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Chinese Shadows : LITTLE SISTER: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women. By Julie Checkoway (Viking: $23.95, 232 pp.)

November 17, 1996|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen, a freelance writer living in Long Beach, last reviewed "Swimming the Channel" for The Times

Julie Checkoway was 5 years old when her mother suddenly died and her father, unable to cope with the loss, let the family drift apart. Checkoway, the youngest daughter, watched as her brothers and sisters slowly moved away. Soon she had a stepmother. Feeling alone and bewildered, she futilely started searching for what she had lost.

"Dig to China," her grandmother told her, a hollow response to the child's deep sadness. Yet somehow the words cast a spell. First, Checkoway used a teaspoon to scrape at the soil in the backyard of her Massachusetts home and, years later, after graduating from the Iowa's Writers Workshop, she flew to that faraway land to teach English in Shijiazhuang, an industrial town four hours south of Beijing.

"Little Sister," her flawed yet sometimes fascinating memoir of the experience, is an odd combination of stories meant in some way to link her own shattered childhood with the lives of the women she met there. Before leaving the United States, she was encouraged by anthropologist and scholar Margery Wolf, author of "Women in Contemporary China" and "Revolution Postponed," to search for "the shadow world of Chinese women." The assignment clearly suited her.

"This much I know," Checkoway writes, " . . . girls whose mothers disappear can spend their whole lives digging and digging, searching the broad Earth for images in near and distant mirrors."

Surprisingly, China was not as distant a mirror as it may have seemed at first. More than an ocean separated her from the women she befriended, but it is clear she experienced her own sort of revolution and upheaval when her mother died.

Shijiazhuang in 1987, when she arrived, was typical of many cities in China. Female infanticide and spousal abuse were on the rise, and Mao Tse-tung's exhortation that "women hold up half the sky" was barely realized. Even so, Checkoway's early conversations with students and women at the university reflected more of the optimistic party line than the urgent drama in their personal lives.

In frustration, she wrote, "I am afraid that I am like the failed and fool explorers of centuries before my birth . . . who in the end returned home treasureless, their spirits broken, in their hands a rough sketch of an imagined coastline, no map of an interior." After months of following this coastline, however, she met Hong Xin, a physical education instructor who led her to the interior.

As a young woman, Hong adored Mao and left her family to work in the country, where she was the perfect Communist. Then she fell in love with a man in the village brigade. Love during the Cultural Revolution, however, was bourgeois and unacceptable, and to stifle her feelings, she made a politically correct marriage to a "good revolutionary." Years later, she still is haunted by the memories of the man she spurned.

Through Hong, Checkoway met other women, like Comrade Wen, who were willing to talk about their lives. People called Wen the spinster, even though she was only 33. She was also pregnant. The father of the child was married, but his wife, afraid of the disgrace, would not give him a divorce. Only married women, she bitterly told Checkoway, could get birth control; she will have to get an abortion.

An, another woman Checkoway got to know, was even more reckless. She slept around, mostly with foreigners, hoping some day to leave the country. One moment she was with an Italian in a hotel bar, the next she met a man from Montana who was searching for a wife. He asked her to sing, and the only song she could remember was a poem from her youth, "Harvesting Wheat for the Public Share."

Currents of unhappiness--scars left over from the tragically disruptive Cultural Revolution--run deep in "Little Sister." Checkoway was told that the Chinese have been "discouraged for so long that we are accustomed to discouragement as we are to life itself." Her portrait of China in the late 1980s shows how Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms opened up a desire for parity and equal opportunity that the political structure was unable to provide.

Books about China seem to have become a cottage industry for publishers, but unlike Anchee Min's riveting account of her personal transformation in "Red Azalea" or Jan Wong's ambitious chronology in this year's "Red China Blues," "Little Sister" promises more than it delivers. Part history, part memoir--with a marginal blending of the two--it is filled with stunning images taken from the lives of her new friends. But Checkoway does not make it clear why their particular experiences have such meaning to her. And, while the message she brought home is interesting, it is nearly 10 years old.

In a brief afterword, she writes about meeting Hong in Boston in 1994. They talked mostly about friends and family. While Checkoway has reconnected with her family, bringing one part of her story full circle, her consideration of recent events in China is less satisfactory. The crackdown at Tiananmen Square, China's skyrocketing economy, even the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women held last year in Beijing, seem only to cast new and darker shadows on the world she had hoped to bring to light.

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