Mr. China’s Son

A Villager’s Life


Liyi He; Claire Anne Chik

Second Edition • July 1, 2002 • 336 pages


Print ISBN: 9780813339795 • $45.00 USD$59.99 CAN

Ebook ISBN: 9780813346199 • $29.99 USD$34.99 CAN

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      He Liyi belongs to one of China’s minorities, the Bai, and he lives in a remote area of northwestern Yunnan Province. In 1979, his wife sold her fattest pig to buy him a shortwave radio. He spent every spare moment listening to the BBC and VOA in order to improve the English he had learned at college between 1950 and 1953. For further practice, he decided to write down his life story in English. Humorous and unfiltered by translation, his autobiography is direct and personal, full of richly descriptive images and phrases from his native Bai language. At the time of He Liyi’s graduation, English was being vilified as the language of the imperialists, so the job he was assigned had nothing to do with his education. In 1958, he was labeled a rightist and sent to a reeducation-through-labor farm. Spirited away by truck on the eve of his marriage, Mr. He spent years in the labor camp, where he schemed to garner favor from the authorities, who nevertheless shamed him publicly and told him that all his problems belong to contradictions between the people and the enemy. After his release in 1962, the talented Mr. He had no choice but to return to his native village as a peasant. His stratagems for survival, which included stealing nightsoil from public toilets and extracting peach-pit oil from thousands of peaches, personify the peasant’s universal struggle to endure those difficult years. He Liyi’s autobiography recounts nearly all the major events of China’s recent history, including the Japanese occupation, the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the experience of labor camps, changes brought about by China’s dramatic re-opening to the world after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, and the recent social and economic changes occurring in the post-Deng China. No other book so poignantly reveals the travails of the common person and village life under china’s tempestuous Communist government, which He Liyi ironically refers to as Mr. China. Yet he describes his saga of poverty and hardship with humor and a surprising lack of bitterness. And rarely has there been such an intimate, frank view of how a Chinese man thinks and feels about personal relationships, revealed in dialogue and letters to his two wives. He Liyi’s autobiography stands as perhaps the most readable and authentic account available in English of life in rural China.

He Liyi’s previous book is The Spring of Butterflies, a translation of Chinese folk tales.

Claire Anne Chik is currently teaching English as a Second Language at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has taught English at Kumming Institute of Technology and Yunnan University from 1983 to 1986.

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Praise for the Previous Edition:
This book is a gently insistent, haunting testimony to the human capacity for resilience and creativity in the face of the chaos and oppression of twentieth-century China. Pulled along by this engaging narrative, we learn many important lessons about Chinese society and history. We gain insight into the culture and ambivalent sense of identity of the Bai national minority in Yunnan Province. We see the similarities as well as the differences between local Chinese government under the Nationalist and Communist regimes. We are taken inside China’s reform-through-labor camps. We are helped in understanding the dynamics of the cultural revolution and the promises and disappointments of China’s policies of opening and reform. But most important of all, we get a subtle sense of the bittersweet flavor of Chinese life— the ironies and paradoxes of modern Chinese culture— as conveyed in Mr. He’s unforgettable literary voice.
— Richard Madsen, China scholar and coauthor of Habits of the Heart

In the last two decades several autobiographies written by people who survived the Chinese political maelstrom of the past 40 years have appeared in English. The patterns of these authors’ lives are often similar, but occasionally a book presents a unique perspective on the period. He’s book is in this category. Mr. China’s Son remains and excellent account of a remarkable man who survived a difficult period in Chinese history.
— Choice

China’s Son will help business people and others with an interest in China comprehend the traumas suffered by the Chinese people during the first three decades of the PRC. He Liyi’s story gives Western readers a framework for understanding the bizarre history which created many of today’s successful Chinese business people.
— The China Business Review

…engrossing anecdotes are sprinkled with fresh images and charming folk wisdom.
— Multicultural Review

He’s story is a testament to the stoicism that has survived both political dogma and Beijing’s smug rulers and gives hope for China’s revival.
— Far Eastern Economic Review

In describing his village life, Mr. He gives a rare and valuable insight into the lives of the Bai people from their festivals and superstitions to family economics.
— South China Morning Post

The book is simple, charming and by turns funny and sad…. In agonizing over the right path to take in a life fraught with perils, there is a touch of Dostoevsky, but never does he become pretentious or boring. His remains a tale of an ordinary man caught up in the maelstrom of 20th-century China.
— Asiaweek

This is the searing story of an extraordinary man who triumphed over unimaginable adversities to resume his calling as an English teacher in a remote mountain school in 1979. His own story is also an invaluable entré into the customs, joys, and travails of his rural neighbors. That he wrote this story himself in simple but often lyrical and exquisite English is a gift to us all that is almost beyond belief. This book belongs in all libraries.
— Library Journal

Mr. He Liyi is irrepressible….through all this he keeps up a seemingly unassailable optimism and constant striving for betterment. Mr. He is much more a man of the land of China than the majority of the urban-based intellectuals whose experiences we are more familiar with. Through his eyes we get a glimpse of life in rural China, truly Mr. China’s son.
— Asian Affairs

This surprising book is truly history from the bottom up…. it shows how changes in the world’s largest country filtered through the life of one village and an observant but never bitter patriot. He’s determination to tell his story suggests that the government— Mr. China— has not ground out his individuality.
— Publisher’s Weekly

a delightful autobiography. Mr. China’s Son allows us to follow the history of China and gain insight into the effect of Chinese government and politics on remote Yunnan.
— China Review International

Among the many autobiographies by Chinese individuals published in English, this book stands out as unique, compelling, and arguably the most readable testimony of a personal experience in socialist China…. with every page, the originality of He’s book becomes more apparent. He’s book is the most authentic account of private life in rural China thus far.
— The China Journal

In an original and captivating style, He Liyi has recounted China’s tumultuous national struggle as seen from the village level: a peasant’s persistence against pain, a minority man’s coming to terms with his own identity, a father’s hope for a better future for himself and his family. Mr. China’s Son will prove to be a classic, one hopes the first in a long line of country narratives to come.
— The Journal of Asian Studies

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