Dancing in the River by George Lee
George Lee’s debut novel Dancing in the River (Guernica Editions) offers a rare and intimate view into the coming of age of a young boy in a sleepy mountain village along the Yangtze River, during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.
From grammar school through college, Little Bright maneuvers a turbulent world under the very local eye of Communist Party officials, where politics might compel your classmates or even your family to betray you, or you them. His ability to define himself beyond his meager upbringing and proscriptive Chinese education evolves with his resourceful attempts to rise above the propaganda that enshrouds his world.
GROWING UP UNDER IMPOSSIBLE CONDITIONS
Born into a poor peasant family Little Bright witnesses both his parents suffer unfairly in the fray of local politics. His father, a soldier in China’s People’s Liberation Army, is arrested and publicly humiliated, betrayed by family for a counter-revolutionary activity he did not commit. His years in a labor camp turn him bitter and alcoholic.
Little Bright’s mother serves time in a re-education camp when she cannot reconcile expenses at her job and is accused of stealing. She too comes home beaten down.
The constant in Little Bright’s life is his illiterate grandmother, a “shining gemstone” whose “thousand-year-old patience” and ancient Chinese fables inspire him. Her willingness to conform to society’s dictates — such as submitting to having her feet bound and deformed as a young child — appalls him.
CURIOSITY CRAVES MORE THAN GOVERNMENT ALLOWS
Little Bright’s educational experiences — grammar school through college — galvanize his need to live in a world far different than his schooling would have him believe.
At a young age, Little Bright “understood [his] life’s mission: follow the Party blindly wherever it called [them]. [His] mind did not generate questions anymore; it had stockpiled certainties, exclamation points. Questioning meant doubt, and doubting was an anti-revolutionary crime.”
Nonetheless, by age eleven Little Bright is starved for books and they are “as rare as meat. Almost all books — other than those of Chairman Mao — were considered poisonous plants.”
Using cigarettes he steals from his father, Little Bright barters for access to the town’s only junk recycling depot, where books seized by the government are taken. Seeing a whole new world of imagination and logical thought — the gorgeous prose of Shakespeare, the logic of Sherlock Holmes, the insights of Pavlovian science — Little Bright brims with questions.
Skinny, pale and a head shorter than his peers due to malnutrition, he fights social awkwardness and the highest grades never come easy. But his pointed observations convince him he cannot “build [his] world back to the way it was.”
RELATABLE TO MODERN-DAY READERS
With the mistrustful political climate in which we find ourselves nowadays in a Western country, Little Bright’s mission — to decipher truth from myth, real from invented — resonates as timely and thought-provoking.
He comes to see the Cultural Revolution as “an example of collective insanity. The lesson was both painful and stunning: most of the people could be wrong. Holding a popular opinion does not mean you are standing on the right side.
The same can be said of tradition.” As his English teacher explains, “Truth is not facts; truth is what people say it is. If you repeat a lie for a thousand years, the lie becomes truth. People believe it without giving it the slightest thought. Our truths are the food our ancestors chewed up, spat onto spoons and shoveled into our open mouths.”
AWARD-WINNING FICTION PUSHES BOUNDARIES
Dancing in the River won Canada’s 2021 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction in 2021, given for cutting edge literary fiction that pushes boundaries. Even in its writing style the novel pushes boundaries as a rich cornucopia of memoir, lush literary fiction, and ancient fables both perplexing and illuminating in their simplicity and depth.
Lee brings us a generously open and engaging view of an enigmatic China we never get to see. His own personal experience lends a nuance and sensitivity from which much can be learned, not just about China but about our own ability to look within ourselves and better understand our own coming-of-age.
About George Lee:
George Lee was born and raised in China. He earned an M.A. in English literature from University of Calgary, and a Juris Doctor degree from University of Victoria. His first novel, Dancing in the River, won the 2021 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction. He practices law in Vancouver, Canada.