COLORS OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Da Chen — June 2016

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

There’s an effect of character that comes through writing, a spiritual quality, difficult to describe, that raises one’s consciousness as one reads a book that has it. Colors of the Mountain is such a book. This autobiography about growing up during the Cultural Revolution is as positive and heart-warming an account of rural life in China as we are likely to have, given the cruelty and suffering that characterized the period.  (It’s the 50th anniversary of Mao’s announcement of the Revolution as I write.)Picture2 Though I missed this book when it first came out in 1999, it was recently lent me by a friend whom I count on for great non-fiction suggestions and, once again, she was dead on. The story is absorbing, and the picture of home life in a small town in Fujian province satisfyingly graphic and detailed.

As a youngster, Da Chen, one of a large family belonging to the landlord class, becomes the victim of taunts, bullying, and ridicule, not just from the children of peasant families but also from some of his schoolteachers, because of his class affiliation. Though he excels at his studies, he quickly loses interest in school due to the harsh treatment he receives there and because, as the Revolution gathers steam, academic work is looked down on and no longer taken seriously. He becomes friends with four older boys who have left school entirely and live the life of outcasts and petty criminals, smoking, gambling, drinking, and getting into mischief. They don’t care that his father used to own a lot of land; their friendship makes his life bearable.

Da Chen’s ability to see past the boys’ rough manners and bad habits typifies the generous spirit with which he depicts the people he knew. Unlike many of us in the West, Chen has no bone to pick with either of his parents; he loves, admires, and respects them unreservedly and describes only their positive traits.  The same goes for the teachers who helped him prepare for the state exams. Whatever his mistakes and weaknesses may be, they are not blamed on anyone else or even on circumstance.

But Chen is not a goody-goody, a rule follower, or a suck-up. He plays hooky from school, fibs about where he’s going when he leaves the house, smokes up a storm, drinks beer, and enjoys gambling. (As a semi-reformed smoker, I vicariously enjoyed the Flying Horse cigarettes he and his friends smoke throughout the book.)  He also becomes skilled at playing the bamboo flute and even learns to play that strange Western instrument, the violin. Chen is an enterprising type. The same curiosity and readiness for adventure that led him to seek out his non-conformist pals accompany him when he visits the peaceful island where his fishermen cousins live, and when he takes over his sister’s job in a big city factory so that she can have some time off. Somehow, despite coming from a poor family that lives under a cloud, he manages to get around.

When Mao dies and the Cultural Revolution comes to a halt, Da Chen immediately grasps the opportunity to take the state exams which, if he scores high enough, will admit him to college. The fact that he’s “black,” meaning a member of a bourgeois family, is no longer an impediment to advancement. Both he and his older brother, who had had to work for many years as a farm laborer because all other avenues were closed, commit themselves to a program of study that is grueling and merciless. Reading about life in China always expands one’s conception of hard work.

The cruelty and brutality of Chinese culture often come through strongly in books set in China. Those elements are present here, but are far outweighed by the strength, kindness, and depth of understanding that characterize Chen’s family life. The moral support and encouragement he receives from his father, the practical help and sympathy that comes from his mother, the feeling that his brother and sisters are behind him, and the affection with which he’s treated by his friends more than make up for the harsh physical and social conditions he has to contend with. In this story, moral integrity, human affection, and a willingness to work hard combine with intelligence, improvisational ability, and risk-taking to produce a narrative that leads upward toward fulfillment and worldly accomplishment. But it’s not merely for their instrumental value that Chen prizes these qualities. In the end, one is happy that he is able to succeed in reaching his goals—Chen went on to the university and thence to the United States where he earned a law degree at Columbia—but more important is the sense he conveys of the goodness and strength of character residing in the world he came from, despite the terrible hardship and injustice its political upheavals imposed. Colors of the Mountain is his first book; it reached the NewYork Times best-seller list and he has published several other books since.~ 

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