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Sun October 5, 2008
"A Review of Jian Ping's Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China"
By Constance Alexander
Murray, KY – The little girl on the sepia-toned cover of Mulberry Child, A Memoir of China, meets the camera's eye with an unwavering gaze. The no-nonsense haircut and slight downward curve of her mouth suggest a serious demeanor, but the hint of color on the lips implies a spark of assertiveness lurking beneath author Jian Ping's earnest fa ade.
I wasn't supposed to be born, she confesses at the beginning of her riveting memoir. My mother didn't want me, not at first. She tried to get rid of me, but I was stubborn.
Dogged by ill health in her first year of life, Jian pulled through due to the ministrations of her paternal grandmother, Nainai. Throughout Jian's childhood, Nainai tended to her grandchildren with quiet wisdom and tireless energy, though physically hobbled by her bound feet and hampered by illiteracy.
Jian grew up in a government compound in Baicheng, which literally means, White City. Ironically, Baicheng was unremittingly gray, but five mulberry trees added color - and hope -- to the drab landscape. The trees withstood extreme winters and icy Mongolian winds, but every spring, against all odds, they bloomed.
As years passed, Jian Ping writes, the trees came to symbolize the hardships of my life in China. And as I learned to endure cruelty and persecution, I grew as strong and resilient as these trees.
Both of Jian's parents were devoted Communist party supporters, and each held responsible positions that ensured the family some rudimentary comforts for awhile.
With the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, the marginal stability of living in a government compound shifted dramatically. As if infected with a fever, Jian writes, the Red Guards and the rebels crushed the four olds' without reservation - old, ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Our life fell into chaos.
The first rip in the fabric of the family was the accusation that Jian's mother - formerly a valued educator and Party Secretary - was guilty of a revisionist line of education. Her penance was to subject herself to a rigorous regimen of self criticism, which kept her from being home with her family.
Around the same time, her husband was accused of treason because, years before, he had survived capture by the Japanese.
The family was forced to move to a mud hut with no indoor toilet or heat, and to withstand daily deprivation without complaint. At school, Jian endured taunts and beatings.
One of the most horrendous examples of everyday torment was the day Jian discovered that someone had nailed the webbed feet of her pet goose to the ground and forced its beak open with a stick in her mouth. Jian describes the event without drama and then reports, quite simply, that the goose survived the ordeal, but she never let anyone touch her again.
Jian Ping, the impassive little girl on the cover of her memoir, came to the United States for post graduate studies at Ohio University and stayed on. She grew up to be a beautiful, powerful woman, and is currently an executive with an importer of Chinese beer, Tsingtao. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter, and is known by the name Jennifer Hou Kwong.
Jian/Jennifer recently visited Beijing to attend the Olympics and talk about her book, about how life in China has changed, and about how proud she is that her family survived the Cultural Revolution. Her parents' enduring Party affiliations still confound her, but she says: I don't judge my parents' continued devotion to the Party. I may not understand it, but I also know that many families were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and family members often betrayed one another. I'm lucky to be part of a family so closely bound, so loyal and so strong.
Mulberry Child, A Memoir of China is published by Morrison, McNae Publishers and is available through amazon.com. Currently, Jian Ping/Jennifer Kwong is at work on a sequel, entitled Chinese Mother, American Daughter.