Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden: Two Sisters Separated by China’s Civil War
(W.W. Norton/368 pages/$27.95)
The outcome of China’s civil war between 1945 and 1949 continues to have both global and individual repercussions. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory in that war led to disastrous consequences in China and geopolitical consequences that are still being felt in the Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world. A new book by Brown University Professor Zhuqing Li about the lives of her two aunts — sisters who were separated for 30 years as a result of the civil war — highlights the human tragedies but also reveals what is at stake in the current geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States.
Li’s book tells the story of Hong (a pseudonym) and Jun, sisters whose childhood in the Chen family was spent in a compound called the Flower Fragrant Garden near the city of Fuzhou. As children, the sisters were inseparable, but the Second World War forced the family into internal exile and China’s civil war severed their relationship for three decades.
Jun was teaching school on the island of Jinman when the CCP conquered the mainland in 1949. Hong became a physician in China. Jun lived on Taiwan, married a Nationalist military officer, and began writing articles critical of the CCP. Hong and the rest of the family in China were suspected of counterrevolutionary associations. And while the book details both sisters’ lives, Hong’s experiences under communist rule take center stage and reveal the true extent of the tragedy wrought by the CCP’s victory.
Hong was one of millions of suspected counterrevolutionaries in China that had to endure “struggle sessions” and “reeducation” in order to avoid being purged or worse. Hong survived Mao’s early purges, and as a physician in the countryside during the Great Leap Forward observed first-hand the effects of a state-induced famine, even if she was unable to grasp the full enormity of the CCP’s crime that cost the lives of an estimated 30 million Chinese. The abysmal failure and the human carnage caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward endangered Mao’s continued rule so he responded by launching the destructive Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976. This time Hong did not escape the communist Red Guards who tore up her medical license, exposed her to public humiliation, and sent her into the countryside with millions of others to share the fate of Chinese peasants.
After Mao died, Hong was rehabilitated and placed in a position to help oversee China’s population control campaign, which subjected women to forced abortions and forced sterilizations. She eventually became a member of the CCP. After U.S.-Chinese relations improved, Hong and her sister Jun (who by then was living in the United States) briefly reunited in 1979, but by then China and Taiwan were, like Hong and Jun, effectively separated — two independent nations. And so it is today.
Many of today’s China experts in the West have concluded that President Xi Jinping has accumulated Mao-like power within the CCP. Today’s CCP has been credibly accused of genocide against the Uyghurs, including harvesting human organs for sale throughout the world. And if generally not quite as repressive as Mao thus far, Xi nevertheless poses a greater geopolitical challenge to the region and the world than Mao ever did.
In 1950, just before the start of the Korean War, Mao was planning to invade Taiwan but the U.S. Seventh Fleet prevented that. All indications today are that Xi intends to annex Taiwan, either peacefully or by force. It is not at all clear that if the CCP chooses force the U.S. Seventh Fleet could prevent that today.
The “loss” of China in the late 1940s was once a subject of heated debate in the United States. But historians in the United States have tended to downplay its significance and reached a consensus that the CCP’s victory in the civil war was “inevitable.” They judge the presidency of Harry Truman, for example, based on his successes in Europe instead of his failures in Asia. Questions about “who lost China” have been consigned to the intellectual dustbin of “McCarthyism.”
But there are no inevitabilities in history. Li’s book, which focuses on individual tragedies, along with our current geopolitical predicament which highlights regional and global dangers, should place China’s civil war and the question of “who lost China” back at the center of historical discussion and debate. And the horrors of CCP rule recounted in the book should educate Americans about what is truly at stake in the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry.