IN WRITING THE STORY of the men of her family, Maxine Hong Kingston has created history, epic and myth. This is a book as personal as a birthmark and as public as money. By delving into her own girlhood memories, by listening to the tall tales her Chinese immigrant parents told her (the "talk-story" of long evenings at home in the days before television), by researching the past in books and by daydreaming her way into other lives, the author has stitched together a unique document so brightly colored that it seems to be embroidery sewn in brilliant silk threads, a picture of fabulous dragons sinuously coiling around real people, a mandarin square of triumph and privation, of memorable fact and still more valid fancy.
In her prize-winning first book, The Woman Warrior, Kingston concentrated on the women in her family -- the grandmother with the bound feet whom she never knew, the mother who worked as a doctor in China but was reduced to slaving in a laundry in America, the aunt whose husband abandoned her so that he could become a successful surgeon in Los Angeles and marry a pretty young woman. These stories Kingston at times related with a feminist's anger against a male-dominated world, an anger intensified by her recollections that when she was a child, her own family rated daughters far lower than sons; she grew up hearing about unwanted girls back in China who'd been suffocated at birth or sold off into servitude. Towards the end of that volume, the author recalled that bitter moment when she had had to break free of her family and its traditions.
Unexpectedly, in China Men Kingston's loyalty to her people has been rekindled and her compassion towards her male forebears outweighs her feminist indignation. Indeed, that indignation has been largely replaced by a protest against the mistreatment in Chinese, men and women, have endured in the United States. In one terse chapter Kingston simply lists the successive treaties and immigration laws the United States designed in the last century and this to exclude the Chinese; the list makes for painful reading.
More dramatically, Kingston has imaginatively identified with the humiliations the men in her family had to suffer, the sacrifices they had to make. She follows a great-grandfather from China to the cane fields of Hawaii, where he labored three years to earn a hndred dollars to send home. The white foremen forbade the Chinese to speak while they worked; one day, in revenge, the laborers organized a "shout party." They dug a deep pit, an "ear into the world," a conduit that ran perhaps all the way to China. Into the pit they shouted all their secrets and longings.
In another chapter the author feels her way into the adventures of her grandfather who worked on the building of the American railroad that traversed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She rides with him in a basket suspended from a promontory as he plants dynamite in a sheer mountain wall. She lies beside him as homesick, he looks up into the night sky and locates familiar constellations. In moments of horror she is still beside him: "Across a valley, a chain of men working on the next mountain, men like ants changing the face of the world, fell, but it was very far away. Godlike, he watched men whose faces he could not see and whose screams he did not hear roll and bounce and slide like a handful of springkled gravel."
But oddly enought, even though this is a book about ceaseless toil and suffering, a thrill of joy and power ripples through every one of its pages -- a delight in nature, a pleasure in the minutiae of temperament, an excitement in the telling of tales. Perhaps this energy is merely the sparks cast by Kingston's own electric genius; like Balzac she may have conferred her own euphoria upon her characters. Or perhaps she has truly tapped the force of a heroic nation.
Much of the pleasure the book gives derives from its composition. This a work that is "liberated" in very sense -- in its humane politics, its range of sympathies and its stylistic gusto. Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude mixed the supernatural with the mundane, turned figures of speech into shockingly literal events and lent credence to half-forgotten legends -- and thereby forged a fantastic but compelling history of his Colombian village; in the same way Kingston has freely woven fairy tales into her recital of facts and rendered her account magical. Hers is an art of dazzling particulars, the petits faits vrais (or fantastiques) of all engaging narrative.
When her pacifist brother is shipped off to Vietnam, Kingston follows him as he tries in vain to find the house in Hong Kong where distant relatives are supposed to live; when her father, long ago in imperial China, takes the traditional scholarly examinations, she watches him as he sits, hour after hour, brush in hand, writing from memory passages from the classics. In this book she finds the delicate, necessary links between two cultures, two centuries and the two sexes. Seldom ha s the imagination performed a more beautiful feat -- or one more useful.