China Called Me: My life inside the Chinese Revolution Review

China Called Me: My life inside the Chinese Revolution
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China Called Me: My life inside the Chinese Revolution ReviewThis is a book of fascinating contrasts and contradictions. Percy Chen was the son of the Chinese foreign minister during the period prior to the rise of Chiang Kai-shek. But Percy himself grew up in Trinidad, the son of overseas Chinese who left Guangdong Province during the time of the Taiping Rebellion. But not quite. His father married a Creole of basically French descent. According to Percy, Eugene Chen adored his wife, but then left her during what appears to have been a midlife crisis, and went to China to participate in the revolution. To be fair, Eugene Chen did not cease the support of his family, but he was almost never home, and his lifestyle had an obvious influence on Percy, who did much the same thing to his own family years later.
I mentioned contrasts and contradictions. Percy Chen is adamant in his contempt for Chiang Kai-shek, and his support for the Communists. But his personal lifestyle really reflected a highly westernized appetite for the "good life." He says at one point,
"I had become a socialist when I was in Soviet Russia. That meant that I had lost my `property-owning sense.'"
Baloney. True, Mr. Chen did cede his agricultural holdings in Trinidad over to his ex-wife (the one he had abandoned). But he tired of this "socialist" lifestyle very quickly, and went to Hong Kong to take up the life of a middle class (dare I say bourgeois) barrister just before the Communist takeover. So he never actually lived in the society whose system he claimed to admire. Several times throughout the book he refers to his "50 years in China." Yet in all this time he never learned to speak Chinese, and in fact, the time he actually spent in Mainland China amounted to a fraction of that 50. Linguistically handicapped? That doesn't work either. He lived in the Soviet Union for a few short years, and learned to speak Russian, in his words, "almost as well as I speak English."
Despite the many contradictions, I recommend this book for a couple of reasons. First, it is loaded with history. As mentioned, Percy Chen was the son of the Chinese foreign minister (who also spoke no Chinese), so he was personally acquainted with the inner workings of the revolutionary government. I know, it's a bit of a stretch to call it "government," because the civil instability existed in some form from three months after Sun Yat Sen became the first president of China, when he was forced to yield his position to Yuan Shikai, to the day that Mao Zedong stood on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square and declared the new People's Republic. Yet, Percy Chen's relationship, in some way, to all sides of this transition, gave him a very unique perspective.
Combined with the historical value, are the travelogues filled with personal anecdotes. His description of the road trip to Moscow in 1927, when he was commissioned by his father to take Borodin home, is classic. At one point, the caravan actually abandoned Anna Louise Strong, giving her up for lost in the middle of the Gobi desert. Fortunately, she had headed in the direction they would be traveling, and they just happened to spot her after they had despaired of finding her and headed down the road five or six miles.
This book was published in 1979, and the last chapter of the book describes a trip that the author and his Russian wife took through China in 1977. Yet Chen makes no mention whatsoever of the Cultural Revolution, This seems to me to be an appalling omission, which strains the credibility of the book, and, if nothing else, gives one good reason to question Percy Chen's objectivity. But if I graded the book on its objectivity, I would probably not be recommending it. Perhaps its greatest value comes from the fact that it is essentially a personal story, and thus far more subjective than the author ever realizes.
But if I let myself get philosophical, I'm going to start sounding negative. Chen's philosophy is full of inconsistencies. Nevertheless, it is a book worth reading for its many observations, however one sided. If you promise me that your reading of this book will be balanced by exposure to other accounts of the period, then I have no problem recommending it, because it does contain a wealth of history about a time that was, in many ways, one of the most critical periods in the history of this great and changing country.China Called Me: My life inside the Chinese Revolution Overview

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