A wild child finds self amid chaos

Annie Wang's 'Lily: A Novel of Tiananmen' is less about the Tiananmen protest, than about a young woman's personal tale of coming to grips with the world around her

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 18

It's mid-morning some time in the 1980s, and in Beijing a teenager called Lili lies in her bath. She applies cucumber facial mask and reads forbidden books. She imagines that by being unemployed she is enacting Taoism's highest principle of embracing the "Great Void." For spending money she plays the erhu in the coffee shop of a Western-style luxury hotel. For sex, she gives her body to street thugs.

The author of Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen, Annie Wang, is a Beijing-born woman now aged 29. She lives in California and this is the first novel she has written in English. It's fresh, confident and direct. It's also abrasive, brash and sentimental -- "written with bracing rawness and immediacy" says the blurb. All in all, however, the end result is a readable and reasonably likeable book.

Lili is the wild-spirited and unconventional daughter of affluent parents. But they are not members of the Communist Party (and have therefore never had the chance to travel in an aircraft). They are musicians, and during the Cultural Revolution were branded as "stinky number 9s," in other words intellectuals, the ninth category of hated and despised counter-revolutionaries.

One day Lili gets the chance to go to Inner Mongolia to perform on her erhu for tourists. While there she meets an American called Roy Goldstein, a journalist who believes in peace and love, and is in China to "find his eastern side." The Chinese, however, have been taught that there can be no peace and love while there are class differences between oppressors and oppressed. But Lili is no follower of orthodox doctrines, and she listens to Roy with interest.

The two take camel rides together every morning, and Roy tells her that he once had a Japanese sweetheart, but she was killed in a car accident. Back in Beijing he takes her to dinner in an expensive Western restaurant and to a classical concert. Eventually they become lovers, living together in their "forbidden nest." This all takes place in pre-Tiananmen Beijing. Despite the novel's title, events in the Square only occupy the final quarter of the book. Prior to that we learn about Lili's city friends, such as Spring Ocean who saves her when Lili is confronted by a hostile gang, and strangers she encounters when with Roy, such as Bright Monk who inhabits a mountain temple only to escape peasant life, and may soon become a Mormon with the aim of getting a free education in Utah.

Lili is clearly meant to represent the younger generation in China, or at least in Beijing. She's more open about sex than her parents. Indeed, she's earlier been sentenced to three months' rehabilitation through labor for "sexual misconduct." The circumstances in which Annie Wang was brought up in Beijing, according to a recent interview, very much resembled those she creates for her fictional heroine. Wang was 17 at the time of the Tiananmen Square events. She later studied in the US, then returned to China and worked as an interpreter for the US State Department, and through this obtained a US visa. She has been living in Berkeley, California since 1990, spends her time between China and the US, and has recently added Hong Kong to her list of domiciles.

This is undeniably a strongly written book. What makes it impressive is the string of encounters with vividly etched minor characters it contains. A guide who feels racially demeaned because Roy doesn't pay him for a tour in US dollars, a kid who hugs Lili on the street at a time when hugging was considered reactionary behavior, the father who pins up a notice under the name "Old Teacher" supporting the students during the Tiananmen protests -- these add extra life to a narrative that already has plenty of immediacy and sparkle.

The Tiananmen days are memorably evoked, but it's doubtful whether they are really as central to the story as the book's title suggests. This is indeed a time of tension for Lili, but for other reasons -- it's then that she discovers she is pregnant, and that two party activists turn up to interrogate her, and in the process inform her that her former lover has been deported.

The question at issue with regard to this book is how far the sentimentality of the love interest diminishes the undoubted vividness of the narrative as a whole. Wang has stated that what she wanted to create was a story in which a woman's view of the world is changed by her experience of events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The only way this can relate to the book as published, however, is if Lili is first seen as a conventional girl accepting most of the beliefs of her fellows, and then suddenly perceives the truth of what her American boy-friend has been saying when she witnesses the actions of her government's troops.

But this is not what takes place. Instead, Lili has been a tear-away from the start, and believes most of what she hears from Roy the moment the words leave his mouth. The idea that she experiences a "sudden revelation," therefore, looks like something imposed later, possibly by marketing executives anxious for straightforward political appeal.

The cliche of the Asian girl steeped in the assumptions of her culture being swept off her feet by the tall and forthright Westerner both mars the work and fails to fit with the other ingredients of the tale. Nevertheless, this is a vibrant novel, a book that has more than enough liveliness and honesty in its detail to make up for any shortcomings in the plot.

But when Annie Wang thanks a long list of friends in her acknowledgments, citing some as contributing their expertise and others whose "wisdom and scholarship greatly improved Lili," it's inevitable that you start to wonder what the book would have been like had its author had been left to write it as she felt it, all on her own.

Publication Notes:

Lily: A Novel of Tiananmen

By Annie Wang

320 Pages

Pantheon books