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A Hundred Flowers: A Novel by Gail Tsukiyama (2013-08-27)

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    Gail Tsukiyama(Author)

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  • Gail Tsukiyama(Author)
  • St. Martin's Griffin (1761)
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  • By Grandma on July 27, 2012

    When an author gets the easily researched stuff dead wrong it calls the entire work into question! How can Tsukiyama speak with authority about the conditions in Mao's China in 1958 when she does not even know what they were?I have had an interest in all things Chinese since my youngest years. One of my very earliest playmates was a boy who had come to the USA from China after Mao came to power. My parents sponsored his and he and I went to school together. Back in those days there was no such thing as school lunch, so children went home for lunch. He and I took turns. One week he would come to my house, eat American food with a fork and learn about things American. The next I would go to his, eat Chinese food with chopsticks and learn about things Chinese. Over the years I've taken classes in Chinese history, written a thesis on Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism and watched the Tienanmen Square protest unfold over a computer network set up by local Chinese students. I also happened, along the way, to become a medical scientist.Now, I don't tell you all this to bore you with details and minutiae of my life. I just want you to understand where I am coming from when I tell you how I perceived A Hundred Flowers: A Novel which begins in July of 1958. Gail Tsukiyama starts out reasonably well - until "Tao"* falls out of a tree and is carried off to the hospital on a flatbed pedicab in Guangzhou, which at the time was more usually known as Canton.For nearly 200 years the city of Canton was the gateway of the West to China. It was here that the British and Russians and Germans and Americans brought their goods to trade (all too often opium) and here where the journey of all the wonders of the East that made their way to drawing rooms in London and fine homes in New England began. For much of that time foreigners living in China were allowed to live only in Canton and they left only with the end of World War II and the takeover of China by Mao Zhedong. The large population of Westerners brought with them many things - large homes, beautiful shopping areas, grand promenades and Western medicine, including Western hospitals. It was, one must assume, one of these to which little Tao was taken on the back of that flatbed pedicab.1958 was a hugely important year in Chinese history. This is the year that Mao and the Central Committee declared that the production of steel and grain would double. Each individual, even children, was given a quota to produce, quotas so extreme that people built smelters in the courtyards and melted down their own pots and pans, even their farming equipment. By late summer of 1958 Mao and the Central Committee realized that the targets set by the Great Leap Forward had been far too extreme and tried to correct them, but by then it was too late. What followed was one of the worst famines ever to occur in modern times, during which many millions of people starved to death. (Estimates range between 16-40 million. There are no official figures.)1958 was also the year that China undertook a huge reorganization of labor. This was the year that the great People's Communes were established, which saw the end of private ownership of farm land and the movement of huge numbers of people into the countryside, often to "reeducation camps."And there begins the story. Little Tao's father had been arrested at home early one morning the year before for daring to write a letter critical of Mao and the Central Committee. (The reader must assume that Tao's father wrote this letter during the 100 Flowers Campaign of 1956, during which time Mao encouraged people to criticize the government. In 1957, there was a crackdown on all of those who dared to do so. Most were sent to reeducation camps, many never to be heard from again. Their families, when they were not shipped off along with the offender, became outcasts, deprived of all rights and often any means of support, beggars that even long-time neighbors didn't dare to speak to.)Never mind the fact that as former property owners Tao's family was already suspect or that the Tao's father had lost his job and the family's food rations had been reduced because of his actions, Tao is hauled off to a Western hospital where he is treated with the very best of Western medicine available in China in 1958 - never mind that the Chinese had no such thing as health insurance or that the family was poor, with no property and few rights.And so, Gail gives us our first look at the inside of a Chinese hospital in 1958:"Tao's room was small and bare. It was dark in the late-afternoon gloom. He seemed to be swallowed up by all the tubes and a machine attached to him that monitored his heart rate with a beeping sound that filled the room."Let me repeat that last bit - "a machine attached to him that monitored his heart rate with a beeping sound that filled the room."Even in the very finest and most expensive private facility in the United States, no such machine was ever attached to anyone in 1958. That technology simply did not exist! It began - only began- to be developed in the 1960s with an automatic blood pressure cuff. EKG (ECG - same thing) machines were developed earlier, but these were huge laboratory instruments, not the machine one hooked up to a patient for constant monitoring. This technology did not develop until the advent of computers and became commonplace, even here in the United States, only in the late 80s.Medicine in 1958 was very different than it is today. There was no such thing as a private room for anyone other than the very wealthy - even in the United States. A Chinese child who was to all intents and purposes a charity case would hardly have had a private room. There were no plastic needles as we have today. Injections were given with needles attached to a glass vial that were then sterilized and reused - except in poorer parts of the world where they might simply be reused. Doctors did all of their own laboratory work and often dispensed prescriptions themselves. EVEN here in the United States.Chinese medicine in 1958 was in a far worse state. At the time there were only about 40,000 Western or Russian trained doctors for the entire population of China - about 653.5 MILLION people in 1958 (see population chart at Chinatoday). It was, in fact, not long after this time that the Chinese began training Barefoot Doctors, medical paraprofessionals with a basic knowledge of Chinese traditional medicine and first aid who went out to deliver care to the masses. In most of China, little Tao would have been lucky to have even seen a doctor. A private room for a charity case who was the child of a man considered a traitor? Not hardly!The first job of a novelist in constructing a story is to make the reader find the story believable. Gail Tsukiyama's A Hundred Flowers: A Novel is as far from believable as one would be if I wrote that the documents for the Japanese surrender ceremony at the end of World War II were "word processed" on a Sony computer or that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by the light flowing from an electric lamp. She has not done her homework well - or apparently even at all.Far from accurate. Not believable. Not recommended.*Tao is a religion, not a name. After Mao took over China, most children were given names glorifying the revolution, often containing the word "red". Naming a Chinese child Tao is a bit like naming an Irish one Catholic.

  • By Guest on August 7, 2012

    In 1957, Chairman Mao proclaimed "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." However, he failed to explain the unacceptable critiquing of the Party. Within one year of his declaration for open dialogue, the Communist party continues to round up the outspoken dissenters.The police take history teacher Sheng Ying to a reeducation camp. His family is devastated by their loss of a loved one and on the economic impact of their new pariah status compounded by the incarceration of the breadwinner. His wife herbalist Kai Ying, their son Tao, his family friend Aunty Song, and his father art history professor Wei struggle with what has happened to Sheng. The adults try to hide the truth from Tao, but he learns about his father's fate from taunting students at school. His grandfather admits his role in what occurred; further tearing apart a grieving frightened family.This historical thriller is a great character study of a Chinese family caught up in Mao's latest revolution. The perspective of life following a government sponsored rendition of a loved one is rotated between each member so that their fears and their interrelationships are fully developed yet also evolve since the abduction effects how each feel towards one another. Although there is no action, readers will appreciate the ordeal of a family and friends during the Hundred Flowers Campaign that challenged millennium of Chinese philosophy by going after the intellectuals.Harriet Klausner

  • By C.Solis on April 14, 2013

    Who are these people and where do they live? They're not Chinese, that's for sure. They have Chinese names, eat Chinese food (sometimes), and supposedly the events in the book occur during the Hundred Flowers movement and during the Great Leap Forward but there is not one moment in the entire novel where I was convinced that the author had done anything more than read a few Wikipedia articles for background--nothing seems genuine: the food, the people, the way they talk to and relate to one another and certainly not the feeling of the period in which they supposedly are living. I've read books of all kinds over the past 40 years written by Chinese authors, including non-fiction, historical and political biographies as well as novels, and I can honestly say, these characters sound like British or Americans talking to each other, eating buttered toast for breakfast (really??) or mom baking coconut custard pies or putting a new baby in a 'bassinet'--even more unbelievable is the hospital stay in a private room attached to a heart monitor--in 1958--in China! This is a western story with a badly drawn Chinese face papered over it, with no relation to any real Chinese person I've ever met,or how they may have spoken or lived or thought in such a tumultuous and dangerous period; a pretty tale, generic and rather bland with no true emotional depth to it at all. Time after time, through-out the story I was jerked back by the lack of authenticity to time and people and place. The author's knowledge or China, her history and people appears shallow and cursory at best. The Chinese people, whether peasants or students, teachers or street vendors, sales girls or old guys in the park playing chess, are a helluva lot more interesting, warm, vital and ALIVE than are presented in this fairy tale. I kept waiting for the story to grab me, for something to happen to show me who these characters really are, but the whole story just skated along, with little meaningless sprinkles of history or the author's version of 'local color', like something in a travel brochure. I checked at the front of the book looking for some indication that it was written for the teen-age set because it just was not deep enough,or detailed enough in plot OR in character development, for an adult novel. I won't say it was a waste of time, because I love reading, but I would never bother with anything this author writes again. I don't have time to devote to such vanilla-pudding posing as a book when there are so many wonderful REAL Chinese stories and novels out there.

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