In the spring of 1989, Annie Wang was a 16-year-old academic whiz, honored as one of the 10 most outstanding students in China.
The daughter of a senior newspaper editor, she wrote fiction, hosted radio shows for teenagers and had her mind set on becoming a journalist. Like many of the best talents of her generation, she says, she burned with the desire to study in the United States.
The dream materialized in 1993, when Wang enrolled at UC Berkeley and began her journey out of China--a journey that culminated this month with the U.S. publication of a novel that has some hailing her as a striking new literary voice. "Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen" is inspired by the June 1989 bloody denouement of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, exploring the role of this very brutal and public event on the inner self of a young woman. "I see Annie as the first writer of a new generation who came of age in the shadow of Tiananmen," says Dan Frank, the novel's editor at Pantheon Books, who has also collaborated with such U.S.-published Chinese authors as Jung Chung and Anchee Min.
While they and other Chinese-born writers wrote at length about Mao's China of the 1960s and 1970s, Wang's book is set in the 1980s at a time when Deng Xiaoping's reforms began to change the country.
"Because she was educated in the United States, Wang is offering a totally different perspective on China," notes Anson Yang, who teaches Asian literature at the City University of Hong Kong. "And it's definitely important for a Chinese woman writer to tackle such a big issue as the Tiananmen events."
Brought up by liberal-minded parents in a comfortable Beijing nest, the author experienced firsthand the benefits of Deng's thawing politics. At home she listened to Tchaikovsky, memorized Tang Dynasty poems and learned to pluck the strings of the guquin --a traditional Chinese instrument--to the tune of classical pieces.
She earned the privilege of attending Beijing's No. 2 High School, where the elite cadres of the Chinese Communist Party sent their offspring. The institution was a preppy haven where Wang and her cosmopolitan classmates could sink their teeth into once forbidden fruits of capitalism--liberal thinking, James Bond flicks and Nabokov novels.
The Tiananmen events, Wang says, yanked her out of a comfortable existence and propelled her on a new course. In May 1989, pedaling her bicycle through Tiananmen Square on her way to school, she reveled in the carnival atmosphere of the demonstrations. But as People's Liberation Army tanks rolled into Tiananmen, Wang vowed to bear witness.
"I saw soldiers at every intersection," remembers Wang. "I saw blood. I saw things, and those images stayed with me. I had such an impulse to say something. This idea of writing about a woman and how her life changes somehow was born at that time."
The result is a kaleidoscopic view of 1980s China, seen through the eyes of Lili, a street-smart heroine who turns tricks on the sidewalks of Beijing as an easy fix to boredom. Wang says Lili's cynicism and selfishness are emblematic of an entire generation of young Chinese brought up on a steady diet of lies and institutionalized hatred in the years of the Cultural Revolution.
Born into a family of "filthy intellectuals" in Beijing, Lili is deported to the countryside on a re-education trip but escapes back to the city after being raped by a party official. Permanently branded an "undesirable element," she drifts to the fringes of society and finds protection in the arms of teen gangsters who terrorize the neighborhoods.
The narrative hopscotches in a series of snapshots capturing the poverty and indignity of China's provincial backwaters, the snug comforts party officials enjoy, the materialism of a new urban generation and the tension between Chinese values and the transplanted cultural heritage of the West.
There are other glimpses too: the obsession so many Chinese have with obtaining a Beijing residence permit, the forbidden joy of discovering disco music and the creation of subversive art that makes mock use of Chairman Mao's effigy.
Of the ambitious scope of her book--which took her 10 years to write--Wang says, "I wanted to write about all these complex things--especially how the Chinese need a new faith, something to restore their confidence."
Lili's self-discovery begins when she meets Roy, an American journalist with an unwavering optimism and a love of all things Chinese. He incites her to see herself and her country through fresh eyes, a process that culminates with Lili's participation in the Tiananmen events. As she befriends teen hunger strikers who camp out in the square like audiences at a rock concert, Lili finds her detached cynicism melt and make room for what Wang calls "the magic of something greater than oneself."
Although she insists "Lili" is not autobiographical, Wang says that without participating in the movement, she too would be like "a typical Chinese youth today who only cares about material things and has no interests in the political progress of China."
Today, Wang splits her time between Hong Kong, where she moved last year, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Employed as an interpreter and cultural liaison at the State Department, she has kept writing and now has two books in the works.
"Lili" has been published only in the U.S. and only in English. Wang says she is not worried about the book's success--or lack thereof--if it should surface in her native country.
"A lot of times, books by Chinese authors that are popular in the West are hated in China," she says. "There is a belief that you must kowtow in order to succeed in the West.
"But people of my generation have become more cosmopolitan, and I really think it's possible to be successful in both places."