Five or six years ago, Da Chen got badly bitten by the writing bug. He had finished Columbia Law School and moved on to the Wall Street firm of Rothschild, Inc. Then he started reading John Grisham and, like any number of other dreamy, ambitious young law students, he thought he would try his hand at writing a legal thriller. "I got 200 pages into it and realized I didn't have a Bruce Willis character," Da Chen says with a rueful laugh. He gave it up.
The problem was, the writing bug wouldn't let go. Perhaps Da Chen moped a bit. Perhaps he stared a little too longingly at the blank yellow legal pads he hoped to fill with character and action. At some point his wife, a physician, suggested that he write about his childhood.
Da Chen grew up in the tiny Chinese village of Yellow Stone in the 1960s and 1970s, during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. He sometimes told his American-born wife wild tales from his childhood—about dogs eating snakes, and men eating dogs. "It was humorous to make her feel disgusted," Da Chen recalls. "She was fascinated—and sort of disturbed—by the stories I told. My childhood was so very different from hers. She met me after I graduated from law school. I came to her as a suit, nothing else, and a suit hides a person. The present is always a disguise for the past." There were stories he had not told his wife, stories he could barely tell himself.
His wife continued to urge him to write about his childhood, if not for the readers of the world, then at least for his own children. He tried, but it was difficult to know where to begin. His great grandfather had passed a very difficult civil service test and eventually became the regional governor and a large landholder. Should he begin with him? Or with his grandfather, who quartered Red Army troops during the Communist Revolution, thereby escaping the fate of his wife's wealthy brothers, who were all executed? Or with his father, a disgraced landlord, who was hauled into labor camps with each shift of the political winds in faraway Beijing? Or with his remarkable grandmother? Or his equally remarkable mother?
"Least of all with me, right?" Da Chen says. "A first person story is very rare in Chinese literature. China is such a country of tradition, it is very hard to put yourself at the center. I struggled with that a lot at the beginning."
Eventually he found a path and a structure, and the pages of the book that would become Colors of the Mountain began to pour out of him. Then something happened. He came to describe a moment in the third grade when his teacher, one of the ignorant, vicious, petty tyrants set loose upon the land by the Cultural Revolution, stripped him of his identity, began calling him "the guy in the corner," and made Da Chen, son of a landlord, open game for every sort of cruelty.
"I would lock myself in our little spare bedroom," Da Chen recalls, "and I would write and I would cry. I can't believe how much anger I had. I buried this huge depression and sadness until the moment I began to write the book. I rarely told people about this experience because I always felt that I must have done something wrong to cause it. Now, after writing Colors of the Mountain, I feel, wow, it was not me. The whole society was dysfunctional at the time."
It is almost impossible for the Western reader to understand just how dysfunctional Chinese society was. We tend to see the Cultural Revolution as a distant abstraction, in broad political and sociological terms. In Colors of the Mountain, Da Chen presents the impact of the Cultural Revolution on a small village, far from China's political epicenter, as seen through the eyes of an exceptionally bright, sensitive, and artistic boy.
"I didn't want to go into too much detail about the political background," Chen says. "I just want people to imagine and to understand that this is what happened to me. The book is more from the heart than the mind. I was only nine years old. I didn't know what made sense and what didn't make sense. All I knew was what I had to go through."
Naturally not everything he went through was a hardship. Chen describes warm friendships with a rough bunch of boys he fell in with when the other children in the village rejected and tormented him. He describes the sanctuary of love and warmth he found at home with his parents and siblings. He describes a beautiful, "sparsely populated, very pastoral" region where "you could go and write great poems—if you weren't forced to plow the fields." He also vividly describes the extraordinary change that came over the country when Mao died in 1976.
"It was a very strange feeling," Chen says. "Here was this guy I was supposed to hate forever, which I do. But Mao was the heaven; Mao was the earth—and everything in between. That's how big he was. When he died it was like a whole dynasty had died, and I felt that China might die with him."
But instead of dying, China was swept by a passion for education. Even the remote village of Yellow Stone was carried along by college fever. Caught up in the national mood and shouldering the aspirations of his family, Da Chen proved to be a disciplined and brilliant student, scoring so high on his exams that he was admitted to the prestigious Beijing Language Institute. Colors of the Mountains ends with Da Chen boarding a train, the first train he had ever ridden, for the 50-hour trip to Beijing.
"In the United States people everywhere go to college. It's expected. But for me, nothing in my life can ever compare to the moment I left Yellow Stone to go to college. It was like being liberated from a dungeon. For much of my life I felt like a frog trapped at the bottom of the well, looking up at beautiful passing swans. A quick glimpse and they were gone. Suddenly I felt that the swans I so admired had dropped into my well."
Da Chen thinks that even though Colors of the Mountain is set in China and is about a Chinese boy, "it is really about every boy and every girl. Everybody has gone through something like this." I doubt that his American readers will agree. Colors of the Mountain is about an extraordinary journey that, thankfully, most of us will never need to endure.
But Da Chen is exactly right when he says Colors of the Mountain "is about hopes and dreams. It's about hope even when you are hopeless. It's about making dreams come true."
Alden Mudge works for the California Council for the Humanities in San Francisco.