Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: My Two Chinas

Tang Baiqiao's book, My Two Chinas: The Memoir of a Chinese Counterrevolutionary, came with high accolades. Its cover proudly boasts that the book was "foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama". Yet the first thing a careful reader notices is that it is not true. The book's Foreword, all of three brief paragraphs, was actually written by Dalai Lama's secretary.

This, combined with other sales pitches, such as that the author "Tang Baiqiao is one of China's most influential modern dissidents", "Tang's name became legendary during the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre", etc., -- overly exaggerations at best -- does not lend well to the credibility of the book itself.

Although signed in the form of "Tang Baiqiao with Damon Dimarco," the book takes a first-person singular tone to narrate the personal story of its main author Tang Baiqiao, who in 1989 was a college student in the remote Hunan Province and became a student leader there. The book covers Tang Baiqiao's experience growing up as a child in rural China, getting involved in the 1989 student movement, becoming a fugitive and then prisoner in the ensuing crackdown, and his eventual escape from China and his exiled life in America.

Tang Baiqiao's personal involvement in the 1989 student movement as retold in this book is surprisingly sketchy. In early April that year, he helped organizing a few student rallies and marches in his city and was elected to be the main leader there. In May, he took a trip to Beijing, hoping to connect with the movement leader there. The trip, as he frankly admitted in the book, was a failure. Other than participating in several marches, he did not accomplish anything there. So much so that he did not even become aware of the name of one of major student leaders -- he later thought Wang Dan was a name for a female student. By the time he returned to his home city in later May, the student movement had already petered out there.

But the book does provide a rare glimpse of the movement, and student life in general, far away from the capital city. In one amazing tidbit, Tang Baiqiao recalled being on the stage facing thousands of students chanting "Long Live Tang Baiqiao! Long Live Tang Baiqiao!" (P. 87) A scene never seen in Beijing.

Since the story is told in first-person, sometimes it is difficult to judge whether it is stating facts or mere perceptions of its main author at the time. For example, the book makes many careless statements such as "Fang Lizhi was also a close friend and adviser to Hu Yaobang" (P. 56) or "During his meeting with Gorbachev, Zhao Ziyang made it known that he was a puppet, nothing more." (P. 99).

My Two Chinas serves as an addition to the existing autobiographies of the movement participants such as Li Lu, Shen Tong, and Zhang Boli. It could be interesting to anyone who would like to learn about lives in that period in China from an individual perspective. But unfortunately there is not much information about the 1989 student movement here, nothing to justify the author's "legendary" status in it, at least.

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