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July 8, 2001
The Great Leap Backward
A Chinese-American political scientist and his daughter recreate his mother's remarkable life.

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  • First Chapter: 'The Girl From Purple Mountain'

    Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey From China to America.
    By May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai.
    Illustrated. 306 pp. New York:
    Thomas Dunne Books/
    St. Martin's Press. $24.95.

    If living in interesting times is the curse it's reputed to be, then few people in history have been as accursed as the Chinese in the 20th century. A nonagenarian alive in China today -- a lifelong resident of Nanjing, for instance -- would have had to endure an almost unbearable amount of fascination, what with two era-changing revolutions (in 1911 and 1949), a brutal foreign invasion (by the Japanese) and a pair of the most disastrous social experiments in history (Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution). Little wonder, then, that such a turbulent era has inspired so many excellent memoirs, including at least two -- Nien Cheng's ''Life and Death in Shanghai'' and Jung Chang's ''Wild Swans'' -- that are masterpieces of the genre. Sad to say, the triumphs of a culture's literature often spring from the debacles of its past.

    ''The Girl From Purple Mountain: Love, Honor, War, and One Family's Journey From China to America'' is the latest addition to this literature of upheaval, and to say that it fails to live up to its illustrious predecessors is in itself no condemnation. The book -- written in alternating sections by Winberg Chai (a political science professor at the University of Wyoming and author of over 20 books on China) and his novelist daughter, May-lee Chai -- attempts to reconstruct the life of Winberg's mother, one of the first women in China admitted to a national university. A figure of determination and independent spirit, Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai was also, at various times in her life, a champion Bible student, a professor of English, Lady Mountbatten's Chinese interpreter and the mother of three boys whom she had to raise while fleeing Japanese invaders. What she was not, however, was very candid about her feelings, and it's the authors' inability to penetrate her essential opacity that prevents the book from catching fire.

    By far the most successful parts of the memoir are those concerning Winberg's own nomadic childhood. In 1937, with the Japanese Army moving toward Nanjing, the Chais were forced to evacuate their home, fleeing from city to village to town over the course of several years. Shielded by his parents from the hardships and worry of exile, Winberg at first recalls only his sense of adventure: ''I don't remember being scared. I remember racing crickets with boys in the village, it was so much fun.'' But with his daughter's prodding, he manages to reconstitute a less subjective picture of these years. In fact, the greatest charm of the memoir is this interaction between father and daughter -- May-lee, armed with photographs and history books, encouraging her father to remember the realities behind his sanitized, child's-eye version of events.

    But ''The Girl From Purple Mountain'' flounders when its authors try to delve into Ruth Chai's life before Winberg's birth and after the family's emigration to the United States, when her experiences were beyond the reach of her son's daily perceptions. Ruth was a paradoxical woman, eager to dispense advice and opinions but far more reticent on personal matters. So, for instance, Winberg must admit about one of his mother's early suitors: ''She never discussed her feelings about him. She probably felt it was inappropriate conversation for a mother and her son. I have no idea what he looked like; I have my imagination, but little more than that to go on.''

    Faced with this scarcity of firsthand knowledge and secondhand report (a lack aggravated by Winberg's tendency to tear up letters that cause him emotional distress), the Chais are forced to fictionalize, sometimes brazenly. At one point, for example, May-lee spins out a 12-page fantasy about the tribulations of her grandmother's rejected lover. And a lengthy account by Winberg of the misunderstandings attending his father's untimely arrival at his in-laws' house seems too farcical to be based on anything but much-embroidered family legend.

    Of course, memoirists must often rely on imagination to reproduce scenes at which they weren't present, but most draw the line at wholesale fabrication. The Chais, on the other hand, seem to invent with abandon, pretending access to the thoughts of peripheral characters and providing elaborate specifics for which they surely have no evidence. This practice would have been more tolerable if done well, but too many of the imagined episodes (like the rejected-suitor reverie) are unconvincing, the emotions generic and the dialogue stiff. I find it difficult to believe, for instance, that Ruth would complain about the noise made by some drunken soldiers in quite the abstract and pedantic way her granddaughter describes: ''This is against God's will. The Chinese people will never be strong so long as we tolerate this drunkenness, this obscenity. This is why we are so easily defeated.'' In any case, such awkward re-enactments -- even when believable -- add little to our understanding of the enigmatic woman whose life is the ostensible subject of this book. That's why it's perhaps best to think of ''The Girl From Purple Mountain'' not as a memoir but as an account of how one Chinese-American family chooses to imagine its past.

    But there are some genuinely effective episodes in the book. One of the best comes about halfway through, when Winberg describes an impromptu visit to the Chai clan temple during the family's hurried flight from Nanjing:

    ''My father showed my brother and me how to bow. Then smiling, he showed me where my name was inscribed in ink in the large rice-paper book that held the names of the members of the most recent generations of Chais. . . . Finally, he showed me where the names of our family were carved on polished stone tablets.

    '' 'Look, very modern,' he said to my mother, pointing to where her name had been included as his wife, as well as her academic achievements. . . .

    ''My mother pointed to the smooth, blank portion of the tablet. 'That is where your achievements will be recorded for the family,' she said to me.

    ''And misunderstanding, I pressed close to peer into the smooth stone, thinking that I would be able to read my future there.''

    Winberg's accomplishments were never to appear on that tablet. The Sino-Japanese War and the rise of Communism intervened. Then the temple itself was attacked during the Cultural Revolution, leaving the tablets smashed, the family registers burned. These few short paragraphs, then, evoke the whole tragedy of 20th-century China in miniature. And whether or not we believe that a 4-year-old Winberg could plausibly remember much about the real visit, the scene is convincing -- a story, unlike some others in the book, that one can readily accept as truth.

    Gary Krist's most recent book is a novel, ''Chaos Theory.''

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