The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan by Chi Pang-yuan
Manchuria and Taiwan are two contested fronts in modern Chinese history. Manchuria, or the Chinese northeast, had an ambivalent relationship with China proper in the early twentieth century, was the first area of mainland China to be occupied by the Japanese, and was the first battlefield in the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party immediately following Japan's surrender in 1945. Taiwan was the earliest Japanese colony in East Asia outside Japan and was where the Chinese Nationalist Party withdrew to after its catastrophic defeat by the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland.
The story told in Chi Pang-yuan's autobiography, The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan, connects these two eventful Chinese fronts. The daughter of Chi Shihying, an influential politician in modern China and an early member of the Chinese Nationalist Party, Chi Pang-yuan left her hometown in Manchuria with her family after the Japanese [End Page 15] occupation, journeyed as an exile across the Chinese mainland, and finally settled in Taiwan. Her route followed Japan's military advance into the Chinese mainland, from Manchuria to Beijing, Tianjin, and Nanjing, and then into the provinces of Hubei, Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. Along the way, at a time when simply staying alive had become a luxury and a miracle, Chi's father managed to run a middle school for young students exiled from Manchuria. Chi too continued to attend schools in different locations as she moved and developed a deep love for literature. Japan's defeat in 1945 brought her intense joy and hope, but this optimism was soon replaced by a sense of uncertainty and loss as the civil war between the two parties broke out. In 1947, Chi flew to Taiwan, and she has lived and worked there as a scholar and professor of literature ever since.
In scholarship, we often discuss the possibility and promise of border-crossing when it comes to exiled or diasporic figures and their transnational experience. Chi's narrative, however, is interwoven with a sorrowful acknowledgment of her inability to cross certain borders, which are at times represented by the Great Flowing River, a major river in Manchuria. When Chi was little and her father was young, he and his colleague Guo Songling launched a rebellion against Zhang Zuolin, then the commanding warlord in Manchuria, hoping to end Zhang's militarism and expansionism in one coup. The two parties fought a decisive battle by the Great Flowing River. Shen Yang, the capital of Manchuria, lies just beyond the river, and Chi's rebellion failed on the shore directly across from it. As Chi Pang-yuan grew up, she often heard her father sigh about not being able to cross the Great Flowing River. As the autobiography shows, Chi Pang-yuan herself also dreamed of once more crossing the river and returning to her hometown, but history only pushed her further and further away. Other internal lines that Chi found it hard to cross were her uneasy feelings towards the Japanese, the Communist Party, and mainland China in general. From the Sino-Japanese War to the Cold War, Chi experienced the devastating effects of hatred and hostility between parties, nations, and groups of people. As a result, she lost her home, her hometown, her first love, and many others who were dear to her. When she began to make contact with writers from the Communist mainland in the 1980s, she knew that "truly, the wounds could not be entirely forgotten, as E. M. Forster wrote at the end of A Passage to India, 'No, not yet … No, not there'" (p. 352). Chi is hopeful that all of the divisions separating people of her generation will eventually break down, and yet she indicates here that this transcendence will not come in the form of an intellectual or spiritual epiphany but instead will require generations of effort, as people learn to forget and heal without evading their historical responsibility.
Another theme that runs through Chi's narrative is her awareness of her gender. What distinguishes her work from other narratives about women's [End Page 16] experience during wars and revolutions is that she neither pities herself as merely a victim nor aspires to become a woman warrior outside social norms. When she was little, she watched as her mother followed her father from one place to another and hosted exiled students from his middle school in their home almost every weekend. In her mother's later years, Chi asked whether she would still have chosen to marry her father had she been born in the present time. It took her mother several days to answer, "I'd still marry him. Although he wasn't a man who put family first, he was a real gentleman, warm and untarnished" (p. 36). In her own marriage, Chi supported her husband, one of the first generation of railway engineers in postwar Taiwan, by following him unconditionally when his job required him to relocate. When she had the opportunity to study literature at Indiana University in Bloomington, she took it, and acquired almost enough credits for a master's degree before her father called her back home, saying that her husband's heavy workload was taking a toll and her family needed her badly. Chi was a passionate lover of English literature, and she described her experience in Bloomington as climbing an "academic stairway, with angels ascending and descending" (p. 311). For many years, she regretted having to terminate her academic pursuits prematurely. She eventually accepted her trajectory, however, and realized that far from Bloomington, she was already climbing the academic stairway in her daily reading and studies. Having been raised in a family in which political affairs were an essential part of domestic life, and vice versa, Chi holds a balanced view of women's social and domestic roles. She fully acknowledges the limits and challenges women face at present, but she is more concerned with individual social responsibility and is willing to adjust her gendered roles accordingly.
For readers who are interested in Taiwanese literature, the lengthy chapter 8, which is an abbreviation of three chapters in the Chinese version, offers a precious record of the difficult process of establishing Taiwanese literature both in Taiwan and overseas. Chi firmly believes that Taiwanese literature has carried on an important legacy of Chinese literature in ways that were not viable in Communist China. The collective search for identity that underlies most literary works from postwar Taiwan also strikes a chord in her heart. Chi was one of the earliest scholars in Taiwan to see the value in Taiwanese literature. She is the translator and editor of An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Literature: Taiwan, 1949–1974 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), an anthology that marks the earliest effort to present Taiwanese literature to foreign readers in a systematic way. Chi also introduced works by modern Taiwanese writers into textbooks for the first time in Taiwan. In her autobiography, Chi recalls in detail how her literary choices involved complicated political struggles and personal relations, and discusses how and why some pieces were canonized over others. This part of Chi's narrative [End Page 17] provides rich first-hand knowledge about Taiwanese literature with a personal touch.
The autobiography is highly readable, with all the historical ups and downs delivered in a clear, calm, and sensitive voice. John Balcom, a seasoned and award-winning translator of Chinese literature, has rendered the original text in an elegant flow of English with his own creative touch. This authentic and powerful biography will be a good read for any scholar or general reader who is interested in modern East Asian history, literature and culture, or women's experience in a non-Western context. Scholars who work on the Chinese Northeast, the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, or modern Taiwanese history and literature will find the book particularly helpful. In addition, the book or excerpted chapters would be useful as an assigned text for classes on modern East Asia.
Miya Xie is an assistant professor of Chinese Literature at Dartmouth College, specializing in modern Chinese and comparative East Asian Literature.