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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Her Love-Hate Affair With the Real China : RED CHINA BLUES: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong; Doubleday/Anchor Books;$23.95, 405 pages

May 17, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who can put down a book about China? In all its various guises it has always fascinated Westerners.

This book is no exception. It is the tale of a young Chinese Canadian woman's infatuation with China as a passionate Maoist and her painfully slow realization that the Communist country to which she moved did not, after all, represent the "harmony and perfection" she was sure she would find there.

That discovery took several years. Jan Wong went to China first in 1972 as one of the first two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. She stayed 15 months, her faith in the Great Helmsman unshaken. After returning to Montreal to finish her degree work at McGill University, she went back to China in 1974 and remained, as a student perfecting her Chinese and later as an assistant for the New York Times, until 1980. From 1988 to 1994 she was Beijing correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail.

These dates are indicative of her experience: She saw the tag end of the Cultural Revolution, the deaths of Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung, Democracy Wall, the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, the massacre in Tiananmen Square and China's rush into capitalism even as it leaves hundreds of millions of its poor behind.

Wong's book succeeds when she describes her daily life in China and that of her friends. The mind-numbing slogans of the Cultural Revolution, for example, which she believed even as her Chinese friends were becoming disillusioned, take on a reality they do not have in the abstract.

Wong is weaker when it comes to analyzing either contemporary China or herself.

The daughter of a successful restaurateur, she had been leading the comfortable life of a middle-class student when she decided to go to China.

"In 1972, China was radical-chic," she writes. "Beijing was a beacon of hope. Growing up in the rebellious '60s at the height of the Vietnam protests, I had scant faith in the West. Friends my age in the States were being drafted and sent to die in a Southeast Asian jungle in the name of national security . . .

"Knowing nothing about the world, I thought Western society was a hopeless mess of racism, exploitation and shopping malls." The attitude she describes seems hopelessly naive, even for that fervent age. She does acknowledge, though, that she went to China partly "to search for my roots."

Wong's lack of subtlety is probably linked to her inordinate fondness for breezy journalistic cliches. Of the Tiananmen Square massacre she writes:

The student hunger-strikers would make the world's media "go gaga over a David-and-Goliath story"; "the leaders were losing face big-time"; when the soldiers started to fire, "all hell broke loose"; and, on seeing the killings and the destruction, "I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming."

But despite Wong's prose her stories come though.

She is appropriately hard on the person she was in her early Maoist phase: She confesses that she betrayed to the authorities a friend who wanted to leave China and that she does not know what happened to her.

"Yet," she writes, " I do not regret for a moment that I spent the best years of my life in China. . . . They taught me about life in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed safely at home."

And: "Having been there myself, I can no longer tolerate dogma in any form. I'm suspicious of anything that's too theoretically tidy, too black and white. If I adhere to any creed today, it's a belief in human dignity and strength."

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