Colors of the Mountain
By Da Chen
Book Group 1 – November 2019
In the autobiography of his upbringing in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Da describes his struggles as an intelligent, artistic child of a former wealthy family to live among society in which all his values and capabilities stigmatized him as an outsider.
Da was born in 1962 in a village in Southern China as the youngest of five children. The Chens were former landlords who became, as a result of Mao’s fundamental changes of Chinese society, the village outcasts. The family was still allowed to stay in their house but lost all their lands, shops and jobs. Despite the extreme hardship and harassment which each of the family member had to bear and cope with, their spirit of a family united in love and values kept alive. These descriptions of his family’s mutual understanding are surely touching.
Bared of any outside contacts Da learnt from early age calligraphy and Chinese poetry from his grandfather, with whom he was very close. Also his mother’s spirit of defiance and the positive embrace of life by his father shaped and supported the young Da.
It was then at school he was forced to defend himself against the politically motivated attacks of his classmates and teachers. After primary school he reached a point of complete disillusion by experiencing the fact that knowledge and learning was of no value in Mao’s China. He was on the edge of giving up the righteous path and joining his gambling friends, when the political situation changed after the death of Mao. As a consequence school education was valued again and schools and colleges were opened up for all parts of society. That was Da’s chance to try for an entrance into college and to leave behind misery and injustice. Encouraged by his parents and supported by his whole family his eagerness and resilience succeeded in scoring high at his final exams and his dream came true: he was accepted into a college in Beijing. The book ends with the emotional scene of Da leaving behind his native village and his family to join the college in the Capital.
After Da finished college he got a full scholarship for Columbia University Law School and has lived since in the US. He published Colors of the Mountain 20 years ago with the intention to let his children participate in his own childhood. That might be the reason why he wrote his memoirs from the perspective of him as a child. Thus the focus is more on the description of Da’s perception than of a broader interaction of the different characters. That’s why our book group found that it is a well-told story of Da’s childhood and adolescence in Mao’s rural China but doesn’t really explore a storyline beyond individuality.