If I were to say this is a breathtaking book you might easily misunderstand. But I mean it quite literally. I got to the end of many a page in this chilling memoir of growing up in China and had to force myself to draw breath.
The story of Chi An, who came of age in China in the 1950s and ‘60s and became a politically correct member of the population police, is a poignant one, a terrifying indictment of a policy that perverted the notion of individual choice--and prevented her, as an adult with two children, from living in her own homeland.
Chi An was the second of four children born to an engineer and a schoolteacher: he the perennial cheery optimist, full of good will and affection; she a dour, sensible woman who believed that her husband was the happy exception in a life destined to be full of suffering. His untimely death in a drowning accident, when Chi An was 11, plunged the family into the financial and emotional depths; there was not enough food, clothing, furniture or love to go around, and the implied message was that a smaller family would have been more manageable.
The Yang family endured a series of hardships, thanks to what Chi An now perceives as the irrational whims of Mao Zedong.
The scenes would qualify as black comedy if the consequences were not so painful. The government decided to increase its steel output, so school shut down for weeks while a smelter was built--but it could not make steel because the only available fuel was brown coal, which burned at too low a temperature. The government decided that the private meal should be abolished and all families eat together--which meant that the Yangs could donate their steel pots to be melted into ingots, to make the smelting operation.
An intestinal ailment protected Chi An from having to serve in rural villages as a nursing student; when she came home she met her future husband--much too short, as she tells us over and over again, but otherwise acceptable.
Chi An privately balked at the government’s aggressive interest in her reproductive future (the civil wedding ceremony included the insistent demand that she and her husband sign a contract promising to have no more than two children), but publicly she was that most worrisome of creatures, the one who does not resist.
She had been born at a time when China endorsed the notion of big families. Now the government was rewriting history, and insisting that a small family was the only responsible way to ensure that China became a strong, competitive nation.
Certainly it was not easy to evade the family-planning noose, which tightened to discourage even second children. Having set a new policy, the government embraced it with frightening zeal. Chi An had one abortion because her will to keep her baby collapsed in the face of soulless officials who ordered her to do otherwise.
Women determined to give birth told her desperate stories of hiding their conditions, and, when that was no longer possible, fleeing their homes and families until they could return with an infant. For China drew a cold distinction: Killing a newborn was murder. Killing a child even as its head crowned was still technically abortion, and a brave contribution to the public good.
The stories Chi An tells, of women screaming in pain as doctors debated the best way to eliminate a newborn, are almost impossible to read.
What makes her story so tragic--and so grotesque--is that, despite her ambivalence, she obediently became part of the machine, browbeating women into abortions and sterilizations, performing abortions on women desperate to bear their children and assisting in late-term abortions. Her conscience was numbed by fear of reprisal. Given the choice between informing on a friend who was already in labor with an “illegal” child and having to report that birth, she informed.
And then, at 38, living with her student husband in the United States, she unexpectedly became pregnant.
The victimizer was now the victim: She was instructed long-distance to get rid of her “problem” or she, her family back in China and her co-workers would face the consequences. Instead she and her husband applied for and received political asylum--in which they were aided by author Mosher, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Institute, to whom Chi An recounted her story--and today live in the Southwest with their son and daughter.
In an ironic twist, they have been adopted by the anti-abortion movement and Catholic opponents of birth control, who see Chi An’s fate as proof of the evils of abortion.
The pro-choice forces could as easily have taken up her cause. Her story is not about the evils of contraception. It is about government taking away a woman’s right to choose.