Daily Archives: November 4, 2011

‘Tartar City Woman’ by Trevor Hay

1990, 178 p

I must admit that my heart sank a little when we received our November book for The-Ladies-Who-Say-Oooh bookgroup this month. Yet another book about a Chinese woman growing up in Communist China, I thought.  I’m over all these three-part family saga with grandmother, mother and daughter full of co-mingled admiration and resentment, alternately solved and exacerbated by the magical escape to the Wonderful West.  Well, there were elements of this here, but because this is a memoir of a woman, related by a man (rather than an autobiography), it thankfully lacked some of the emotional tantrum of such books.

Wang Hsin-Ping  grew up among the old gentry class in pre-Communist Peking.  Her father had emigrated to Australia and rather unaccountably disappears from the story completely, and after her mother died, she was brought up by her grandmother.  Members of the family seemed to be able to leave for the West fairly easily, and it was these family connections overseas that compromised her reputation during the various twistings and turnings of  Communist Party ideology as she grew up.  She was a forthright, intelligent young woman, thwarted in her career aspirations by her ambivalent attitude and suspect family allegiances.  Although she lived in a community of suspicion and fear- and I am not under-estimating the effect of this- she was not denounced; not sent out into the country; not beaten or starved or any of the litany of outrages that we often read of in totalitarian societies.  In fact, she testifies to a low-key subversion of authority, albeit over minor details. The peasant village sent her exiled 70 year old grandmother  back to the city because she was useless with her bound feet, and students sent to work in villages simply  returned to the city, in spite of the fact that without their ration books they would be dependent on others for food.

The book opens Trevor Hay’s own reflections on his attitude to China, particularly in the 1970s as he travelled there with an enthusiastic wide-eyed, left-leaning tour group, completely oblivious to Hsin-Ping’s journey in the other direction as she emigrates, seemingly easily, to Australia.  He meets Hsin Ping working in a Melbourne restaurant, and I can only assume that the book is the product of her reminscences and their conversations.  It is not co-written as such, at least in the authorship.

Yet there is a real distance between the teller and the recorder of the narrative. It is a rather cold, bloodless tale, with emotional relationships dispensed with in mere sentences.  Perhaps this is Hsin-Ping’s choice, but Hay does not problematize this in any way.  There is much detail about pedagogy and curriculum, and this ‘teacher’s eye’ view of the world perhaps mirrors the shared professional bond between Hsin-Ping  as an erstwhile classroom teacher and Hay’s own profession as academic in the education faculty at the University of Melbourne.  The book was useful in explaining the U-turns and contradictions in Chinese government policy.

Overall, I found this rather disappointing. It was not the family saga I expected, and for that I suppose I should be grateful, but it felt a rather stilted and incomplete picture of growing up in Communist China.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: it was the November for my face-to-face bookgroup AKA ‘The Ladies who say Oooohh’

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.