China is a topic of considerable interest today, and 2019 marks not only the 30thanniversary of the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, but the 40thanniversary of the now-forgotten Democracy Movement and “Peking Spring” of 1979. Needless to say, those events will not be commemorated in Xi Jinping’s China. They do, however, form the backdrop to this story about a young woman who goes off to Maoist China in the late 1970s, almost on a whim, what becomes of her when she enters into an illicit affair, and how the consequences change her life.
It is the summer of 1989 – an optimistic period, with the old Communist order collapsing and the new millennium just around the corner. Melissa is in London,gripped by events in Tiananmen Square. They trigger memories of a time thirteen years earlier, when as a former hippie-turned-pseudo-Maoist, she obtained a scholarship to China.
Although 1976 was an eventful year (the Tangshan earthquake, Mao’s death and the campaign against the so-called Gang of Four), it is a disappointment to her and shatters her flimsy ideals. The foreign students are segregated from the Chinese; classes are rigid and dull. Even her roommate spouts only empty propaganda.
Melissa leaves for Hong Kong the following summer but returns a year later when it becomes clear that things are moving on the mainland. Now in 1978 change is palpable, and nowhere more so than in Peking’s Xidan intersection that November, where a poster-covered wall has been nicknamed Democracy Wall. Here Melissa meet a young activist called Jianguo and they start an illicit love affair.
Now ten years later she is in a new and serious relationship. She feels that she needs to tell her Polish photo-journalist boyfriend rather more than he knows about that earlier period of her life. As Melissa reminisces the tanks roll into Tiananmen Square.
Shortly afterwards, an old friend calls from Hong Kong to tell her that one of the Tiananmen escapees claims to be Jianguo’s younger brother. He is due to arrive in London on his way to the US, where he has been granted asylum. Melissa is intrigued and agrees to put him up. But can this young man really be who he claims to be?
The Chinese, of course, write brilliantly about their country, but the author is interested in the West’s changing perceptions of China, the love-hate fascination that fluctuates from racist to romantic, depending on the political and economic climate of the time. The title is taken from Taoist classic (the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes) that was popular as a divination tool with hippies in the 1960s — an example of the “romantic” view of China, even though the county was then undergoing one of the most violent episodes in its history.