I opened Colors of the Mountain to find a beautiful calligraphy and a red chop along with the word “Happiness” and Da Chen’s scribbled signature. We bought several of his books a few years ago when he came to a Chinese New Year celebration in Manhattan. He sat at a table patiently signing and painting in each book purchased and took the time to talk to everyone with a question or a comment.
The celebration was sponsored by an organization formed by parents who adopted children from China—kids who were abandoned because of the One-Child policy. The children were victims of politics and economics who ended up in the U.S. just as Da Chen himself did, although he grew up in the Cultural Revolution when educated and well-off entrepreneurial families were castigated, relieved of their property and sent to re-education labor camps. Da Chen’s resilience, as a bullied but mischievous small boy who was first-in-class but least in esteem, allowed him to survive an often hellish childhood intact. He seemed rather pleased to see the rambunctious children—most of them girls—decked out in their holiday finery, poring over books and Chinese Barbie dolls, performing traditional dances and watching Monkey King theatrics, gymnasts, er hu players and drummers.
His book is as delightful as he is. In the small southern Chinese village of Yellow Stone, the Chen family is despised as members of the “landlord class.” They spend months starving each year during the famine season and the older children are soon sent to work in the fields. Father and grandfather are frequently called out, mocked, beaten and sent for long stretches to hard labor at re-education camps. Da Chen, the youngest, is a wizard in school but he is shunned, bullied, beaten and even set-up by his teachers and threatened with jail as a nine-year-old boy by the teachers and principal of his school.
He responds by finding a ragtag group of outlaw boys who become his best friends and save him from the awful loneliness and corrosive treatment he endures in school. With his carefree band of trouble makers he learns to smoke, cut school, steal food, cheat at cards and generally misbehave, mostly under the radar of the authorities. He is a character right out of Mark Twain—tricking the unwary to his own advantage, happiest in the middle of a forbidden adventure, a bright kid using his wits to engage with life however mean and brutal it is.
Da Chen is very appealing, even when he drops out of school and becomes a minor lawbreaker. But the shining, early promise of his good grades and admirable industry are casualties of his social survival tactics. When Mao dies and the Party reverses its position on education he is caught short, wanting to take the exams for college but years behind in his studies.
The grown-ups are fully drawn characters in this narrative and they shape the boy as much as his misadventures. Grandpa was a wise, great man who taught Da Chen calligraphy, an art form he still practices. Mother and father struggled to feed their brood and find opportunities to save them from a life as field hands. Da Chen studies English with an older Chinese woman who is a Baptist missionary. He goes head-to-head with incompetent teachers in the local schools and learns what he can from the real teachers who isolate and mock him in class. He spies on pretty girls with his unlettered, hoodlum friends and writes love letters for them. He eggs-on a few friends to try for college, accepts the buddies who would rather perfect their gambling, tutors his eldest brother for the life-changing exams and commits himself to months of 15-hour cram days to sit for the English exams.
This is one of the best portraits of life in the Cultural Revolution I’ve read. It is rich in detail, alive with humor and mischief, equally descriptive of the light-shifting Ching Mountain that overlooks the town, and the bleeding, broken blisters and exhaustion of mandatory farm work. Da Chen’s family is intelligent, loyal and loving. His friends are incorrigible and entertaining. The politics are horrific and infuriating. The boy himself is a born survivor with a quick wit and an inventive approach to his troubles. You have to root for him. And you can’t help being inspired by his valiant, all-out effort to overcome the hand he has been dealt and achieve his dreams.
Colors of the Mountain ends as Da Chen leaves his village for the university in Beijing, an unheard of feat for a boy who went barefoot and hungry for much of his life. His adventures at university and eventual scholarship to Columbia University Law School and life as a bestselling author are all in the future. I’m looking forward to reading a few more of the books we bought from him that day. His debut memoir is one of the most uplifting stories I’ve read in a long time.
Colors of the Mountain Da Chen | Anchor Books 2001