now I’d become a real thief, like the boy who had stolen the eggs. And a real contrarian, too. If I’d had a thousand mouths, no one would have listened to my protestations of innocence. I could do nothing but lower my head, tears trickling silently down my cheeks and into my mouth, salty and bitter. Trembling, I stood there, overwhelmed with dread.
While he is chastised and humiliated in front of his peers, his mother and father suffer far worse when accused of contravening the party line, being sent off to the camps.
Distraught, Little Bright lies to his classmates about where his father is – saying he has joined the army – but everyone knows that he has, in fact, been imprisoned as a perceived anti-revolutionary.
As the story progresses, we see Little Bright learning how to survive and operate in this dog-eat-dog world. With no other choice, he comes to join the chorus denouncing America and Britain as imperialists, and informs on others, bringing them to the attention of the feared Red Guards.
He speaks of the shame that his father has brought upon him, showing just how easily a diseased society can subvert normal values and behaviour.
Dancing in the River, though, is not the socio-political equivalent of misery lit.
While the devastation resulting from the Cultural Revolution in its suppression of free thought, literature and religion is powerfully conveyed, the real story here is how the resilience of the human spirit can be such that it survives constant trampling.
This really begins to emerge in the second part of the book, where Chairman Mao dies and, with his grip released, many policies begin to be relaxed or reversed.
Suddenly, knowledge is good and the intellectual fruits of the West – its' science, technology and lingua franca, English – are subjects for study.
There is, however, an ulterior motive to this: to better understand the ‘enemy’ and to use their own tools against them.
Award-winning Chinese-Canadian author George Lee pours out his heart and soul into Dancing in the River – the very things that the Chinese Cultural Revolution tried to eradicate.
Still, it does open up a new dimension to Little Bright, who now in his teens is exposed to an incredible new world of literature.
He devours the likes of Hemmingway, Dickens, Hugo, Shakespeare and, especially the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as Lee relates, teaches him the art of logical thinking.
He is so inspired by these masters of literature that he renames himself ‘Victor’ (after Victor Hugo) upon entering university, but this intellectual awakening and personal transformation does not come without its growing pains.
Years of indoctrination and inflexible thinking based on a black-and-white morality begin clashing with new-found ideas, and he is confronted by existential questions such as does he possess his own soul, or does that belong to the CCP?
It is during this time that the author discovers faith and begins exploring the Bible to help provide perspective and answers as his identity is forged, based on a newly embraced ethos of finding his own path rather than blindly accepting received truths.
Similar in some ways to The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Little Bright investigates his psyche as he reflects upon his past and confronts the traumatic episodes that defined his childhood.
This exploration leads him to a deeper, shared well of humanity – symbolised so effectively in the image of the Yangtze, which cuts its channel through China before reaching the ocean.
Dancing in the River then is not only rich in detail and memories but loaded with potent themes that are as timely as timeless, and utterly absorbing and thought-provoking.
From the literary side, Lee's writing cannot be faulted, being crafted with the delicacy of a silk weaver.
This combines with a penetrating examination of politics, identity and purpose that underlines the vital importance of free thought, imagination and voice to personal development.
Without these things, which we take for granted but which are increasingly under threat, we are but a cookie-cut collective of lonely, despairing and imprisoned individuals, bound and misshaped.
The novel has undoubtedly been a cathartic experience for the author, but for the reader it is revelatory, putting them front and centre in a parallel reality that will not only provide fresh understanding of the Chinese people but of ourselves, and our capacity to flourish only within a kind climate.
In this way, George Lee's stunning literary debut is informative and inspirational in equal measure, being a worthy recipient of Canada’s prestigious Guernica Prize in 2021.
Now aged 60, the author lives in Vancouver with his wife and children, working as an attorney, family mediator and life coach.
His choice of professions, I feel, reflects the essence of the novel: that it is about repairing and building bridges – both between China and the West, and within the individual – so that we stand united, not divided.
Dancing in the River has already made a splash in the genre of literary fiction, and for a good reason. All readers should wade in as soon as possible, for this might just be the best debut novel we’ve seen this year.
Dancing in the River by George Lee (Guernica Editions) is out now on Amazon, priced £19.99 in paperback and £7.95 as an eBook.
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE LEE
We speak with award-winning Chinese-Canadian author George Lee about his debut novel, Dancing in the River, to learn more about its origins, his intellectual and spiritual growth, and why it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.
Q. Can you explain the significance of your book’s intriguing title?
A. Dancing in the River is a celebratory ritual; the river is a metaphor for human consciousness, which runs through the ebb and flow of history, destined to be cleansed in the vast bosom of the blue oceans. The title signifies a rite of passage or a baptismal journey.
Q. What motivated you to become an author, especially given your age?
A. In my childhood, I dreamt about becoming a writer because my curiosity in storytelling was sparked by my grandma, who told all sorts of weird, uncanny tales. As a student of English literature in Canada, I had to park my dream. I attended law school and became an attorney. My first instinct was to survive. Only a few years ago, I read a novel, A Free Life by Ha Jin, a Chinese-American writer. Then, my old dream was rekindled.
Q. Your book is a work of literary fiction that has been praised for its clarity and lyricism. Given that English is your second language, how challenging a feat was this to achieve?
A. I was charmed by the beauty of the language when I read English at college in China. I spent lots of time memorizing English textbooks (which is the traditional way of learning in China). I even tried to learn the English dictionary by heart. One day, my wife told me she had overheard me giving English speeches in my dreams. Then, I realised the charm of the language had sunk into my subconscious. And it’s a long journey.
Q. What would you say your book’s key theme is, and why did you think it important to examine this in your work?
A. Reality (or good and evil) is an illusion because it is created in our human mind; human consciousness is the only important reality that affects our destiny.
Q. How do you think that the sharing of your personal experiences growing up in China will help Western readers redefine their understanding of China and its citizens?
A. When China meets the West, it is caught in the conflict between tradition and Westernization. The die-hard tradition will prevail if people harbour the thousand-year-old values and beliefs. Social reform will fail if it is launched from without, not within. In the Old Testament, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but the enslaved generation never entered the Promised Land due to their old beliefs.
Q. So far in your life’s journey, what is the most important lesson you have learned?
A. It’s never too late to chase your dreams.
Q. Your book celebrates English literature. Why does this hold such a high place in your estimation, and more generally, why is literature vital?
A. For me, the role of a writer is like that of the philosopher in Plato’s cave allegory. One of the grand purposes of literature is to discover truths about humanity through the art of storytelling.
Q. What is the greatest book you have ever read, and what did you take from it?
A. The Bible. I studied the Zohar, Philo, and Swedenborg to appreciate the esoteric, allegorical and spiritual dimensions of the Torah. So, when I write, I learn to interweave the plot and characters with allegorical and spiritual meanings. Also, I learned from the Gospels that speaking in parables is a universal language that can be well accepted by our subconscious mind.
Q. When not writing or working, how do you like to spend your time?
A. To collect books, to read, and travel with my family.
Q. What is the next book that you are working on?
A. A historical novel set in the gold rush era, about 13 Chinese immigrants who are marooned and doomed on Leper Island near Victoria, Canada.
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