Nov 5 2009 5:44pm

True Friendship

In my debut novel, Revolution is not a Dinner Party, there is a scene where Ling, the main character, watches her father burn the family’s books and photos. This actually occurred in my childhood. My father, a prestigious surgeon trained by American missionaries, destroyed all his beloved books to protect our family from the zealous Red Guard. Yet he continued my education in secret, which included English lessons, a dangerous violation. He instilled in me a love for books and a yearning for freedom. During the Cultural Revolution, the only books we were allowed to read were Mao’s teaching and government-approved propaganda that praised the Communist philosophy. Everything else was banned and burned.

My father, Dr. Chang Sin-Liu

Revolution Is Not
a Dinner Party

The few good books that escaped the flames formed the basis of an underground library. To be invited into one of these lending networks was a sign of great trust and true friendship. Any careless conduct would bring enormous risks to everyone involved. Punishment could include hard labor, jail, or public humiliation. Parents often received harsh punishment on behalf of their “seditious” children. When I was fortunate enough to acquire an underground book, I would keep stacks of government newspapers and propaganda pamphlets nearby. In the event of an unexpected visitor, I could quickly hide the book among them.

Each time a good book became available, word quickly spread through the small underground group. After working out the order, we would pass the book discreetly among us. When it was my turn, I never felt there was enough time to finish a book in the day or evening allotted to me. I often wished I could read it over and over.

The books we read had passed through many hands. They were often missing pages, usually in the beginning or the end. We spent hours arguing over what happened in the lost sections. That was when I decided to write my own versions and pass them along with the incomplete books to the next borrower. I often wonder, if I had not grown up reading books with missing pages, would I be a writer today?

One of my precious missing-page books, a collection of English poetry.

After Mao’s death, the Chinese translation of Gone with the Wind emerged in a small quantity, published as a set of three volumes. When I found out that one of the boys in our group had a complete set, I traded my copy of Robinson Crusoe and half of Jane Eyre (the other half had been torn up by the Red Guard) for the first two volumes. I had nothing to trade for the third, so for weeks I waited for my turn.

Gone with the Wind, the only fiction I brought with me when I left China.

During Mao’s reign, everyone was required to wear dark blue uniforms. After his death, few families had enough money to buy what seemed like frivolous new clothes for their children. I was among the few lucky girls in our neighborhood that owned a dress, while my girlfriend had never worn one. Desperate to find out what happened to Scarlett O’Hara, when her turn came first, I struck a bargain with her. I offered to lend my precious new (and only) homemade dress. In exchange, she agreed to let me read the third volume with her. She was allowed to keep the book from dusk to daybreak.

This three-button Mao uniform
was all I wore for many years.

That evening, I anxiously waited for her at our door. She arrived after my parents left for their night shift at the hospital. Once inside, she carefully took out the worn copy from under her shirt, where she had hidden it from the hungry eyes in the courtyard. The electricity to our apartment was cut off at night to power the factories that had been idle during the Cultural Revolution. Lamp oil was still rationed, so we read the book by dim candlelight. When that burned out, we stood before my bedroom window, struggling to read by the faint street light. She was a much faster reader, and had to wait for me to catch up at end of each page. After hours of standing, we were so exhausted we took turns lying down and reading to each other. We finished the book as the first rays of light colored the sky. She left, wearing my dress, just before my mother returned from her shift.

A few days later, she showed me a portrait of herself smiling broadly in my dress, wearing colorful costume jewelry borrowed from someone else. One of the popular things for girls to do during those times was to loan each other our best clothes and jewelry and then get our portraits taken.

The dress I lent out.

A dress and costume jewelry I borrowed.

My hunger for good books grew as I matured. I started to copy my favorite passages into a small notebook. When I had nothing to read, I re-read the scribbled paragraphs over and over. Soon, other friends began making copies of their favorite passages as well. Since each of us had our own favorite selections, we would trade notebooks when there was nothing else to read.

My notebook filled with copied passages.

My secret forays into these precious books were among the happiest moments in my childhood. They gave me a window to the fascinating outside world, allowing me to temporarily forget the constant hunger and danger. They gave me hope and fueled my dreams.

I spent many hours reading the short stories and poems in this book.

Ying writes ghost stories, novel, cookbooks, picture books, and hosts cooking shows. Her novel Revolution is not a Dinner Party has received twenty-eight awards, including the ALA Best Books and Notable Books. Ying has visited schools throughout the US and abroad, sharing with students her journey as a writer, how her life in China inspired her writing, and the challenges of writing in her second language. She has lectured on a variety of subjects at writer’s conferences and universities, and aboard cruise ships. Ying is available to talk about her books to book clubs in person, by telephone, or online, and she was recently interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Ying was born and raised in Wuhan, China. Her website is

1. Laughingrat
This post was beautiful and poignant. I've been really enjoying your articles here.
Ying Compestine
2. yingc
Thank you. I am very glad you are enjoying my articles. Those are bitter-sweet memories.
Marcus W
3. toryx
The pieces of your story that we've been getting glimpses of are rather amazing, sad and poignant.

I wish stories like these were being told more often, both so that we who were fortunate enough to grow up in a free society can be more appreciative of what we've had and also a reminder that so many people throughout the world aren't so fortunate.

This is the kind of freedom we're fighting for every day when an agency or group seeks to ban an artistic expression.

Thank you for writing so freely about your experiences.
Ian Gazzotti
4. Atrus
Thanks for sharing this with us. These are precious stories.
Jody Crocker
5. Jei
Enjoyed reading about your childhood. Very sad in so many ways, but evocative of the fight to survive & learn. We in the U.S. often fail to realize what so many others have undergone; we take our life here for granted.
Ying Compestine
6. yingc
Thanks to everyone for your warm and thoughtful comments. One reason I think it's important to write about this period is that even in China the younger generation doesn't know much about it, as if no one wants to talk about it.

I treasure those memories deeply. Those experiences taught me about life and shaped who I am. Without them, I would not be a writer today.

I feel blessed I can enjoy the freedom to pursue my career and interests in this beautiful country.
Blake Reitz
7. brreitz
I love the cover design on those copies of Gone with the Wind. Simple, but perfect.
8. Carbonel
"The few good books that escaped the flames formed the basis of an underground library."

One of the great shames of the American Library Association is their unwillingness to officially support these underground libraries. Their line is that as these are not "real," that is, government supported libraries and librarians, it would be inappropriate to take a stand.

If I had the time to devote to change from within, I'd still be a member. As it is, their tacit support for "acceptable" censorship is too abhorrant.

What do you think of Jung Chang's Mao?
9. twirlip
Ying, thanks very much for this fascinating post. It's interesting to see how, in some ways, your experiences are similar to those of intensely bookish young people in North America -- the passionate devotion to books, reading as a means of escape, the importance of sharing books -- but those things were so much more intense for you and your friends because of the insanity of censorship and the terrifying consequences if you got caught. Your notebooks remind me of the commonplace books that people in the West used to keep, back when books were far more scarce than they are now.

Carbonel, if you're referring to the US-funded "independent" libraries in Cuba, you know as well as I do that the situation is far more complicated than you're making out. Your description of the ALA's position is at best a caricature, at worst a gross misrepresentation.
10. Carbonel
Many countries: including Czechoslovakia, Spain and yes, the Unites States have NGOs that support the underground Cuban libraries. You know as well as I do that the Cuban government uses the same techniques to suppress the free circulation of unapproved literature as did the Maoist one, and attempts to deligitimize those they imprison and torture by claiming that these people are all spies and C.I.A. plants.

After reading Ms. Compestine's beautiful post, it's a shame you feel is neccessary to cast aspersions on those who are still living under the kind of oppression she endured with scare quotes and allusions to government propaganda.

The plight of the Cubans, however, is merely one of the many nails in the coffin of a history of supporting "acceptable" censorship (China, Romania, Islamic dictatorships) ala the Canadian and European models. All that is necc. for evil to prevail is for good men to remain silent.

But we are highjacking the thread. Should you choose to reply, I'll leave the last comment to you.

I'm still interested in what Ms. Compestine thought of the MAO bio.
11. twirlip
It's a bit of a derail, but I think the discussion is still relevant to the experiences Ying has shared. (Ying, if you disagree, I apologize for the hijack.)

When the ALA and others ignore or make excuses for the Cuban state (which has happened in the Cuban library case, probably because of naivete), that is reprehensible. When Cubans -- or, for that matter, folks in Maoist China -- organize underground libraries to resist state censorship, that is heroic and admirable. When underground libraries in an unfree country begin to receive funding and organizational support from foreign powers with a long history of aggression against that country, and an even longer history of violent repression in the region ... then things become, as I said, complicated. That's true regardless of whether the people running the libraries are actual "spies" or CIA operatives (accusations which may or may not be government propaganda, I honestly don't know).

The experiences Ying describes are, in their quiet way, a powerful testament to the human desire for freedom -- the freedom to read, to share ideas without restriction by the state, but also the freedom to actively resist an oppressive regime. If the underground library she and her friends created had been cynically exploited by outside interests claiming to be advancing the cause of freedom, even though their past actions suggest otherwise, I think something valuable but hard to describe would be lost. The goal of those outside interests is NOT freedom, at least not in any simple sense, for the people that the library serves. Thus the library becomes not simply an instrument of freedom, but also a tool of a foreign power whose aims could compromise the eventual freedom of Ying and her friends. And participating in that library becomes not simply an expression of personal autonomy and self-determination in the face of oppression, but also an act of collaboration with people who want to use you and your struggle for freedom as the means to quite different ends.

Would it still be worth supporting such a library? Probably, although I hope such support would acknowledge that the library has been co-opted and exploited. Many people in that situation have chosen to accept being exploited because they believe it will help them achieve their own aims. But it's really not a simple question, unless you choose to ignore the long-established and well-documented dark side of US foreign policy ... or, conversely, if you focus solely on that and ignore the crimes of a regime that makes underground libraries necessary.

That's what I meant when I said that the situation is complicated.

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