“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” – Mao Tse-Tung, 1956.
This quote serves as the backdrop for A Hundred Flowers, a tale of one family’s journey to survive Mao’s Communist China. While Mao seemingly encouraged scholars and academics to be open and honest about politics, government, and learning, it was a guise to catch rebels in the act.
Kai Ying’s husband, Sheng, is one of the individuals arrested by Communist soldiers who accuse him of writing an oppositional letter and of being a threat to China; for this, he is sent away to a reeducation camp (for an undetermined amount of time) so that he may learn to be a good citizen by doing hard labor and living in squalid conditions.
It is here that the story begins – Sheng has been gone for several months, leaving behind Kai Ying, his father, Wei, his son Tao, and his “Aunt” Song – and the family is still trying to cope with his absence. Attempting to remember his father, young Tao climbs a tree in the courtyard, and comes crashing down, breaking his leg. It is with this act that the story begins, and as Tao heals, he watches the world around him change. Through the eyes of various characters, we come to understand that Tao’s injury may in fact be the gateway to recovery as it spurs everyone into action (and ultimately forces them to reveal long-hidden secrets that could threaten their family bond). Kai Ying, an herbalist, must reconcile with the fact that while she may be a talented healer for others, there are things which she will never be able to overcome, and Wei, a retired art historian, is in fact forced to grapple with the reality that he never really knew his son, and now it may be too late. In the midst of this, Suyin, a young pregnant teenager, finds refuge with the family, and is forced to question her notion of home in order to figure out where she really belongs.
With a sense of the Chinese culture in the Communist 1950s, A Hundred Flowers is a delightful piece of historical fiction, but it is the story of the family that is so compelling. Each character gets to share their view (this is done in a third person narrative style which is very approachable and enjoyable), and we learn about how deeply the Communist Revolution touched everyone, regardless of age or class. This story is poetically written and is a wonderful read, even for those who are not very familiar with Communist China. The choices that the characters make and how those culminate at the end, however, may be the one element that readers struggle with. We don’t necessarily get attached to all of the characters, so it is a bit diffciult to understand their actions and motives at times. Overall,however, this is a powerful read that tells a timeless tale of
what it means to be family.