Da Chen, the brilliant storyteller who drew from the hardships he suffered as a persecuted child growing up in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution to create the critically acclaimed memoir “Colors of the Mountain,” has died at age 57.
Chen died of lung cancer on Dec. 17, his wife, Dr. Sun-Ling Chen, said Tuesday from the family’s home in Temecula.
His most recent book, “Girl Under a Red Moon,” was published three months ago.
Chen’s breakthrough came in 1999 with the critically acclaimed, bestselling “Colors of the Mountain,“ in which he recounted the abuses he and his family suffered during the latter years of the country’s Cultural Revolution.
It was a time when the Communist Party and its leader, Mao Tse-tung, were cementing their grip on power after the country’s 1949 revolution. Chen’s family, who had been prosperous landowners, became pariahs, as did many others.
Chen was bullied in school and eventually kicked out to work in fields as a preteen while his father and grandfather, college-educated intellectuals, were tortured and sent to reeducation camps.
“He watched his father being hung up by his thumbs and beaten and his grandfather stoned frequently with rocks thrown at him by children,“ Chen’s wife said. “He would undergo a lot of humiliation parades where they would throw fruit and other things at him. Frequently he was sent to labor camps where he worked with people twice his age digging irrigation trenches in the mountains.“
Eventually a kindhearted teacher sneaked Chen back into school and, after Mao died in 1976, he was allowed to take the country’s college entrance exam, on which he scored among the highest in the country. He was admitted to the prestigious Beijing Language and Culture University; upon graduation he joined the faculty teaching English.
After being offered a scholarship to Nebraska’s Union College, Chen recalled arriving in the United States with little more than $30 and his treasured bamboo flute. He supported himself for a time as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.
“He always said he was one of the best Chinese waiters in Lincoln, Neb.,” his wife recalled, chuckling.
Soon after his arrival in Nebraska, however, he received a scholarship offer from Columbia University and headed to New York.
After earning a law degree, he went to work as an investment banker on Wall Street. That’s when he also began to turn his hand to writing, inspired by the thriller writer John Grisham.
He tried twice to write a legal thriller like Grisham’s, recalled his wife, who worked as his editor. She described the first effort as awful and the second as mediocre.
It was after the second one that she told him he ought to start writing down those stories he’d told his family about his early years in China.
The result was “Colors of the Mountain,” published to immediate acclaim.
A New York Times bestseller, it has been published in seven languages and, like his other books, taught at schools and universities.
“Despite the devastating circumstances of his childhood and adolescence, Chen recounts his coming of age with arresting simplicity,” Publishers Weekly said of the book. “Readers will cry along with this sad, funny boy who proves tough enough to make it, every step of the painful way.”
Other works include “Sounds of the River,” which recounted his leaving his poor southern Chinese town of Huangshi to attend college in Beijing.
In “Brothers: A Novel,“ Chen turned to fiction in addressing the Cultural Revolution, this time with the tale of two brothers, one born into wealth as the son of a general, another into poverty as the son of the general’s mistress.
He also published several children’s books, including, “Wandering Warrior,“ a fantasy story set in ancient China in which he said the 11-year-old protagonist was the kind of heroic young warrior he fantasized being.
His most recent work, “Girl Under a Red Moon,” casts his real-life sister Xi Xi as the heroine during China’s Cultural Revolution.
In addition to his wife, Chen is survived by a daughter, Victoria; a son, Michael; and four siblings.
Memorial services are pending.