It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost ten years since I last set foot in China. It’s been even longer since I’ve been to Beijing – all the way back to the summer of 2002. Since then, the city has hosted the Olympics and, no doubt, changed drastically.
Jan Wong details many of these changes and more in Beijing Confidential. In it she relates a trip with her family to Beijing gearing up to the 2008 Olympics. Her goal is to find a former classmate she once reported to Communist authorities.
The book offers a good, general overview of Beijing’s history as a city and as a capital. A Canadian of Chinese descent, Wong was a foreign student at Beijing University in the 1970s. Describing herself as a “True Believer”, Wong was fervent in her support of the Cultural Revolution and Marxist ideology. So when an acquaintance expressed a desire to Wong to leave China and visit North America, Wong reported this “counter-revolutionary” thought to her supervisor. Years later, and with a better perspective on China and its politics, Wong came to realize how she may have destroyed this young woman’s life. So with only a name, she returns to Beijing in hopes of finding this woman and apologizing.
As a former Marxist and a Canadian, Wong has a unique view of China and its 20th century history. (She was also the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent in the late 80s and early 90s.) She writes of the city with love, confusion, impatience, and amusement. The book does a great job of showing how quickly Beijing and its people have changed and how many of those changes are only possible in a country like China. Much of this is shown through Wong’s reunions with former teachers and classmates, as well as scenes with the younger generation of Beijing.
The book is readable and fascinating, whether or not you’ve ever set foot in Beijing. My one beef with it is fairly minor – Wong translates all of the Chinese names into English and it just didn’t work for me. Her own Chinese name translates as “Bright Precious” and so, in the book, that’s what her friends call her. The name, which is probably fine and even lovely in Chinese, becomes ridiculous to an English reader. I’m not sure if she thought readers wouldn’t be able to keep track of the Chinese names but I wish she’d given us more credit. Aside from that, I found Wong to be a strong writer and am interested in reading more of her work.
Next Week’s Review: The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat