CHINA SAGA By C.Y. Lee Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 534 pp. $19.95
"What a world, what a world," as the Wicked Witch of the West once said when she was under stress. In this case, what a world, where every door is lacquered red and flanked by fierce green sculptured lions; where -- in the old days -- every female foot was bound, except for those of a Manchu courtesan or two who challenged each customer to a sword fight before she would let him into her bed. For the addict, the world of Fictional China is as soothing as opium, as medicinal as Tiger Balm.
Fictional China's appeal is eternal and unfailing. It has also an utterly unique quality (as seen from afar, at least) in that as its history approaches "modern times" it becomes even more exotic and strange to the unschooled western eye. When the wife of a national leader is forced to wear a necklace of ping-pong balls in public as penance for her penchant for bourgeois jewelry, the "normal world" can only marvel -- and pick up another long, wonderful novel about life in China.
C.Y. Lee lives in the quiet California suburb of Woodland Hills, where McDonald's golden arches and 4-Day Tire stores are the order of the day. But he was born and raised in Hunan, and he's obviously still in love with his place of birth: "The idea for writing 'China Saga' was born in a Beijing hotel room while I was visiting China in 1981," Lee writes in his acknowledgments. "The room was often full of visitors whose chitchat and excitement about China's new direction created in me an irresistible desire to write a family saga reflecting the tumultuous changes in modern China."
Readers of this kind of material may remember that a staple of Chinese fiction is the all-too-apt proverb (often, one suspects, made up to suit the occasion). In this case, Lee takes "May you live to see four generations under one roof" and applies it to his novel, thus going the traditional three-generation American family saga one better, leaving his reader happily overdosed on rapes, double murders, banners, kites, concubines, daring rescues and -- at one notable banquet -- a fish made out of wood: "... because all fishing boats had been requisitioned by the government to transport ammunition. But a fish was a must at a New Year's banquet; it signified abundance, as fish and abundance sounded alike."
The story, as it whirls past like one of those Lazy Susans on circular tables in our own American Chinese restaurants, goes something like this: Fong Tai, a nice man in Peking around the year 1890, is pushed into an arranged marriage with a woman named Shao Mei, whom he doesn't like. He is sent off to Boston to study, where he has an affair with a girl named Cathy Du Bois, who hails from New Orleans. He's recalled to Peking in disgrace and takes up with Rose, that sword-wielding courtesan, who has a daughter by him. Shao Mei -- still barren -- resents this. (Why Fong Tai can't just bring the fabled Rose under his roof is not sufficiently explained, given the parameters of this genre.) Rose, feeling blue, hangs herself, leaving the daughter Fong Yun, who takes the name Brigid (even though she'll spend some time in Paris under the name Brigitte), under the care of Shao Mei, who perks up once she has a child to take care of.
Meanwhile, plots and counterplots have been simmering along against and for the Dowager Empress: "I can kill Jung-lu as easily as killing a dog!" a certain Gen. Yuan remarks testily. So the history cranks along like a wonderful, slow-moving diorama, and Fong Tai is decapitated in one of the skirmishes of the Boxer Rebellion. One generation down, three to go.
Fong Tai has sheltered an opportunistic urchin, Tang San, who turns out to be nothing but trouble. When Brigid returns from Paris, she falls in with strolling acrobats and is smitten with a gent named Bo Ho. At one point they defy a swinish lizard who goes by the name of One Stroke Cha. After a suitable length of time, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung and the Japanese begin their three-way battle. Brigid, who has given birth to Mabel under circumstances far too complex to describe, moves to Chungking, where in a continual dense fog, in the company of rats as big as sea lions, Mabel takes up the life of a stripper.
This is the kind of book in which a person never just enlists in the army; he calls for a cleaver and lops off one of his fingers, shouting, "Your honor, this is my show of determination! I am ready to sacrifice my head the same way for the revolution!" There is never a dull day in Fictional China, which is certainly the reason for its eternal appeal.
Lest the reader be ashamed for enjoying "China Saga," remember that the narrative is crammed with historical facts; that the prose style is clean and literate; and, since there happens to be a society on Earth that has gone in a hundred short years from bound feet to struggle meetings in nursery schools to the Four Modernizations, it's almost our moral duty to read as many of these novels as we can. "The wise reader finds sober reasons for his endless pleasure." That's an old Woodland Hills proverb. The reviewer's most recent book is the novel "Golden Days.