Guys, I have been on a reading rampage lately, devouring books in one sitting- not even showering after the gym and giving up my otherwise Tuesday evening events to down a 300 page book in 3 hours. I used to do this when I was 12 and then the Internet happened and it hasn’t been until this summer that I’ve gotten back into appreciating good books.
At any rate, here’s one that I read last night that I enjoyed though I’d have to preface the review with a few personal details. The book is called Lake with No Name, a memoir written by Chinese mystery novelist Diane Wei Liang chronicling her life in Beijing before and during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. It was originally published back in 1993, but Simon & Schuster picked it up again in time for the 20th anniversary of the event which happened on June 4, 2009. Now, despite the implications of all that, the book is not (nor do I think it was meant to be) a political statement but rather a coming of age love story of a bright college student figuring out her relationships during the late 80s.
The Tiananmen Sq Massacre, commonly known in Chinese vernacular simply as six-four, has impacted my life as well even though at the time I was a toddler and living in Shanghai, pretty far from the action, and my daily worries centered around how many raisins I was getting after lunch. My mom had recently joined my dad in the US, where he was a Ph.D student, and I was left to the indefinite care of my grandparents. It wasn’t until the unfortunate events that took place that my parents started hustling to get me out, mostly out of fear that the government could close the borders. As it turns out, China’s immigration laws only loosened in the 90s during the widespread economic and political liberalization that has created today’s China into a much different world from the one profiled in Liang’s book. I grew up in a generally apolitical household where the events of six-four were never really discussed and I only ever thought of the incident as removed from my family. However, seeing that it is one of the key reasons why I ended up in the US and life happened for me the way it did, I suppose it’s not that insignificant.
For Liang however, the incident took place basically in her back yard. She chronicles her own part in the democratic movement but that facet of her memoir only creates the time line on which a much more intriguing, personal love story unfolds. She dates a series of Wrong Guys and then meets The One in a case of Worst-Timing-Ever. He is, at the time, the roommate of the man she’s seeing and he also has a long term girlfriend back home. In the years that follow, their love deepens but they experience such an unfortunate series of relationship issues, that the only explanation I can think of was that the stars were just not aligned. We know, since today Liang is happily married to an European, that she and her love didn’t end up together, though I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you what happened.
Interestingly enough, all her relationship problems don’t really stem from the events that surround Tiananmen. Instead, you could say, they’re the product of some old fashioned Chinese ideology, some of the same ones that my mom shares! So this book was particularly fascinating for me because I could relate to so much of what was mentioned that many others may just find completely obscure. I think Lake With No Name would be a particularly interesting read for the Chinese diaspora of my generation and Liang’s generation who may relate to a lot of the details in the book that otherwise might be overlooked.
Lake with No Name is a pretty intense love story made even more so by being set among the conflicts that impacted the author’s life. I find that Liang doesn’t really have a political agenda, however, and simply chooses to tell history as it happened from her perspective. She doesn’t deny the horrors nor does she buy into any government propoganda surrounding the incident. But interestingly, she also states in the book, as well as in interviews, that “China [today] is in many ways the China that we [the students] wanted at Tiananmen: people living freer and happier lives. Tiananmen should not be forgotten. We must commemorate it for the sake of those who died and for a generation who gave their best years to the pursuit of a better China. But we should also recognize that expecting China to collectively atone for the sins of Tiananmen Square is neither realistic, desirable, nor necessary.”
Lake With No Name is a complex book that serves two audiences- those who enjoy sad love stories, and those who are fascinated by China’s tumultuous twentieth century. Regardless of any political stance you may take, Liang’s story will have you thinking about it far longer than after you finish the last page.