The Unceasing Storm: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
by Katherine Luo (Douglas & McIntyre $22.95)

Review by Joan Givner

It is no surprise that the benign presence of acclaimed novelist Madeleine Thien hovers over Katherine Luo's memoir; the two share a family connection as well as the same literary subject matter.

After Luo immigrated to Canada in 1998, she taught piano and voice in Vancouver where she met and married Thien's father. When the two women got to know each other, Thien learned that in her youth Luo had been a student at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, and later a member of the opera troupe of the Red Army.

Thien was astonished to discover that Luo had actually experienced the suffering of artists and musicians that Thien had so vividly imagined in her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf) for which she won the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016.

Both writers focus primarily on the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as well as referring to events before and after that crucial decade-the political and military campaigns of Mao Zedong which began in 1927 and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. At least sixty million died as a result of Mao Zedong's political campaigns, yet his policies have never been repudiated by the Chinese Communist Party.

Thien contributes a concise foreword to her step-mother's book, in which she explains that it is a response to the Chinese government's obfuscation and denial of history. Luo's achievement is to make visible the hidden history and give human faces to the bare statistics. Her recurring theme is the destruction of individual lives, the thwarting of creative talent, and the loss of an entire country's cultural legacy and artistic future. Each essay describes families torn apart, relationships poisoned, and lives ruined, many ending in suicide.

For those who might note a disparity in length and format among the thirty-seven pieces (nine different translators worked on them), Thien explains that the Chinese essay is a fluid genre that includes a multiplicity of forms-sketches, political manifestos, travel notes, brief vignettes, and journalistic reportage. Luo's collection comprises most of these as well as biographical accounts of the lives of her parents and relatives, forming a litany of tragic lives ending in premature deaths and suicide.
The longest and most powerful narrative, "Smile,"; begins with a meditation on smiles. She notices that people in Canada casually exchange friendly smiles with complete strangers. This habit contrasts with the range of sinister smiles she remembers from earlier decades in China-the jeering smile at the misfortune of others, the cold smile of mocking sarcasm, the wicked smile of evil intent, the baring of teeth in a false smile.

From these observations she makes the transition to the painful life of Xiao Wan, a talented opera singer, with a radiant smile. Because her class background was not good (both her father and step-father were army officers), her status dropped into the category of those to be "executed, imprisoned or placed under surveillance."; The party forbade her marriage to the man she loved and approved instead a dull man with impeccable credentials-"poor peasant for three generations."; This failed to improve her situation and, even during a later period of detente, she was not reinstated as a singer and never given the roles she deserved. Her smile became an expression of never-ending helplessness.

One lighter autobiographical piece, "My Graduation Certificate,"; is a mini-drama with lively dialogue and humour. It takes place in the 1980s during a brief period of deceptive detente by the repressive regime. An order went out to re-issue certificates to those unfairly penalized and prevented from graduating in previous decades and Luo, then deputy head of The People's Music Press, determined to get her just deserts. In spite of her high academic achievement, she had been expelled from the Central Academy of Drama because of her capitalist origins (her father was a businessman) and overseas relations. When she tried to get the certificate she deserved, she was rebuffed by one official after another (shades of Dickens' Department of Circumlocution).

"Well, Luo, you are definitely different. I remember you to be shy and timid, but you're quite a shrewd one now, aren't you?"; an unsympathetic former teacher told her.

Finally, she found a former teacher willing and able to redress the wrong. She got her promotion but after forty years of being denied respect and lost income, it came a little too late. Yet she acknowledges that compared with so many greater abuses, hers seem trivial.

Another short piece, "Diaries,"; describes her effort at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution's Cleansing of Class Ranks Campaign in 1968, to destroy the diaries and letters that may have contained evidence of "political unreliability."; Unfortunately, she overlooked two diaries and these were seized to be scrutinized for evidence of guilt. While she was detained for eight months doing manual labour and writing confessions, no evidence of "subversive thoughts and opinions"; was ever found.

The loss of all her written diaries and letters illustrates the means by which subsequent generations have been denied access to important records detailing the history of their country. Luo's experience also has a counterpart in Thien's novel. There a rare clandestine work, The Book of Records, is passed from person to person during the worst times. One character after another adds to it, even risking torture and execution to do so. Thus Thien's memorable fictional characters-Wen the Dreamer, Sparrow, Swirl, Big Mother Knife-and Kuo's memories of her family and friends converge in the shared attempt to reclaim history. While Luo's work will not achieve the international acclaim of Thien's novel, it is nevertheless a very worthy companion piece.


Joan Givner just gets better and better-writing now from Victoria.