During a Publisher Interview last year with Graham Earnshaw, the man behind Earnshaw Books, I asked which era he thought was most underrepresented in English-language books on China. The 1950s he said without a moment’s hesitation, and I have to agree. Since that conversation, he’s been doing his bit to fill this gap. So far in 2019 Earnshaw Books has released two memoirs covering the early decades of CCP rule. There’s Shanghai Daisy, an autobiography of Daisy Kwok of the famous Kwok family. (Daisy’s father built and owned the iconic Wing On Department Store on Shanghai’s premier thoroughfare, Nanking Road.) The other and more substantial book is Margaret Sun’s Betwixt and Between: A Memoir of New China.

Margaret Sun was born in Shanghai in 1935 into a Cantonese family, and grew up speaking not only Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Chinese, but also English. Her family’s middle-class life took a tumble with the war and revolution, and with her father losing his job at Siemens. Sun, while still a young girl, sold cigarettes and snacks on the street to help the family survive; there’s a great picture of this on the book cover.

After the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, Sun’s father was accused of being a spy. His having worked for foreign companies was sufficient cause for suspicion, and being a Christian was another black mark. He was routinely taken away for questioning and reeducation sessions. Margaret Sun felt the situation becoming increasingly oppressive. Deciding it best to take matters into her own hands, in 1956 she volunteered to work in Xinjiang Province in the far northwest of the country.

The next two decades were eventful, not especially happy years but they certainly provided Sun with an abundance of fascinating material for a memoir. She married a fellow Shanghai-transplant in 1961, and in the following year moved with her husband and three-month-old boy to wild and remote Burqin County, Altai Prefecture, an ethnic Kazakh area in the northernmost point of Xinjiang. Burqin was known, she writes, for its “three mores” (“more wind, more mosquitoes and more sand than anywhere else in the prefecture.”) It was for the city girl a deep immersion into old rural ways. Among the lessons was stripping hair from camels. 

“In mid-spring, the camel caravans came to our compound, the Ikinji Skelat, to be loaded with brick tea, sugar, salt, cloth and other commodities to take to the nearby villages.” Housewives pulled hair from the camels (useful padding for winter clothes), but not just any hair:

the place to get the best hair is from the underbelly, even though that is the dirtiest part of the camel as they squat the whole night long in their own urine and dung and the hair on their underbellies is caked and matted. The finest and softest hair come from there, while the hair on the back and sides of the camels is rough and coarse.

Betwixt and Between is full of fun anecdotes and descriptions, and even many of the bleakest passages contain humor.

Most of the people living in Gansu Province were very poor, and some of its female population became prostitutes out of necessity. In those days it was well-known that girls in Wuwei, Zhangye, and other counties which were equally poor, could not even afford to buy cloth to make pants. They walked around the village in long jackets, and whenever they saw someone approaching them that they didn’t recognize, they would crouch there until the person passed. Few, if any, outsiders ventured into those villages because, literally, there was nothing there except stark-naked poverty. Any man with a suit of the cheapest clothes, or even just a pair of pants, could get a wife from any one of those counties. Many truck drivers in Hami had gotten their wives from that area for exactly that, and they raised families and lived happily ever after, fully-clothed.

In 1965 Sun and her family moved to the “desolate” town of Beitun – similar to Burqin “only it had a little less of the “three mores” – and the following year to the town of Altai, where she lived from 1966 to 1978 and experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) . Both she and her husband were targeted; struggle sessions became a regular part of life. 

A typical ‘struggle session’ would have me in the middle of a room, surrounded by women, many of whom were former neighbors or nodding acquaintances, and I would be told to kneel down and confess my “crimes” in front of a poster of Chairman Mao. The women would all begin to move behind me before they got physical so I would not see exactly who were the ones that hit me. 

It wasn’t just her English-language abilities that marked her out as suspect; her interest in minority languages was another tell-tale sign: 

Years later, a Kazakh friend told that my ability in learning to speak Kazakh and my interest in the written language had raised many an eyebrow and thus provided new grounds for suspicion that I was indeed a CIA spy. 

Sun says that it’s still difficult to access the lasting psychological damage of the Cultural Revolution for the country: “I am positively sure that the nightmares from that decade will haunt us Chinese people for years to come.”

Sun’s personal fortunes, at least, changed for the better at the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1977 while working on a construction site as a day laborer, her ability in English led to a job as a teacher. (Though, rather oddly, it involved a substantial pay cut.) Sun was lucky to have her considerable talents recognised and in 1978 landed a position teaching English at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. 

The book ends rather abruptly; the years from her starting teaching until her retirement in 2002 and the years since are covered in a flash. The elephant in the room is the complete lack of comment about the repression happening today, i.e. the mass internment and erasing of Uighur culture. This is especially striking given that she lived among and befriended Uighurs and Kazakhs, and even tried to learn their languages.

Thanks to the author’s upbeat personality, Betwixt and Between is not a misery memoir, which it easily could have been. There’s a serious underlying message in the book about remembering the hardships that the author’s generation went through, but the writing is warm and chatty. Reading it is like having tea with a colorful old granny, one with a fondness for sayings. A talented linguist, Sun obviously has a love of proverbs and idioms, and the book is sometimes overladen with these. Although interesting for fellow language geeks, for most readers less would have been more. Some of the Cantonese and Mandarin sayings in the book are: 

  • A person who is alive will not let his bladder burst.
  • It is better to save one life than to build a seven-tier pagoda.
  • If one person in the family gets converted, even the household chickens and pet dogs ascend to heaven.
  • An arm cannot out-twist a leg. 
  • The wind does not blow on a lowly blade of grass.

(You can read the book to find out what these mean.)

Betwixt and Between: A Memoir of New China is a valuable first-person account not only of a period but also of a region which deserves greater coverage. The memoir is published by Earnshaw Books and is also available from other retailers.