A Chinese Odyssey

Anne Thurston is an experienced China scholar who speaks fluent Chinese. When she met the Chinese dissident-in-exile Ni Yuxian in New York, she resolved to go to China and reconstruct his life story.

Ni was born in Cao Family Village, just across the Huangpu River from Shanghai. The deaths of his two sisters marked Ni Yuxian as a favored child right from the beginning, helping create in him a sense of destiny that marked his career and influenced his attitude toward women in general.

Yuxian’s schoolboy obstreperousness kept him in trouble with his teachers and prefigured the life that was to come. As a senior middle school student and member of the communist Youth League, Yuxian opposed himself immediately to his homeroom teacher and political instructor. Yuxian was in these years reading Western political philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau and studying the French Revolution.

In 1960, Ni Yuxian met Zhao Yuefang, his future wife, and was allowed to enter the army. After four years of resistance to Party ways, including writing a scandalous letter to Chairman Mao protesting the rural famine, Yuxian was dismissed from the army and assigned to work in a factory. Labeled a rightist and a counterrevolutionary, Yuxian was nevertheless admitted to the Shanghai Maritime Academy in 1965.

At the Academy, Ni Yuxian found a natural setting for his dissident views. The devastating Cultural Revolution overtook China soon after Yuxian settled in Shanghai, and he was quickly at odds with the Shanghai Party leadership, which included three of the now dishonored Gang of Four.

Yuxian’s most dramatic resistance to Party tyranny came with his plastering a public wall with an inflammatory protest poster. For this act Ni Yuxian spent the years 1977-1979 in prison under circumstances of extreme filth and cruelty.

The climax to Ni’s ongoing struggle against Party brutality and corruption came when the journalist Liu Binyan wrote an article about Ni that made him a national figure. This widespread notoriety forced Ni Yuxian to contrive an ingenious escape to America, where he has since been involved to various degrees with Chinese exile organizations resisting the Beijing administration.

Ni Yuxian’s life has been fraught with danger and drama. Anne Thurston’s knowledge of the country’s language and culture has enabled her to educe from Ni, his relatives, and his intimates a story that illuminates many of the dark aspects of modern China.