The Dragon's Village

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- Read Dragon's village - Compare Yuan-tsung Chen's account to Yue Daiyun in To the Storm.
6. How were there experiences similar?
7. Why do you think intellectuals were targeted in the Cultural Revolution?

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The Dragon's Village

by Yuan-tsung Chen


Reviews - FOCUS Magazine - The New York Times Book Review

The Dragon's Village is an autobiography of a young city girl who took part in land reform in a remote mountain village as a teenager. This book will engage students personally while giving them a firsthand account of how the revolution developed. The protagonist chooses to remain in China after the Communists assume power in 1949, while her family and fianc� flee to Hong Kong. Her patriotism and dedication to the ideals of the revolution are then tested as she finds herself alone with two other urbanites in a remote peasant village, struggling not only with the hardships of life but also with being a young woman in a male-dominated society. The moral dilemmas of the revolution-- its complexity, excesses, and human dimension-- are well portrayed in the book providing good background for discussion.

The Dragon's Village. An Autobiographical Novel of Revolutionary China.

by Yuan-tsung Chen

Yuan-tsung Chen was raised in a wealthy Shanghai family, educated in a Western missionary school and grew up in as cosmopolitan a fashion as any Chinese could in the years before 1949. In 1949 Chen, at the age of 17, found herself facing a difficult choice. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had just achieved victory in the civil war and wealthy families such as hers were fleeing the mainland of China for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and points beyond. Many young people -- rich as well as poor -- found themselves intoxicated with the opportunity to rebuild a once-great but now weak and war-torn China. She chose to stay and within a year had volunteered to be a land reform cadre in western Gansu province. The Dragon's Village is essentially an account of that experience.

Chen originally wrote up her experiences in Chinese during the 1950s. She continued to write unpublished, as far as I can determine -- until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Fearing she might be found out and attacked for her writings, which did not adhere to the narrow ideological guidelines of the period, she destroyed everything. In 1972 Chen, her son, and husband (Jack Chen, son of China's former Foreign Minister Eugene Chen) came to the United States. It was here, after several years of work on her English, that she rewrote and published the Dragon's Village.



In the short time usually reserved for studying China, the vastness of its civilization and history force teachers to be highly selective as to what they will teach. The Dragon's Village can aid in that selection process, for it succeeds in two crucial ways. First, the novel structure allows for character development. There are no one-dimensional revolutionary heroes here. Each individual is three-dimensional; down-to-earth; easily identifiable; full of self-doubt, misgivings, and weaknesses in addition to heroism. In many ways American students will find these people recognizable and will readily relate to them. Consequently, I have found students are anxious to finish the book in order to find out what happens to the characters. This not only heightens interest but makes the story less foreign.

Chen's second success is equally important, for the story clarifies what I would consider to be the most important characteristics of modern and contemporary China:

the nature of Chinese life and society in various social strata prior to 1949;

the conditions that fostered a communist movement;

the objectives of the Chinese communists;

the reasons for their victory; and

the changes brought about by the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

This book does not provide an instant course on China. Rather, what Chen has accomplished in a thoughtful, clear, exciting, and at times, quite moving way, is to touch on all of these themes.

A. Tom Grunfeld

Empire State College
State University of New York
From FOCUS Magazine, Spring 1983


A Talk with the Author /

An Author's Ordeal

by Judy Stone

Yuan-tsung Chen is a tiny, vivacious and irreverent woman with an incongruously booming laugh, but her voice drops to a whisper when she talks about her year of excruciating hunger during China's Great Leap forward in 1959-60.The one-time pampered Shanghai girl had left her year-old son and her husband in Peking to go to a remote northern province to prove that she wanted to share the suffering of the peasants. She thought that the books she took along would be her salvation, but after a few days of back-breaking work in the blistering sun and bare minimum meals (a thin pancake of rough cornmeal -- if she was lucky), she dreamed only about food


Not even her scorn for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution can diminish the lesson of that terrible period. "What are human rights?", she asked quietly. "The first human right is to eat." She tells about that numbing experience in her autobiographical novel, "The Dragon's Village," which Harrison Salisbury called "The Chinese equivalent of Sholokhov's 'And Quiet Flows the Don.'" The heroine of "The Dragon's Village" is Guan Ling-ling, an apolitical middle-class Shanghai teenager, delighted to get a job away from home as a librarian at the Central Film Bureau in Peking. A year later, she eagerly shares in the new Communist government's initial step toward land reform in 1951.


The first time Yuan-tsung Chen herself "went to the countryside," she was only 19. She was staggered by the harshness of the peasants' lives in Gansu province in northwest China and the poverty she shared with them. She was one of a group of 70, but only four of five were Communists.

"We went not because we understood Marxism, but to help the poor. Land reform was a dream of many centuries, especially among the intellectuals," she said, as we talked in the modest frame home near Berkeley that she shares with her husband, Jack Chen, an artist and author of "Inside the Cultural Revolution" and "A Year in Upper Felicity." He is a British citizen, born in Trinidad, son of a French Creole mother and Eugene Chen, a British solicitor and crusading journalist who became foreign minister, under Dr. Sun Yat-sen of the Wuhan Revolutionary Government in 1927. They have lived in he United States since 1972, first in Albany, NY, where Mr. Chen was consultant on Chinese studies for the New York State Department of Education.


Yuan-tsung Chen's original exposure to rural life lasted about five months. Later, she would "go to the countryside" near Peking for a month or so almost every year until she volunteered to join in the Great Leap Forward, a time of terrible food shortages brought on by what she called the government's mistaken policy of taking small plots of land away from the peasants and offering no incentives to work.

Although food was scarce then, the Chens were among the privileged. The Chinese Foreign Press Office, which employed her husband, took care of its valuable overseas workers. Additional food was brought to their home by her sister-in-law and her American husband, J Leyda, the American film historian.


But Yuan-tsung felt guilty about the country's hardships. "I ate very little for lunch. I tried not to eat eggs. Here an egg is nothing. There it was a luxury. To easy my conscience, I volunteered to go to the country again, this time for a year, and they sent me to northern Jiangsu province. It was very hard to leave our baby. Later, I cursed myself when I was in that mess. But since I survived it, I would not like to have missed that experience. It was unique. Without it, I couldn't have written that chapter, 'Spring Hunger' in my book."


As a girl, when she had read about people starving and later gorging themselves to the point of death, she couldn't believe it. Then something similar happened to her the day before she returned to Peking form Jiangsu province."


Several villages invited us for a meal. It was not good food, but I ate, ate, ate. I nearly died of over-eating. After I came back to our own courtyard, I couldn't stand. I couldn't sit. It was awful, but when I heard there was porridge in our canteen, I went to get some. I couldn't eat it. I just wanted it."

The hunger of that year haunts her. "I never forget those people. I felt guilty and I'm still feeling guilty because I'm so lucky. One of the reasons I drive myself so hard to write, to convey something to Western readers, is because it eases my conscience that I'm not just sitting here and enjoying myself. �She doesn't stay somber for long. Her irrepressible sense of humor erupts in laughter as she tells her story, interspersing it frequently with the phrase, "I am frank with you" or "now here is my weak point -- I always have a very sharp tongue." The first time she recalls using it was to lash out at her family's older servants when they beat a younger one, a slave who used to steal their belongings. Her mother had bought the girl "for maybe nine silver dollars" because the child's father threatened to sell her to a brothel. Yuan-tsung's family was not wealthy, but comfortably well-off in the French quarter of Shanghai. Her father, sometimes a banker and sometimes an engineer, had studied at Columbia University for six year, and her mother had been educated at a missionary school. Yuan-tsung was taught that her pretty face was less important than a well-developed mind.


Even as a child, her sharp eye didn't miss much when she observed the spoiled, elegant selfish Shanghai women. "I think we were rather decadent in Shanghai," she laughed. "It was a very strange world." Too frail to attend school regularly, she immersed herself in books, translated into Chinese: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dickens and Zola. She was nick-named "the little old lady." By the time she was 12, she had decided to have her own career as a writer because she never saw a happy woman in her family's circle.


The war years were spent mostly in Chungking, the nation's capital, but she never recalled hearing anything about the Communist-led Eighth Route Army. After she returned to Shanghai, with the Communists advancing on the city, her schoolmates advised her to leave, but she already thought that Hong Kong was too small for her ambitions.


She had heard that a "writer could only grow in his own country, on his own soil. At that time, I didn't know how tough the Communists could be," she said. "Like a typical young person, I thought I could deal with them."


Just before the Communist take-over, one friend gave her a pamphlet, Mao's "New Democracy," and advised her to "accumulate some political capital." She never did. "They gave up on me," she said pertly, looking about half of her 47 years. "They always criticized me but you can see they didn't do a very good job. I was never interested in politics. Never or now."


She loved her job as a translator of English-language books and articles on film because it kept her in touch with the outside world. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, she had access to the personal libraries of her husband's friends in the Foreign Press Office, and she said with some pride that she read the angry young men of England and the work of the beat generation in the United States.

The chapter in her book about Chinese writers -- whose real names are used -- is based on actual discussions at which she took notes. "Many of them died in the Cultural Revolution, and the others are precious now [because they are reinstated] to the new government. Nothing I wrote would hurt them. They always talked a lot about how to write a good book and a good play, but I realized I couldn't write that way. It was like collective work."


Ai Qing, one of the best contemporary poets, did influence her. "He read my short stories and said, 'You have a rich imagination. The stories are good, but I don't think we can publish them. In China, if you choose to write, you have to prepare to go all alone sometimes.' A friend of his, a French translator was having tea with us and he told me, 'Even when you are alone, you should go on.'


"In China, she pointed out, all the stories had to have formulas: "There had to be a party secretary, a Communist. The Communist must be good. You must speak certain things. If I describe the moonlight as beautiful, a Communist must not think that way. He must think of something more important. Moonlight is petty bourgeois."


Although at times she tried to fit her stories to the formula, she didn't succeed by Party standards. "I wrote about a girl who worked in a factory. She tried to improve her work but she was not thinking only for the Party, for the revolution. She was disappointed in love. She wanted to show she was not the kind of old-fashioned girl who would stop her work just because she was disappointed in love. But they didn't like it because you should only think of work for the revolution, for a great ideal."


Her hopeful novel "Sisters" about the economic struggle of a family before 1949, was written along the accepted lines of "exposing the old society," but it had no Communists in it. Despite this, the novel was going to be published during the liberal "100 flowers of thought" period, but they bloomed too briefly.

During the Cultural Revolution, when her husband was attacked, reading became even more important to them. One day, she borrowed a book about Tom Paine. When the Chens learned how the American revolutionary was imprisoned by the Jacobins and narrowly escaped the guillotine, they couldn't help laughing. "I was comforted," she said, "that other people were stupid like us."


That thought didn't help the day the Red Guard cadre from the Foreign Press office invaded her home and tore down Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" which they called "decadent," and her husband's early paintings. They confiscated precious art books, their sofa and electric stove, as well as some jewelry that had mainly sentimental value, and warned that they could return at any time.

As soon as "the scoundrels" left, she burned the manuscripts of her two novels and a collection of short stories she had hastily hidden."


Life is more important than manuscripts," she said. "I didn't cry, but I felt as if I was burning myself. I thought, 'I will remember everything and some day, I will settle accounts with them.'"

The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1980.�1980 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.


Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project

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