CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 12 . . . . February 2, 2007
My Name is Number 4: A True Story.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2007.
230 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Ye, Ting-Xing, 1952-
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Reviewed from prepublication copy.
How I wished time would stop. I counted every hour until October when the axe would fall on the “graduates” of my year. I reminded myself of Great-Aunt’s optimistic saying that a boat carried by the river’s current would always straighten itself out before it came to the bridge. But I wasn’t so sure. The battles in families intensified as siblings fought like enemies. One of my classmates, who had walked out on her adoptive parents and denounced them as capitalist bloodsuckers, now realized that when she returned to her biological family, where she had siblings, she had given up her “only child” status within her adoptive family for an uncertain future. She feared she would be the one chosen to go to the countryside. She begged forgiveness from her adoptive parents, but they were brokenhearted and refused to take her back.
In the last decade, several books that have been published focus on the lives of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. These include Ange Zhang’s Red Land, Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution, Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, and Chun Yu’s Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As a recent addition to the growing literature on this historical era,
Ting-Xing Ye’s My Name is Number 4, an abridged version of her adult autobiography titled A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, offers an autobiographical view on the revolution that exposes its hypocrisies and denounces its excesses, but one that also ends on a hopeful note of personal triumph and societal renewal.
The book provides readers with a detailed representation of a tumultuous period of Chinese history as well as a moving story of Ye, who is an inspirational model of resilience and self-sacrifice. Readers will appreciate the story as one of personal perseverance and triumph in difficult times, although Ye also acknowledges the lives of other Chinese people who have been silenced and who have suffered injustices during that era. In doing so, Ye’s narrative gives readers a personal and collective sense of that period of Chinese history as well as empowering those people whose experiences during that time have been silenced.
This autobiographical text focuses on Ting-Xing Ye’s life from the age of 14 to 24 during the years of 1966 to 1974 in China’s Cultural Revolution, but it also depicts her upbringing before then in order to emphasize how her former life has been transformed by the revolution. Ye’s work is divided into two parts: Part 1 focuses on her life before she is shipped away from Shanghai in 1968, while Part 2 details her life on the Da Feng Prison Farm and after she is released. Her book begins with a prologue that frames the rest of the work by emphasizing the loss of a life to which Ye and her family can never return as well as the unfolding of historical events over which they have little control.
After the prologue, the story begins with Ye’s early years in Shanghai during which Ye and her family live satisfying lives until her father “has fallen from a respected and prosperous business owner to a labourer.” After her father passes away in 1962 and her mother in 1965, Ye and her siblings are orphans who then moved to live with their great-aunt. The Cultural Revolution begins in 1966, but Ye portrays how she is, at 14 - naive and unaware of the significant changes that this will bring to her life. She finds the propaganda that her teachers read out to be boring and the treatment of previously respected authority figures such as the school principal to be merely puzzling. Even when she has to write self-criticisms of herself because she is part of the “wrong” class, the capitalists, the impact of the Cultural Revolution has still not fully dawned on her until Ye has to sacrifice herself so that the rest of her siblings do not have to be relocated away from Shanghai under a new government policy. Although she is frightened and worried when the Red Guards’ actions increasingly intrude upon her and her family’s lives, there is always the sense that things will turn out okay as long as her family stays together. However, it is Ye’s relocation that represents a physical and psychological break from her past life and emphasizes that she cannot return to it.
Various details make the story realistic and draw readers into it. One of the most striking things that Ye conveys in her narrative is the totality with which the Cultural Revolution envelops every aspect of Ye’s and other Chinese people’s lives on a daily basis, through which they must attend meetings, recite correct ways of thinking, and conform to the predominant views. She documents how she has to write party slogans, create posters, and witness the degradation of various people.
Eventually, she is targeted for being a part of the “capitalist class” because it exploits workers. Ye details her struggles in Shanghai and on the Da Feng prison farm extensively so that readers can visualize her circumstances.
Readers will sympathize with her hardships and the injustices that she, as well as other Chinese people branded as “traitors,” “counter revolutionaries,” “capitalists,” and people from the “wrong class,” must endure. Similarly, Ye depicts the entire process of backbreaking labour involved in working on the rice paddies, from the beginning to the end with harvesting and threshing. She conveys her own struggle to survive both physically and psychologically in a hostile environment where the development of friendships is discouraged and where, ultimately, she must betray her friends in order to survive. Indeed, readers will experience a sense of irreparable loss in this narrative which conveys a revolution that aims to eradicate capitalist influences but at the cost of destroying the physical, psychological, and social foundations upon which Chinese society has been built.
My Name is Number 4 is written at a level that would be suitable for its audience, although readers may require a bit of assistance in pronouncing the words from the Chinese language. As well, readers will better understand the story if they have some prior knowledge about the Cultural Revolution as well as the Chinese culture prevalent during that time. This context will help them to appreciate the events of the narrative as well as the motivations behind Ye’s and other Chinese people’s actions in the story.
Teachers will find the book useful as it provides students with a personal perspective from someone who has lived through the Cultural Revolution. Its detailed descriptions will give students an intimate sense of Ye’s struggles and her thoughts about the revolution as it progresses. Teachers can use Ye’s book to start discussion about that period of China’s history, but it would also be important to complement this text with other perspectives so that students can get a fuller sense of that era.
In summary, readers will enjoy My Name is Number 4 because of its personal insight into a time of societal upheaval. The book is as much a documentation of the historical era, itself, as well as a representation of a young girl’s maturation. Portraying how people’s lives are torn apart during the Cultural Revolution, Ye’s work portrays the personal and collective tragedy of a misguided revolution and its detrimental effects on family, friendship, and Chinese society as a whole.
Huai-Yang Lim is currently pursuing a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB.
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