Eighth Moon: The True Story of A Young Girl's Life In Communist China Analysis

Bette Bao Lord

Literary Techniques

Eighth Moon is told from the perspective of its female protagonist Sansan. It is essentially a first-person narration with some shifting in time sequence which helps to clarify the action. The book begins when Sansan is on the train leaving the Peking station to meet her real mother. She begins to reflect upon her old life and reveals that her "Mama" and "Papa" were not her "real" parents. She then goes on to let her thoughts roam back over her life in China during the seventeen years that she spent there.

The narrator's voice is an important part of this work. It was carefully created by Lord and has a unforgettable ring of authenticity. The book was constructed from over 250 pages of transcribed interviews that Lord had with Sansan's sister, and the narrator stands as a both an observer and participant. She shares her insight into her Chinese clan or family, her school, her development as a young woman, and her constant hunger and vitamin deficiency. One of the most poignant parts in the book is the time her clothing was so threadbare that she had to dye her underwear with blue ink so that no one would see it through the large holes in her pants. Then when her "real" mother sends her some used clothing from America, Sansan cannot wear it because she will be criticized for wearing something so fine because the government has begun the "campaign of the glorious patches" in order to praise those who patch their clothes.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Eighth Moon gives much insight into the family life of the Chinese and the life in China at a time when few Americans had any contact with the country. There are many contrasts between life in a Communist country and life in an democratic country like the United States. The book provides many opportunities to reflect upon these differences.

1. Why is the title of this work taken from a night in the Chinese lunar calendar when the moon is at its fullest and families traditionally come together to celebrate?

2. Sansan tells the reader that her early "happy days blended into one another without much to remember: I played, waited for Papa, ate dinner and fell asleep. Life seemed to go on like this forever, until the soldiers came." What are the significant differences between what her life was like before and after the revolution.

3. Sansan learns fairly early how to take part in the "political and life discussions." It seems that initially everything she does or says is wrong. How does she learn to control her self? Is this an effective way of controlling someone's free speech?

4. Sansan represented the school in making requests from local factories and stores. Her technique is very successful. Why do you think it is successful?

5. Sansan talks a great deal about Lao dung. She says that they did not receive grades for it but that the remarks made by fellow students were recorded and included in their "personal files" at school. Think about the types of things that are in your grade school files. Why do you think these remarks were so important to their future?

6. In 1958, the Chinese government started a program called "The Great Leap Forward." What was the program and what was it supposed to accomplish. Do you think it could have ever have been successful? Why or why not?

7. Although she was not very enthusiastic about the physical labor, Sansan was in favor of...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Social Concerns

This book examines life in China under Communism; it provides a great deal of insight into the workings of the different programs initiated by the Communists in China in order to create economic stability, increase production, and assume a place as a world power. It graphically shows how the different programs were enacted and how people responded to them. The first changes seem quite slight. The first change is one which everyone feels is good: Young Sansan is delighted to learn that education and school are free. Her parents will no longer have to pay for her education. Then she learns that she must contribute by working on different programs or projects. Although she is reluctant to do so, she begins to work on the first project — a project that seems quite easy. All the students build furnaces for the school. Once this task is completed however, the students are assigned eight-hour shifts to man the furnaces. Next they are told they will work in the country during their vacation. After that they learn there is another series of duties that must be performed. Food becomes scarcer. Along with these work projects comes the program of constructive criticism or Young Pioneer meetings where students confess their wrong-doings and accuse others of counterrevolutionary behavior.

The portrait Lord paints is one of a country in transition from a feudal way of life to a more modern life. The changes bring fear and privation. Many people are punished for speaking their minds. Some of the punishments are very subtle, some are overt. Punishment ranges from no one speaking to the offender all the way to being sent off to work camps or to prison.

No one has any choice in their lives. The students are assigned jobs by the state, and although she wants to become a doctor, Sansan is assigned to teacher's school. She knows that because she is so young, when she becomes a teacher many of her students will be older that she is. She also knows that she will never earn much money. However she has no recourse until she flees China. This loss of personal freedom for the glory of the state is one of the greatest concerns of the book and one which Lord skillfully interweaves through Sansan's story.

Literary Precedents

Although this is not a diary, it has many similarities to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl (1952). Both books deal with a girl's coming of age during a time of political upheaval. There is never enough food, there is never enough privacy, and there is constant, unrelenting fear. The young women have to watch every word they say; only in these books are they able to reveal their thoughts about the people and situations they encounter.

Related Titles

Many of the clan characters from Eighth Moon were interviewed by Bette Bao Lord for her Legacies (1990; please see separate entry). It is fascinating to see them from another vantage point.