KATHERINE WEI'S MEMOIR, Second Daughter: Growing up in China, 1930-1949, (written in collaboration with Terry Quinn) is so skillfully shaped into narrative form that it is bound to be compared to Bette Bao Lord's Spring Moon, the Chinese counterpart to The Thorn Birds, in which almost everything that can happen does happen. This is not necessarily unrealistic; in China's struggle to emerge into the 20th century almost everything actually did happen. Yet it is clear to the reader of Spring Moon that, true as the story may be to Chinese life, it is still a story, its characters performing for the writer's convenience. It is equally clear that Katherine Wei's book springs out of memories so painful that they seem to have been wrenched from her.
Growing up in China, Wei experiences such a variety of lifestyles that she seems to endure the whole range of Chinese history. From the intellectual climate of Yenching University in Peking where her father, an American-educated sociologist, is a professor, she moves to her father's ancestral home in Hunan where she lives, she says, as a "watchful bird," "an observer who witnessed every nuance of an unchanging regimen." In 1943 after six years of this traditional, sheltered, etiquette-ridden existence, Katherine, her mother, and three sisters join her father (now an officer in the Kuomintang) in war-torn Chungking where "home" is a primitive, mud-walled hovel. Then with the war ended, Katherine, a teen-ager now, takes up a fast-paced social life at the center of cosmopolitan Shanghai.
In the end, however, it is not China that dominates this story; it is Katherine's mother. And it is the memory of her mother that she has tried to suppress in the 32 years of her adult life in America. As the unwanted second daughter, Katherine might have escaped the excessive attention of her ambitious mother, had she not proved so early on that she was the daughter with the brains, the one most likely to fulfill her mother's extravagant expectations. And succeed she does, striving always, however, to win love from this strong but mercilessly unloving woman. Nor do the years of absence or the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution change either the mother's demands or the daughter's sense of entrapment. When after 32 years of silence from her parents, Katherine receives a letter announcing that her father is dying, there is appended a list of American appliances that Katherine should bring with her when she comes. All Katherine can think is, "Once again I had come within the grip of mother's power."
As we relive Katherine's girlhood, we are left with unforgettable pictures: her mother dressing Katherine and her sister in kilts to perform the Charleston for foreign company; her mother coaching Katherine in how to win favors from her paternal grandfather; her mother boldly manipulating Katherine into the care of a rich Shanghai friend who knows the most eligible bachelors. Finally and most memorable is the picture of her mother proudly displaying her new American appliances to friends while her husband lies dying across the room.
But if her mother's grip shaped Katherine's life, her mother's strength was also her own. Again and again we see Katherine asserting her independent spirit, flouting school tradition, rebelling against easy political answers, even defying her adored father. Indeed one of the most powerful scenes in the book occurs in Chungking when Katherine's mother, apparently dying from what Dr. Ting, a Chinese doctor, has diagnosed as terminal tuberculosis, requests that a foreign-trained doctor be called. When Katherine's father refuses on the grounds that this would make Dr. Ting lose face, Katherine, only 14 years old, takes the affair into her own hands. Dressing up in her mother's clothes and high- heeled shoes, she not only by sheer persistence persuades the retired, reclusive specialist, Dr. Li, to treat her mother, she manages to get an American jeep and driver to transport him to their house. As it turns out, Katherine's mother has pleurisy which is cured with proper medication. And how does the father react? He never says a word to Katherine. It is then that she says she "saw that he was a man like other men." It made her lonelier, she says, than she'd ever been before.
Katherine Wei writes with unflinching honesty about the complex, changing love- hate relationships within her family, at the same time as she lights up the conflicts within China as only one can who has lived through them. Certainly in recent years China has proved to be too much for fiction to deal with effectively. Our questions have gone unanswered for so long that we seem to be starved for straightforward, first-hand accounts. Second Daughter, although it reaches back to the days before "liberation," nevertheless contains the seeds of China's present experience and is one of the better accounts. The characters, individual as they may be, are timeless -- even Lao Chang, the lovable, amusing cook whom neither the family nor the story could do without.