Page One

Chinese writer talks of hate and displacement

By Rachael Post Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday May 08, 2001

Half a world away from the streets of Shanghai and the Tibetan border, Geling Yan writes about the distant China in her memory and the experience of being an immigrant in the United States. 

“Being far away from your past or country can make it beautiful even though it is tragic,” Yan said in an interview. “There is a nostalgic and melancholy beauty there.” 

She arrived in the United States in 1989, soon after the murder of some of her fellow students in Tiananmen Square. She had already published books in China – most of them about her experience being a woman involved in the army during the Cultural Revolution – before she came to study creative fiction at Columbia College in Chicago.  

Her mentor John Schultz, professor emeritus at Columbia, said in a phone interview Yan has an intense personal point of view and good sense of story that emerge in her writing.  

“People are warped by the wars of their generation,” he said. “The Cultural Revolution was her war and it gave her strong material.” 

Yan joined a cultural troupe of the People’s Liberation Army and traveled near Tibet during the 1970s as the Cultural Revolution – an internal movement that led to political and social anarchy – wound down. Headed by Communist Party Chairman Zedong Mao, the Cultural Revolution rallied popular support for Chairman Mao by eradicating any remaining signs of capitalism in China. People were beaten, universities were closed, and homes, temples and books were destroyed.  

Yan calls the Cultural Revolution the “great hate.” At first the anger expressed by the Red Guard and other followers of Chairman Mao seemed justified and righteous, but it soon got out of control, she said.  

Pondering hate and intolerance have led her beyond her eventful past to critically examine how Chinese immigrants adjust to life in the United States.  

“Displacement is a big theme in my recent writings,” she said.  

Her first novel published in English, which came out last month, “The Lost Daughter of Happiness,” explores this theme. In the book, Fusang, a young peasant woman, is tricked into leaving China and sold into prostitution once she reaches Gold Mountain – San Francisco – in the late 1800s. 

Yan is now finishing a screenplay based on this book for a movie, directed by Joan Chen, that will debut next year. She is following in the footsteps of her 1999 film, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl,” which was based on a short story she wrote about a young woman who is sent to the border of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. The film, also directed by Chen, was banned in China for political and sexual content. 

To write her recent novel, Yan said she read some 160 history books and other publications from Chinatowns across the United States, mostly focusing on San Francisco’s Chinatown. She quickly learned that Chinese people in the United States suffered severe prejudices in the 1800s and still face them today. 

Yan, who who now lives in Alameda, explained that Chinese people in San Francisco in the 19th century suffered from hard labor, low wages, frequent riots against them and restrictions on immigration – they couldn’t bring over their wives. 

“Hate is something in us that needs to be examined,” she said. “Race is often a cause of this hate. I don’t have the answers; I have all the questions.” 

Yan explained that she gets much of her material from her own life. She has lived in the United States for over a decade, but she still finds subtle and striking differences between American and Chinese people. This is also true of her marriage to a Caucasian-American.  

“When misunderstanding happens there is an absurd sense of sadness sometimes,” she said. “Everyday there is a little something missing.” 

But she also insists that there is charm in trying to understand another culture and another person. “I’m fascinated by the difference,” she said. “It makes each tiny movement and expression intriguing.” 

Like the yin and yang, the writer asserts that everyone has good and evil within them. In “The Lost Daughter of Happiness,” she explores the emotional spectrum. “We find a subject for our hatred, like we find a subject for our love,” she said. 

Constantine Tung, a professor of Chinese at State University of New York in Buffalo, who uses Yan’s stories in his class, says that her books are psychological rather than overtly political. He says Yan differs from other contemporary Chinese writers. “She has a unique ability to get into the minds of other people and explore complicated relationships.”  

Yan explained that Chinese people, especially women, do not expect peace or prosperity. “They live in the cracks between war, famine and political turmoil,” she said.  

Yan will be reading selections from her new book, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave.. at 7:30 tonight.