Fong Tai, at age nineteen, is already fond of Western ways and balks at his prearranged marriage. China in 1880 is a country divided against itself. The Han majority is ruled by the minority Manchus, whose Empress Dowager (Tsu Hsi of the Ching Dynasty) lives to see the failure of the Boxer Rebellion, which aimed to “purify” China of foreign ideas, at the turn of the century. Though Fong Tai rises to some political prominence, his favored reforms are dashed by the Boxers and his life is lost in the fighting.
Fong’s daughter, Brigid, escapes to France and returns to her homeland full of hate for the Boxers and the old dynasty and fearing the rape of China by European powers. By 1910, Brigid is enmeshed in the politics of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, whose republican sentiments, and the power plays by the Chinese warlords, give way in the 1930’s to war with Japan and the rise of Chinese Communism. Mao Tse-tung declares the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949.
Brigid, an aspiring actress, is confident, temperamental, and incredibly beautiful; a tempestuous affair between Brigid and actor Bo Ho yields Mabel, who at fifteen is discovered by her mother to be a stripper in a local bar. Eventually Mabel marries and accepts the Communist line, but she fears that the Party is turning her two sons, Pang Sin and Jimmy, into robots. Though both boys become Red Guards in the 1960’s, Jimmy’s humanity triumphs over the reigning student terrorism; in 1976, he welcomes a new pragmatism, a new openness in China.
The fictional characters created by C.Y. Lee are feisty and intriguing, but his pedestrian prose betrays them. CHINA SAGA is not mere soap opera, for Brigid and Mabel, Pang Sin and Jimmy help illuminate the internal contradictions in Chinese politics and flesh out the book’s theme, that of cultural change. Yet the reader longs for emotional depth that is more than cliche. The characters live for a moment; but in the end it is the reality of China that holds the reader’s interest.