How much do you know about recent Chinese history? I knew a bit, but reading Legacies, A Chinese Mosaic, by Betty Bao Lord, really brought the recent human tragedies of modern China home.

Bao Lord intertwines two main themes: the story of her experiences as an American citizen who emigrated from China as a youngster and is returning as the wife of a American diplomat, and the stories of Chinese friends and acquaintances, often given to her on audio tape, and recounting the sordid and tragic tale of the last 50 years of China. She does all this against the backdrop of the mid to late 1980s and the Tiananmen Square protests by college students.

This book derives much of its power from the simple stories Bao Lord relates. Whether it’s the man who stays alive locked in his office (for years) because his son flys a kite to reminds his father of his presence, or the stories of the real life excesses of the Red Guards, burning any of the “Four Olds,” these stories are touching and real. Even her own family story has a certain pathos, as we learn about her grandfather dying three years before she was able to visit, her aunt calmly dying of cancer, and a sister who only learned that she was adopted by happenstance.

The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the other major events of modern Chinese history are only touched on as they affect the people in the stories told, but even that was enough to shock me with what this nation endured. In fact, it’s even more shocking than it was when I read about it in the history books, because the folks in the stories are real people.


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