I became interested in the lives of Chinese people during Mao’s cultural revolution after reading Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans. Bright Swallow does not have the epic sweep of Chang’s work but is a memoir of Bi’s teenage and early adult life in Beijing and the countryside in the seventies and early eighties. Bi’s parents were educated and well off, and in the case of her mother, musically talented. Such qualities had them labelled ‘rightists’ and penalised. A slip up by her father, compounded the offence and he, and then his sons, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’.
Bi and her mother lived by themselves in Beijing in a courtyard house divided into a number of homes and subsisted as best they could. Vivian – Xiyan in Chinese, meaning ‘bright swallow’ – knows she comes from ‘bad origins’ and will never be accepted because of this. When she is just 15, her mother dies of lung cancer and Xiyan is left on her own and is determined to look after herself learning to cook, clean and budget. In her first year she can’t get the hang of the stove and runs out of money for fuel, so almost freezes. She has a hankering for crispy pancakes sold by hawkers and foolishly buys two, then has no money for food until the monthly allowances comes due. In a time when everyone reports on everyone else, she is fortunate to have a kind woman is her ‘compound leader’ who helps her learn to look after herself.
Xiyan works hard at school, wanting to make something of herself to fulfil her mother’s dictum to ‘live a life’. Helping other students with homework leads to a cadre’s son lending her books of Western classics (something that is strictly illegal so that Xiyan must read the book quickly and return it) She starts with The Count of Monte Christo, and to keep the story in her mind and amuse other children she memorises the text and recounts it. This is something that could get her into trouble, so she carries out various subterfuges to continue doing it, and it becomes a popular event.
The universities have been closed but then Mao miraculously announces they will open. There is a flurry of competition and studying, and Xiyan’s hopes are up. However, just as suddenly, Mao sends all the city high school graduates to do a period of work in the countryside, including Xiyan. Her determination to succeed even manifests itself here and, despite a denunciation by her father (something that she can ever quite forgive), which means she is singled out for tough treatment and humiliation, she throws herself into village life becoming indispensable and accepted, finally getting to look after some working horses, which she loves.
Of course, Mao dies, the cultural revolution ends, and China opens up a fraction, but it is no easy course for Xiyan to make it to Australia still having ‘bad origins’ (she eventually finds a way around this). This is a lovely, honest memoir and gives a great insight into a young girl living in extraordinary times. It shows that in a time of hardship, personal loss, sanctioned violence (by red guards), quixotic government edicts and (often familial) betrayals, there are still kindnesses, generosity and small pleasures. Bi does admit, though, the qualities of toughness, resilience and self-reliance she had to develop to survive on her own have stayed with her – she has never quite been able to soften them.