Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2019

Bright Swallow, by Vivian Bi

For people of my generation, the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) was something that happened during our adolescence and young adulthood.  It was a socio-political phenomenon that was shielded from international scrutiny because China was closed to all but carefully vetted foreign visitors from the time the People’s Republic was declared in 1949, until 1974.  So if our generation knew about the Cultural revolution at all, we knew very little.  (And those few Lefties in the West who waved about Mao’s Little Red Book of ideology as propaganda for their cause, had no idea either.)

My recent reading of Chinese literature has given me some idea of the social and domestic implications of this period in China’s history, but nothing I’ve previously read compares with the insights from this new memoir from Chinese-born Vivian Bi.  Now living in Australia, Bi was a product of the Cultural Revolution which swung into action when she was a small child.  By the time she was fifteen and orphaned by her mother’s death, she had absorbed the ideology – and accepted (albeit resentfully) that her life and opportunities were irrevocably compromised by her father’s denunciation as a ‘Rightist’ (i.e. suspected of harbouring capitalist or traditional sympathies).  He and her five brothers had been despatched to work in remote rural regions for re-education among the peasants and she was brought up by her mother in poverty, because her father’s salary was first halved and then taken away altogether, and her mother was ‘advised to resign’ from the work force.  Her mother augmented their tiny income by providing child care for her grandchildren but teenage Bi was always conscious of her ‘bad origins’ as well as her dowdy clothes which were overt symbols of her poverty.

However, her mother had memories of a different life before the revolution, a time when she could travel, wear elegant clothes and eat well. And although Bi was just a teenager when her mother died, she inherited a taste for adventure along with remarkable adaptability and astonishing resilience.  She stayed on alone in the family home rather than submit to living with Father’s detested first wife, and she learned very quickly all the survival skills she didn’t have: how to cook the meagre rations; how to manage the stove during Beijing’s bitter winter, and most importantly – at the same time as working hard at school and achieving excellent results – she learned to save her money so that she could travel.

However…

One of the lasting effects of Mao’s revolution was the damage it did to the bonds between children and parents, husbands and wives, teachers and students, neighbours, colleagues and siblings.  This led to many estrangements during the Cultural Revolution that endure to this day. (p.102)

Because of the restrictions on travel, Bi could only satisfy her dreams to see the world by visiting her brothers.  She had ambitions to climb mountains near the places where they lived, but her ‘official’ reasons were to visit relations who were following Mao’s instructions to work in the developing regions. In the case of her brother Yang, this meant visiting the fabled Sichuan region, on the other side of the Quinling Mountains, the natural border between north and south China, and its landscapes and culture were exotic.  But it also meant confronting her sister-in-law who had denounced her mother in an attempt to take over the prized residence in Beijing.  To Bi’s astonishment, this sister-in-law arranged a difficult visit to Mount Emei as a birthday gift for her, enabling a rapprochement of sorts.

My sister-in-law had been one of those victims.  After my mother’s death, she had tried to reconcile with our family but died before she was fully forgiven.  I was the only one who kept contact with her, because of her kindness during that visit.  Even so, I could not forget the way she had burst into our world in her belted Red Guard uniform and the class warfare she had waged against our mother.  The scars were too fresh. (p.102)

But there were more scars to come, because when she graduates with distinction from school, Bi falls victim to Mao’s 1975 ‘countryside re-education’ program for city graduates to “accomplish great things in the vast field”.  This curtailment of her travel and study plans is accompanied by a breathtaking betrayal by her father, and so we see one of the saddest lines in the book:

I didn’t hate my father, then or at any other time.  The old values of respect for one’s parents were deeply ingrained in me.  But this incident made me decide to have nothing more to do with him, and heightened my innate distrust of people.  (p.118)

To add to her dismay, this betrayal came when she had thought that at last she could transcend her “bad origins”:

From the day I was born, my family had endured one misfortune after another.  I had lost my mother and seen my family scattered to the far reaches of the country.  I had battled hunger, cold and loneliness, public scrutiny and accusations of criminal activity, accepting them as normal.  To survive, I had learnt to live by certain principles: expect disappointment; believe in resilience and self-fulfilment; and seek no help, company, or approval from others.  This had got me through adversity and I had imagined the worst was past! (p.119)

Though Bright Swallow does not mince matters in describing the cruel consequences of the Cultural Revolution, it is not a misery memoir, far from it.  The press release quotes Robert Macklin as saying ‘This is memoir writing at its finest’ and I couldn’t agree more.  It’s not just a window into the lives of Chinese migrants of this generation, it is also a real pleasure to read.  (I couldn’t put it down).

This beautifully written memoir distinguishes itself from other accounts of this period in being a story of hope.  It celebrates resilience, the power of literature, music and the imagination; and pays tribute to the people who retained the fundamental human decency that can easily disappear in adverse circumstances.

I’ll go out on a limb now, even before the 2019 winner is announced: Bright Swallow is my nomination for the 2020 Stella Prize.

The press release tells me that Bi migrated to Australia in 1990 and became a published writer.  She has received three literature grants and a residency award from the Australia Council for the Arts.  She has a PhD in literary criticism, and is the author of several novels, textbooks, short stories and translations.  She lives in Sydney.

AustLit provides this information about Vivian (Xiyan) Bi (though there is more info available for AustLit subscribers).

Xiyan Bi completed Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees at Beijing Normal University before studying in Australia for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. She has published essays about life in Australia and in 1996 collaborated with A.D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska for the publication of A Classical Chinese Reader. Her Chinese novel Tiansheng Zuoquie [Born a Concubine] was published in 2003. She has received appointment as an Honorary Associate in the Department of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. She has also worked as a translator of works into Chinese.

See also the review by Geoffrey Zygier at JWire.

PS The cover design is by Gittus Graphics.

Author: Vivian Bi
Title: Bright Swallow, Making Choices in Mao’s China, a Memoir
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2019, 199 pages
ISBN: 9781925736106 RRP $26.99
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available direct from the publisher (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: Bright Swallow

 


Responses

  1. This sounds like a wonderful read and a worthy contender for the prize, thanks for a splendid review, you really capture aspects of her character that make me want to read more.

    Like

    • I have been so lucky with my reading lately: first Zuleikha, and now Bright Swallow, and before that too, I’ve just had such a good run of beaut books!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This must be an impressive read, given it’s a memoir and you still loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew someone would pick me up on that!
      I think I’ve been turned off memoir because most (not all) of them are so ordinary. So many people seem to think that there’s something special about their lives when really, there isn’t. They might be fascinating to listen to for half an hour or so, but not interesting enough IMO to spend a day or two reading 250+ pages about it. And I really dislike memoirs that pander to people’s ghoulish interest in misery, illness, addiction etc.
      But this one, I was rivetted. It is so well-written and the story itself is such a unique experience, from such a mature and open-minded perspective … in a way it’s a little like my recent reading of Zuleikha, which turns on its head the Solzhenitsyn portrayal of Soviet camps as an entirely negative experience. The optimism, and the refusal to wallow in misery, is refreshing:)

      Liked by 2 people

      • I only picked up on it because I share your thoughts about memoirs. I’d read a biography over a memoir any day!!
        Optimism in a memoir would indeed be refreshing. I’m yet to come across it!

        Like

        • Biographies do tend to be more analytical and (usually) more objective, but memoirs have the advantage of being reflective. Or they should be. In this memoir, the author reflects, for example, on her fraught relationship with her father, but with the wisdom of years and the distance afforded by living in a different sort of society, she is able to attribute his behaviour to the pernicious effect of the Cultural Revolution on individual motivations. I suspect that she would not have been able to do that when she was younger.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. The cover of the book is gorgeous. I’ve read a few memoirs / novels about the Cultural Revolution, which I’ve enjoyed, and this sounds like something I’d like too. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] wir noch einen Moment bei China: Auf Anz LitLovers Litblog geht es um Bright Swallow von Vivian Bi und um The Aunt’s House von Elizabeth […]

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  5. […] on this blog) and so I have a couple of scoops: Vivian Bi whose memoir Bright Swallow I reviewed here has a novel coming out soon, and Alex Skovron whose unforgettable prize-winning novella The Poet I […]

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