Friday, June 14, 2013

Colors of the Mountain - Da Chen

Reading memoirs can be a light-hearted experience or one that wrenches the heart. In Colors of the Mountain, Da Chen manages to give his readers a bit of both experiences. Who can read of his family's oppression and public harassment during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and not feel a sense of outrage and empathy for their humiliations and fear of imprisonment ? Who cannot cheer for young Da Chen when he decides to beat the system and get a top-notch slot at one of the Chinese universities that opened when the Cultural Revolution had run its political course? Da Chen's voyage through his school years makes for a wonderful look at Chinese culture and the political egg shells that every Chinese citizen tiptoed around during that era of oppression called the Cultural Revolution. He gives a vivid picture of small town politics and back-biting that occurs everywhere, but was amplified by the extreme climate in China of the 60's and 70's. And as he recalls his childhood experience, we see other children mirroring what their parents and leaders do within the smaller social clicque of the classroom and on the streets of his village.

The beauty of the book is its relentless voice of youth - a voice that in one moment rants aggressively against adults and their corrupt political bickering and in the next moment speaks with innocent optimism of working toward unthinkable dreams of grandeur and retribution for slights, humiliations, and pain caused by bureaucratic teachers and town politicos. Through the entire memoir, the love and support of his parents and siblings remains a constant and the support and brotherly love of his pack of hoodlum friends serve to give him an outlet that every kid should have (regardless of their naughty and sometimes disrespectful behavior!). One can't help but cheer him on as he excels at the 'do or die' testing that allows him to become eligible for a spot in university and moves him closer to realizing his dream of stepping out of the poverty and social strictures forced on his family.

This is a great introduction to a wonderful writer. Da Chen has gone on from this memoir to write other books that expose Chinese culture to Western readers.  He has emigrated to the United States and lives in upstate New York, where he continues to write.

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