Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

March 28, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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Among the major threats to our planet’s wellbeing is tribalism.

This manifests in various ways, most obviously as nationalism, religion, clannishness and political beliefs. This is not to say all such allegiances are problematic. It is only the extremist versions – characterised by zealotry, monolithic views and the inability to accept dissenting opinions – which threaten us all.

In the last century alone, Nazism, Islamism and Communism have been complicit in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people and caused indescribable destruction and human misery. The readers of J-Wire are sadly all too familiar with these movements’ vile excesses against the Jews. However, living under oppression is not only a Jewish condition. Tragically it is a too common aspect of being human. Each of these movements has triggered so many indescribably monstrous, quite lunatic episodes. This review looks at Bright Swallow, Vivian Bi’s memoir of her harrowing experiences during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China.

On June 27, 1981, the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China declared that the Cultural Revolution was “… responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic”. This was mealy-mouthed ‘Party speak’ for what took place in China between 1966-76 when Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong launched and encouraged the persecution of millions of his fellow citizens.

The abuses they suffered were appalling. They included execution, torture, hard labour, forced displacement, public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, continuous harassment and seizure of property. Bi notes another tragic phenomenon: “One of the lasting effects of Mao’s revolution was the [lasting] damage it did to the bonds between children and parents, husbands and wives, teachers and students, neighbours, colleagues and siblings”. It is estimated that between 500,000 and two million people lost their lives as a result of the Revolution. And in the midst of this horrific turmoil, 15-year-old Bi – already categorised as having ‘bad origins’ – whose father and brothers had previously been internally exiled, then lost her mother to cancer and was left to survive in a society gone mad due to ideological fervour.

Bright Swallow(Xiyan Bi) is Vivian Bi’s birth name as well as the title of her memoir. In China, swallows symbolise spring, freedom and the future; thus her book very aptly commences with a poem that lauds acceptance of one’s life without regret, by the revered eleventh-century Chinese poet, Su Shi. Presumably, this was self-referential as Su Shi apparently demonstrated remarkable optimism and lack of bitterness, despite suffering severe political persecution, and he eventually was restored to favour and high office. This is the underlying theme of Bi’s engrossing memoir.

Bright Swallowlargely covers only a few years of Bi’s life (1972-77), from her mother’s death to the end of her secondary schooling (with a concluding chapter which neatly deals with the main characters and the author’s subsequent life). However, this was the crucial period of transition from childhood to adulthood, when so much change occurs. The stress this occasioned was inevitably compounded by the grief caused by her mother’s loss and the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Bi endured continual mental and physical tests during this time, which she describes both chronologically and thematically, with each successive chapter painting vivid pictures of Bi’s psychological development and the changes in China’s socio-political climate.

If I can generalise, Bi did not merely survive but thrived in the sense of building an outwardly normal life in a hostile, confronting environment. As she writes: “Expecting disappointment has almost become my default attitude, an attitude formed when I was growing up in Mao’s China. Healthy and natural it may not have been, but it helped me cope with adversity.” Readers will surely be uplifted by her ability to have derived so much strength from simple pleasures such as learning to cook basic meals, from train travel to observe some of China’s natural beauty, the sustenance she drew from literature and music and from the kindness demonstrated by so many people, even strangers, to a lonely young woman, despite themselves being severely challenged. Most importantly, Bi learned independence and how to fend for herself, perhaps the most essential skill one can ever possess.

Today Xiyan Bi lives in Sydney as Dr Vivian Bi, having completed a PhD in literary criticism at the University of Sydney. To add to a number of her earlier works, including three novels published in China, Dr Bi has written this evocative memoir, which is personal, detailed, reflective and remarkably alive (indeed so well written, that it is difficult to comprehend that English is not her native tongue). Bright Sparrow is truly the story of a survivor, a word that has a particular resonance for Jews in a post-Holocaust era. While the external setting is so different to the Europe with which many readers may be familiar, Bi’s thoughts and feelings, her loneliness and fears and her now lifelong insomnia and paranoid reactions are as familiar to me as the remembrances of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi (or indeed those of my parents). Thus Bright Swallow uneasily draws in the reader, not only to the young Bi’s world but also to that of a China that is thankfully no more.

Or is it? According to various historians, Mao’s China is now history. Well, designer suits may have replaced Mao collars and rampant consumerism, advertising billboards, neon lights and Ferraris abound in China’s commercial centres today. From the outside Xi Jinping’s China is an economic powerhouse and a serious contender for the most powerful nation on Earth. However Bright Swallowreminds us that China remains a society with a dark underpinning, one where citizens who assert an authentic individuality remain at great risk. In doing so it also tells a broader story, that of any individual or group that has been oppressed. For such people, be they Chinese, Jews or Cambodians, the future will inevitably be as uncertain as ever.

Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi (Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, Australia, 2019)

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