Sometimes the impact of mass tragedy gets lost in the statistics. When death tolls are in the tens of millions, such large-scale suffering becomes remote and untouchable. The human capacity for empathy has reached its limit.
On the other hand, personal accounts of those who lived through atrocities do more to shed light on them than any sterile statistic could. One such story is told by Agnes Bristow in “Dancing Through the Shadow: A True Story of Survival and Courage Under Mao’s Brutal Regime,” a first-person account of life in Mao Zedong’s China.
The book tells the true story of Tia Zhang, a ballet dancer who came of age during the time when Mao’s grip was slowly strangling the country. The simple yearnings and trappings of childhood, adolescence, and motherhood are beautifully woven together against a backdrop of totalitarian brutality. It’s a remarkable novel that humanizes the plight of a nation coming to terms with its new reality as a socialist state.
The communists took power in China in 1949, ending a decades-long civil war that had left the country weary and looking for change. At first there is hope that the new government will improve life for the average citizen.
Instead, China under Mao’s leadership begins a descent into violent revolution that would result in one of the century’s greatest humanitarian disasters. The statistics are staggering. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 65 million. The Great Leap Forward, Mao’s attempt to collectivize agriculture, resulted in the worst famine in history. Forty-five million people were beaten, starved, or worked to death.
This is the world in which Tia Zhang has to make her way.
From Prosperity to Destitution
Tia’s father was a high-ranking official with the Kuomintang, the governing party at the time, and provided a lavish life for his family, complete with a residence in the heart of Beijing. It was a harmonious existence far removed from the dangers that lurked just around the corner. The oldest of her siblings, Tia was coddled and disciplined in strict Chinese traditions, groomed by her mother to be a lady and destined for a life of privilege and obedience.
That fate was irretrievably altered when the communists arrived in Beijing and the Kuomintang suddenly and unexpectedly ceded power. Hopes that the communists will offer a reprieve from the strife of war and the promised utopia will be ushered in are quickly dashed when it becomes apparent that anyone once loyal to the Kuomintang is destined to suffer for it.
In a desperate bid for freedom, 10-year old Tia and her family attempt to move to the safe haven of Taiwan. But a harrowing near-death journey shatters that prospect and the family is forced to relocate to Qingdao and eventually back to Beijing, where their life of privilege unravels into one of destitution.
It becomes increasingly apparent that there is no escape from the Communist Party’s grasp, especially for a family like Tia’s that once held a privileged position in the ranks of the Kuomintang.
Hope Through Dance
Life carries on, however, and even when Mao’s Great Leap Forward caused millions across the country to starve, Tia’s family finds a way to survive. The daily struggle to meet the basic necessities of life affected the entire nation, and Tia’s family was no exception.
Through hard work and talent, Tia secures a coveted spot in Beijing’s Ballet Academy, staffed with professional dance teachers from Soviet Russia. The school operates more like a military academy than a dance studio, but Tia nonetheless receives a first-class dance education.
Dance was used as a tool for communist propaganda, and because the school was favoured by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, Tia had the opportunity to perform for Mao and his dignitaries. The stark contrast between lavish Communist Party banquets and the starving population left a lasting impression on Tia, foreshadowing her disillusion with the Party and communism.
By the time Tia had become an assistant instructor at the academy, Mao had unleashed his Red Guards. Like a plague, this frenzied group of students and children of Party officials brought mayhem to the country in a wave of revolution and violence. The Red Guards were brainwashed from childhood to be Mao’s devoted servants. They were the perfect vehicle for his Cultural Revolution as they marched the streets, berating and beating anyone without fear of repercussion.
At one point, the ballet academy is overrun by its Red Guard students, who brutally beat the senior teachers and berate the assistants, punishing them severely for their education methods by forcing them to clean latrines and perform the most degrading duties.
Tia suffers her fate in silence, complying with the demands of her brainwashed students. Like many others, she is forced to bury her empathy and face the world with as much indifference as she can muster.
During all the turmoil she finds love, but has to face the disapproval of her family and traditionalist mother who wanted her to have an arranged marriage.
This would be difficult enough without Mao’s policies and the ever-present threat of being sent to a labour camp or worse. Love was a risky proposition in Mao’s China and both Tia and her husband would spend hard time in China’s labour camp system.
The novel follows Tia through each stage of her life as she navigates motherhood, marriage, and an escape from communist rule. All the while Mao hangs like a shadow in the background, dictating the terms and conditions through which Tia must find her way.
Lessons From the Shadows
Tia’s journey is one of pain, triumph, and a true testament to the human spirit. At once tender, traumatic, and terrifying, the story is gripping enough to warrant the level of detail Bristow uses as she expertly combines Tia’s experience with enough political analysis to shed light on life under Mao and how his policies resulted in such a high death toll. It is difficult to fathom the desperation of a populace forced to react in fear to nearly every happenstance.
This book is a worthy read for those who entertain any romantic notions about communism or Marxism. With extreme ideologies on the rise in the West, Tia’s story serves as a reminder of the human cost beyond the statistics. Many Chinese of that generation will be able to identify with her plight.
The book is ultimately about love, loss, courage and the intricacies of life amplified by the desperation of circumstance. Tia’s story is a truly beautiful vehicle for exploring the human cost of political ideologies taken to the extreme, where the human spirit is put to the test.
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