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    Chris realized that he had never, ever understood Fusang.
           -The Lost Daughter of Happiness

Geling Yan, a widely respected young Chinese author, immigrated to the United States after the Tienanmen Square massacre.  She is best known here for the movie Xiu Xiu : The Sent Down Girl, the script for which she cowrote with director and childhood friend Joan Chen, from Yan's own short story.  In this new novel, set in the 1870s, she has borrowed a figure from history, Fusang, the most famous prostitute in San Francisco, and has imagined an unusual lover for her, a 12 year old white boy named Chris.

Approaching the issue of anti-Chinese racism through these two characters, she tells a tale of slavery, rape and murder, and, ostensibly, love.  I say ostensibly because Chris and Fusang remain completely opaque throughout the novel; we can never comprehend their motivations or thought processes.  One of the things that helps to make them so mysterious is that the novel is narrated by a female descendant of Fusang, who has gathered 160 texts about the Chinese experience in San Francisco, in an effort to understand her enigmatic ancestor's life.

I may well be wide of the mark here, but it seems like Yan's point may be that Fusang and Chris are equally  incomprehensible to each other, as they are to us.  In fact, though the novel has the structure of an epic love story, the message would seem to be that there is something fundamentally illusory in such interracial love affairs.  At one point she says of Chris :

    He has yet to realize that the infatuation one feels for what one cannot understand is just as violent
    as the animosity.

This linkage of racist hatred with cross-cultural romance, though awfully harsh, has more than a grain of truth to it.  Equally stern is her later judgment of Chris, when he wants Fusang to marry him :

    It is as if being with you, Fusang, is not a matter of anything so shallow as love or happiness, but
    rather a grand sacrifice.  Or perhaps when love reaches this stage it crowds out ordinary feelings
    and becomes a doctrine, an ideal, that can only be realized through sacrifice.  He is using you to
    enact his sacrifice for the ideal of love.  He also wants to show everyone of his race and yours that
    his self-sacrifice will form a bridge across the racial divide.

It's hard to imagine a more stinging indictment of the kind of racial understanding which, though it masquerades as selflessness and acceptance of others, is really based as much on objectification of those "others" as is racism.

In what I found the most powerful passage of the book, which after all is an examination of racism and violence directed against Chinese-Americans, Yan, in discussing the causes of a riot, reveals just how universal and non-specific is the human hatred which fuels such incidents, and even links it to the Cultural Revolution in China :

    Hatred is amazing.  It makes people self-righteous; it drives them with a sense of mission.  I'm not
    talking about revenge; that's too simple.  People are born with a higher form of hatred, so immense
    it doesn't even need a target.  Like love so vast no object is necessary.  This kind of hatred can lie
    dormant for years, like a swell of darkness, and people are never even conscious of it.  But once the
    darkness is breached, all rationality drowns and the things people do out of hatred serve only the
    purpose of fulfilling an overwhelming emotional need.  Burning, smashing, killing, rape--they're all
    just channels.  It doesn't even matter what started it, because people quickly become intoxicated by
    the sheer spectacle of destruction.  Like love at the earth-shattering stage, hatred by this point feeds
    on itself, simply for its own sake.  The pleasure of watching some person or thing destroyed by
    one's own hand is virtually orgasmic.

    When I was a child I saw those sexual impulses they called the cultural revolution and those
    orgasms they called rebellion.  The gratification of hatred produces the same rapture in everyone.

This is a very dark--though I would argue realistic--vision of human nature.

This darkness, combined with various scenes of violence, the emotional distance of the central characters, the sparseness of the author's prose, make this a book that many people will not enjoy.  Quite honestly, I wasn't sure if I liked it until I thought about it for quite awhile.  But ultimately, despite the somewhat harrowing nature of the story, the brutal honesty of Yan's ideas won me over.  And the more I've thought about it, the more I appreciate it.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Asian Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Daughter of Lost Happiness
    -BOOK SITE :  The Lost Daughter  of Happiness : A Novel  By Geling Yan (Hyperion Books)
    -INTERVIEW :  Joan Chen & Geling Yan : Making Xiu Xiu (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid)
    -PROFILE : Columbia grad Yan Geling wins awards, acclaim for fiction (Jotham Sederstrom, Columbia Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan (Philip Gambone, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lost Daughter of Happiness (CAROLYN SEE, The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan  (Ruth Rosen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan (Book Browse)
    -REVIEW : of White Snake and Other Stories by Geling Yan (James Bryant MacTavish , City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of White Snake (Nadine Kam, Honolulu Star-Bulletin)
    -REVIEW : of White Snake : From China with Love : Erotic suffering and insatiable desire abound in short stories from writer Geling Yan (Gail Wronsky, New Times Los Angeles)
    -REVIEW : of White Snake (Francis Phillips, Ruminator)

    -INFO :  Tian yu (1998) aka  Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998) (IMDB)
    -PROFILE : Joan Chen : Guerilla Director : The actress talks about the filming of her directorial debut, "Xiu Xiu," under a shadow of Chinese governmental disapproval. (MICHAEL SRAGOW, Salon)
    -PROFILE : TWIN AMBITIONS : Motherhood and a debut as a director are keeping Joan Chen focused (Steven Schwanker, Asia Week)
    -PROFILE : On the Other Side of the Camera : Actress Joan Chen moves easily into her new role as director (Justin Lowe, Asian Week)
    -INTERVIEW : with Joan Chen (Franz Lidz)
    -INTERVIEW : with Joan Chen  (Rob Blackwelder, Spliced Online)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Ella Taylor, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Cynthia Fuchs , Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (GEMMA FILES, Eye)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Andy Klein, Miami New Times)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Political Film Society)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu ( JEFF FARANCE , Daytona Beach News-Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Hannah Brown, NY Post)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Rob Blackwelder, Spliced Online)
    -REVIEW : of Xiu Xiu (Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix)

    -RADCLIFFE FELLOW : Cathy Silber : Chinese Literature Bunting Program