G.X. Chen’s novel Forget Me Not, reviewed by Tony Longshanks le Tigre

Review: Forget Me Not by G. X. Chen
G. X. Chen’s Forget Me Not is a tragic love story, a vivid historical narrative and a novel I’m not likely to forget any time soon. It provides a valuable window into the Eastern world during a dark epoch in the not-so-distant past: a seemingly first-hand account of life in China during the tumultuous decade known as the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). Chairman Mao Zedong, a godlike figure to Chinese communists, initiated the revolution as a means to eliminate political rivals and solidify his legacy; but his utopian visions resulted in mass chaos and ruin for China’s traditions, its economy, and many of its citizens. I must confess that my knowledge of Chinese history and culture is less than exemplary. My Americanized mind has absorbed an idea of China as a communist country devoid of many of the civil liberties I hold dear (though somewhat more open and democratic now than in the past); beyond those general notions, things are fuzzy. I am grateful to Chen’s book for filling in some of that blank space in my awareness. It certainly enhanced my appreciation for the relatively free and privileged life I lead, and for how lucky I am not to have experienced the grim alternate reality evoked in the pages of Forget Me Not: a reality of violent chaos, arbitrary cruelty and imprisonment, and basic lack of personal choice and freedom that many Chinese citizens alive at the time of the Cultural Revolution did not survive.Li Ling, the novel’s protagonist, is a boy living in Hong Kong with his grandparents at the outset of the revolution. Abruptly, he is forced to leave his beloved caretakers and the world he knows and start a new life with his parents—virtual strangers to him—in Shanghai, the city of his birth. There in elementary school he forges friendships destined to last a lifetime, with Big Head (a nickname that sticks) and Zhang Lily, the girl with whom he will fall in love. Unfortunately, the cultural maelstrom that fate has thrown their way is not a climate conducive to the tender dreams of young lovers. One day in June 1966, Li Ling visits the farmer’s market with Lily and Big Head where they witness a distressing scene:

In the center of the street, a group of people wearing red armbands were tearing down the store signs and setting them on fire. … We turned to see a young woman in a light green shirt and a pair of black trousers running and screaming mad, chased by men with red armbands. She was caught not far from us and instantly surrounded by the men as well as onlookers. … The men twisted her arms around and started cutting her trousers open with big scissors while bystanders watched in great confusion. Someone in the crowd explained to us that the woman was wearing a pair of tightly-fitted pants, which was indecent and against Mao’s teaching.

Things go from bad to worse as Lily’s father is accused of being a counterrevolutionary sympathizer and is taken captive by the Red Rebels. The youths concoct a daring plan to jailbreak him and smuggle him to the countryside to live secretly with Big Head’s aunt, but it is only a temporary forestallment of a sad ending. Li Ling and Big Head are sent to work in the countryside along with all other schoolchildren their age, quartered in old storage rooms with no furniture or plumbing and only hay on the floors as bedding. At this point Li Ling and Lily are forced to separate, as she is bound for Anhui with her mother and father, who has been tricked into accepting a university post there as a way to draw him out of hiding. The beleaguered youths have an emotional farewell encounter and Lily promises to write from Anhui. She sends one letter but then goes silent; Li Ling hears no more from her, and can only assume the worst.

There follows a melancholy interval (the book’s second section) during which Li Ling, having graduated from high school in 1971, is assigned to work at a “small, dark and dilapidated” rice shop near his parents’ home in Shanghai. It’s a dreary job and his coworkers do little to sweeten the deal. One evening at a Communist Youth League meeting he notices and quickly becomes entranced by a beautiful girl several years older than himself whose dimples remind him of Lily, his lost love. Against the advice and warnings of his rice-shop colleagues, he sets out to befriend the exotic stranger, Dong Mary, whose initial icy response gradually melts into something resembling friendship. But it’s a short-lived affair and ends badly, with a traumatic episode I won’t spoil except to say that it took me by surprise nearly as much as it did our hapless narrator.

After the death from cancer of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976, public sentiment turns, the tyranny of the Cultural Revolution diminishes and new hope is born. Universities across China open their entrance exams for the first time in a decade, and Li Ling seizes on college life as his escape route to a brighter future. He wins acceptance to Fudan University as a computer science major, and moves into the campus dorm to begin life as a freshman. He shares his dorm room with five other freshmen; the lights shut off automatically at 10 p.m. A memorable passage describes the first dance held on the Fudan campus that year: since dancing was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution, everyone wants to go, but few people know how to dance! After the onslaught of harshness in the book’s first two sections, it’s pleasant to read and laugh at descriptions of the college boys practicing dance moves in their dorm room using pillows as dance partners, and groaning in unison when the lights go out at curfew in the midst of their lesson.

One day while studying in the library, Li Ling is shocked to recognize the girl sitting across  from him as his very own Zhang Lily. Sure enough, she is enrolled at Fudan too, studying Chinese literature. Their chance meeting soon blossoms into rekindled romance, this time as adults: a hidden hill on the edge of campus becomes their secret meeting spot for sexual trysts. (Chen’s firsthand portrayal of Li Ling is so convincing that it may surprise some readers when they turn to the book’s back cover and realize the author is a woman!) Li Ling and Lily join Big Head for an outing to Yu Yuan Market and have fun reliving memories from their schooldays together over their favorite “juicy buns.” For awhile it seems a happy ending may be in store. But Lily’s road during the years of their separation has been very dark, leaving her permanently scarred. When Li Ling vows to give up his dream of studying abroad in order to settle in Anhui and marry Lily, she vehemently objects: “I won’t allow you to throw your future away because of me.”

The real reason for her steadfast refusals becomes clear later, following a climactic holiday excursion that ends in tearful revelations. Suffice to say, as love stories go, Forget Me Not is in the Romeo and Juliet category. Certainly not a lightweight romance, but a valuable work of historic fiction and a moving tale of star-crossed love set against the backdrop of human history: the greatest tragedy of all.

–Tony Longshanks LeTigre