Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Bao Bao’s Odyssey Out of Hell

by Brian Yang


Paul Ting, Bao Bao's Odyssey: From Mao's Shanghai to Capitalist Hong Kong, Proverse Hong Kong, 2012. 286 pgs.

Recently published by Proverse Hong Kong, Paul Ting's new historical novel, Bao Bao's Odyssey: From Mao's Shanghai to Capitalist Hong Kong, portrays everyday life in Mao's China of the late 1950s through Bao Bao, an inquisitive and precocious teenager. This coming-of-age story describes the young man's discovery of the ugly truths behind the lies and deceptions of communist propaganda, as Bobo bears witness to some of the most horrific tragedies in human history, such as the Hundred Flowers campaign and the Great Famine.

The symbolic value of the title, particularly the word "Odyssey," cannot be overlooked. Ulysses' final destination is home, and so is Bao Bao’s as he eventually reunites with his parents. For an ambitious young man, there is neither future nor home in communist China, and he must strive to cross the border into capitalist Hong Kong where his dream of becoming a Nobel Prize winner can continue to flourish.

In this politically charged novel, Ting manages to present his condemnation of the atrocities committed by Mao and his regime in an engaging way. The book is spread over twenty-five chapters, with each chapter chronicling a political or social campaign launched by Mao. The solemn nature of these events is understated when told from Bao Bao's teenaged perspective. However, the young man also provides readers with insightful interpretations of how these campaigns impact the lives of ordinary citizens.

The story is likely biographical, as Paul Ting himself left China as a student for Hong Kong at a similar age as his protagonist.  Having a first-hand experience of Communist China affords Ting to contrast what China was like as compared to capitalist societies such as Hong Kong. Ting has translated his insights into this story, which immerses readers in the horrors of a regime that would have given George Orwell new inspirations.

These personal insights lend the book's narrative voice authority. Its omniscient narrator skips from describing Bao Bao's immediate circumstances to the thoughts of other characters. The overall effect of this narrative style is to create the mood of a grandfatherly figure telling a tale to a designated audience. Furthermore, the story does not always revolve around Bao Bao, but rather, it also reveals the experiences of his relatives and friends. By giving other characters, including farmers and workers, a voice to express their discontent with the regime, Ting is able to paint a more complete picture of Chinese society in 50's.

And everyone has a legitimate reason to complain. The story opens with students staying up all night to write political posters to demonstrate their "revolutionary zeal." Indeed, politics dominates every facet of life; one wrong step brings serious repercussions. Personal privacy is utterly shattered when the party begins to actively encourage children to denounce their parents for any signs of disobedience. Once denounced, these parents end up labelled as "politically backwards," "anti-revolutionary" or "rightest." Consequently, no one is willing to trust anyone else, even one's own children. By pitting everyone against everyone else, Mao effectively destroys any trace of social cohesion. Fear pervades every corner of society, destroying sympathy and reason.

The novel also relates how personal freedom and choice are ruthlessly taken away from the common people. No one is allowed to travel or to choose their profession; everything from one's job to the amount of food each family receives is regulated by the state. The regime also tries to control individual thought through constant propaganda. At one point, Bao Bao perceptively notes that Mao prefers to brainwash the younger generation, which he terms as "easily manipulated" akin to blank pages, whereas intellectuals who are too experienced to be fed lies are like used paper and thus must be exterminated.

Mao's evils do not end there. In the book, the "savior of China" is revealed to be a selfish tyrant with absolutely no regard for human life when he tries to stir up a nuclear war on Chinese soil near the Taiwan Strait. This same disregard for humanity is also seen in Mao's suicidal mass exportation of food coupled with an encouragement of population growth, as well as a tripling of workers during the "Great Leap Forward." In their totality, these events resulted in the starvation of millions of Chinese, forcing some citizens to even resort to cannibalism. Food, however, is not the only shortage in Mao's China, and human liberty and dignity are also scarce. Families are torn apart and destroyed in labour camps during the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" and in its aftermath. Yet Mao tolerates no criticism save blind obedience and worship.

What I really appreciate about Bao Bao's Odyssey is that it maintains a simple and straightforward style. Paul Ting's dialogues succinct and to the point, perhaps as the result of his effort to stay as objective and neutral as possible; hard as this may, considering the book's weighty political themes. Ting language may not be emotionally charged, but the descriptions of the atrocities and the suffering of the Chinese people is enough to chill your bones and get your blood boiling.

Ting's characterisation of Bao Bao is also clever and effective. In the beginning, he portrays the young man as a devoted follower of Mao, and, throughout the book, Bao Bao is forced to continually justify the leader's actions to himself. Through this inner conflict, Ting offers a convincing psychological exploration of the effects of growing up under communist propaganda and what it takes to rationalise party lies.

Bao Bao's struggles also show the power of propaganda and the absurd logic of the regime. One prime example is when Mao orders the entire nation to exterminate sparrows for four days because the bird's diet consists of grain. Although some people complain about the slaughter, the protagonist defends Mao by rationalising that due to China's big population, it is impossible to please everybody.

Nevertheless, with each passing event and new discovery, the young man becomes more dubious of Mao and the party. His personal transformation culminates near the end of the book when everyone is revealed to hate the regime and the ugly truth is let out—"This place belongs to a handful of communist leaders only." This powerful sentiment echoes Orwell's famous saying that "Some animals are more equal than others." Or as I see it, every comrade is a good communist until they gain wealth or power.

The book's only major drawback is that it spends too much time exploring adolescent sexuality. I accept that sex could be problematic in an oppressive society where the topic is strictly taboo, especially among teenagers. However, for me, devoting three full chapters to the matter proved distracting and sometimes disturbing. It is highly implausible that Bao Bao would masturbate in front of his sister or sneak, not once but twice, into his aunt and uncle's bedroom when they are engaged in coitus. Chef Wang, an important character who remains a voice of reason amidst the lies and propaganda, is arrested for sodomy, an event which I found confusing and incongruent to the novel's political stance. Still, this is a rather minor complaint on an otherwise excellent book.

Mao's disastrous rule in China remains official taboo in China and the communist government's talent for covering things up means that few Chinese know the full truth about what transpired a little over forty years ago. This sensitive information is not easily accessible to most Chinese. Yet Paul Ting has not only revealed some of the realities of Communist China's past, he has done it creatively and engagingly in this coming-of-age story. I would highly recommend Bao Bao's Odyssey to anyone who wants to learn more about New China's troubled past.

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