Lisa See's moving story, SHANGHAI GIRLS, introduced us to May and Pearl Chin, privileged young fashion models who narrowly escaped their native China as the Japanese invaded Shanghai in World War II. The times forced them to leave behind a lush Shanghai home with a staff of servants to live a feudal life as Chinese peasants, not in China, but in Los Angeles's Chinatown. Instead of the promised streets of gold, May and Pearl were dumped into the harsh reality of life as Asian immigrants. In order to step on American soil, they were sold into marriage with two brothers whom they had never met. They were treated as servants in their husbands' home as they toiled in the family business.
It is now 20 years after May and Pearl's horrific escape from China. Joy, the rebellious 19-year-old daughter of one of the sisters, leaves L.A. to attend college in Chicago. She meets fellow first-generation Chinese youths who have been swept up in the promises of a new China after the revolution led by Chairman Mao. After Joy learns of her true parentage, the man she thought was her father dies tragically, so in anger and despair she returns to China to find her birth father and to join in the revolution with its promises of a Utopian society. Joy's American friends warned her that getting into China would be difficult, but that if she didn't like what she found, leaving it was impossible.
Joy locates her birth father, Z.G. Li, a famous artist, still living in relative splendor in Shanghai. His fame and ability to adapt to the new social order have protected him from the fate of more defiant intellectuals who were executed or banished to the far western communes for re-education and a fate unknown. Z.G., however, is not immune to "re-education programs," and just as Joy finds him, he is preparing to go to an education camp in a rural village where he will teach traditional Chinese art to peasants. The impressionable Joy is eager to join him and learn more about the new way of life.
When Pearl learns what Joy has done, she flies to Shanghai to find her, knowing in advance the perils she faces. Pearl presents herself as a returning patriot and finds that the only way she can stay is to pledge her allegiance to Mao. She returns to her ancestral home to find it filled with squatters, but one of the family servants is still there and she is allowed to move in. She finds a menial job to fit in, but pursues any information she can find to discover Joy's whereabouts.
The story unfolds from both Joy's and Pearl's points of view, allowing the reader to see life in the new China from two perspectives. Joy meets and falls in love with Tao, a promising young artist and a protégé of her father's. It is here that her eyes are slowly and cruelly opened to the unfolding disaster as she works in the fields to provide food for the cities.
Today, the result of this disastrous experiment in social restructuring in the '50s and '60s are documented in history and fiction. We've read of how China melted every piece of metal in the country --- cooking utensils, stove chimneys, nails, tin roofs, even farming tools. Buildings were dismantled for the metal beams; anything that could be melted was forged into weapons. Homes were demolished for the wood, hundreds of millions of acres of forests were cut down, millions of books and any shred of paper burned to fuel the backyard forges, all to create pig iron. Untold millions died of starvation as untried methods of mass farming to increase production caused calamitous crop failures. These are facts we know. Thus, there are few, if any, written records of what happened during the infamous Great Leap Forward because so many died and records burned to fuel the forges.
Lisa See is among the few to write about how the people in the countryside survived as they became enslaved to serve Chairman Mao. Her extensive research led her to some aging survivors who told their stories. These shared personal histories underlie Joy's experiences on the commune. They are what makes DREAMS OF JOY much more than just a heartwarming story of heroic love between a mother and daughter.
No writer has better captured the voice and heart of Chinese culture both in America and in China as See has done in SHANGHAI GIRLS and now in DREAMS OF JOY.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on June 6, 2011