By Da Chen

Random House. 310 pp. $25

Da Chen was born in 1962 in a southern China hamlet called Yellow Stone, the youngest of five children in a family that once had been prominent and relatively wealthy but had fallen on hard times because of an "ugly political birthmark," as he discovered when he was a small boy:

"We rarely left our house to play because Mom said there were many bad people waiting to hurt us. . . . When I asked Mom why we had to hide in our dark house all the time, she said that we were landlords, and that the people outside were poor peasants who had taken our house, lands, and stores. They were making us suffer because the leaders were all bad. There was no fairness, no justice for us. We had to be quiet, stay out of trouble, and wait for better days to come."

Better days did come--more about that presently--but it took a long while. The time of Da Chen's youth was also, by unhappy coincidence, the time of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards: the last gasp of virulent Maoism in the final years of the chairman's life. China was in turmoil, and no one felt it more than those who were thought to be hostile to the chairman's teachings. This included "counterrevolutionaries," as the euphemism had it, and intellectuals, and those surviving members of the class against which Mao and his army had arisen.

The Chen family, however modest its riches may have been by American standards, was one of these last, and it was made to pay for its past privileges. Da's father, to whom he was devoted, was made to "dig ditches from morning to night to expand an irrigation system that eventually failed to work," while Maoist interrogators continued to press him "for more confessions about my uncle in Taiwan, which had always been China's sworn enemy."

The children were no less severely punished. They were harassed daily in school by their contemporaries and held up to ridicule by their teachers. When Da was in third grade, in 1971, the Communist Party dictated "that the children of landlords, capitalists, rich farms and the leftists will no longer be going directly to junior high or high school," this ostensibly "for the benefit of thousands of poor farmers." It was assumed as a result that Da would be "the last student in our family," and he was constantly urged by his mother "to behave myself and not give them reason to throw me out" and thus be fated to "become a farmer or a carpenter, with no hope for a better future."

In time Da did behave, but first he set off on a prolonged period of mild delinquency. He fell in with "hooligans," with whom he smoked and played boyish pranks, and then devoted more energy to music (he played the flute) and the theater than to his studies. At one point he got "real bad" grades on a midterm exam, and they were posted for everyone to see:

"Now I was the laughingstock of the whole school. All my enemies, old and new, would be rejoicing over my downfall. Not only was I the son of a landlord, but I was stupid and lazy. Wise people could forgive the former but not the latter. I had shamed my whole family tree. My esteemed great-grandpa was at the top, and I was the loose, rotten screw at the bottom, the one who ruined the family's reputation."

But luck appeared in the form of a sexagenarian woman, Professor Wei, who took a fancy to Da. She believed that he had promise as a student of English, and offered to tutor him in the subject. If he chose English as his major, he would not have to take the science and math college-entrance tests--his record in both those areas of study was not good, and he was far behind the rest of his classmates thanks to all that neglected homework--and therefore might have a chance at college after all.

Since the book's jacket copy and author biography leave no doubt as to how it all turned out, it is stealing none of Da's secrets to disclose that everything happened as he dreamed it would, and then some. He made "one of the highest liberal arts scores in the province of Fujian, including the big cities of Fuzhou, Amoy, Chuangzhou and Nan Ping--out of hundreds of thousands of test takers," and was admitted to the Beijing Language Institute's English Department.

For his family, "thirty years of humiliation had suddenly come to an end," for not merely Da but also his brother Jin "had been accepted into leading universities." Eventually Da left China, came to the United States, studied law at Columbia and went to work on Wall Street, all of which comes about as close to repudiating Chairman Mao as is possible to imagine.

Unfortunately, Da's story is considerably better than his telling of it. He clutters his narrative with endless passages of schoolboy dialogue--how on earth could he remember it in such detail after all these years?--and his narrative is almost entirely devoid of tension or movement. His heart obviously is in the right place, but that isn't enough.