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My Name is Number 4: A True Story    by Ting-Xing Ye order for
My Name is Number 4
by Ting-Xing Ye
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In My Name is Number 4, Ting-Xing Ye tells us the true story of her childhood and coming of age during the horrors of China's Cultural Revolution. Reading this gutwrenching account made me think of both the class targeting of the bloody French Revolution, and of the Thought Police madness in the fictional dystopia, 1984.

The story opens in Shanghai on 'the morning of my exile to the prison farm', when the then sixteen-year-old author's two brothers and two sisters - she's Ah Si (number four) in the family - escorted her down Purple Sunshine Lane, past her old temple school to the assembly building. Teacher Chen gave her wise parting advice - the (banned) old saying, 'When at home depend on your parents; when away from home, rely on your friends.' Friends did eventually help Ah Si but were also the cause of her greatest regrets.

In the early days, Ah Si's bourgeois family lived well in a three-room apartment, including Grandmother and Great-Aunt, taken in by the family as an unpaid, live-in maid. But when Ah Si was four-years-old, her father was forced to surrender his factory to the government and given a menial job. He died when she was nine, and her mother when she was thirteen. Great-Aunt then did her best to look after the small family - one brother went to university and the other took a factory job.

Then things changed at school - classes were suspended, and teachers and students of capitalist background (Ah Si being one of them despite her family's poverty) harrassed by Red Guards and treated like criminals. School turned into 'a hateful vindictive place.' Elder brother Number One told Ah Si, 'do whatever you're told and never, ever argue or talk back', hard advice for an intelligent, spirited child to take. Then came raids on the homes of suspect families - luckily the Ye children were warned and destroyed their few remaining treasures before their existence could be used against them.

You have to admire the author who, as a young teen, pretended to be a Red Guard, and joined two friends on a trip to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. But this was a brief interlude in years of anxiety and turmoil. Then came the Red Terror, when many died, followed by the edict that one child per family must move to the countryside and live there for the rest of their life. Threatened with worse for her family, Ah Si volunteered, leading to six years at the Da Feng prison farm in Jiangsu Province, in an environment of extreme poverty and hard labor - picking cotton, transplanting and harvesting rice - with continual study sessions.

Friends alleviated the misery - one advised her to learn 'how to play with the rules', while another helped her meet work quotas. But things could always get worse at Da Feng - a place of madness where 'lawbreakers were better off than people who had done nothing wrong', and they soon did when the camp was taken over by the People's Liberation Army. This led to a witch hunt in which an innocent Ah Si was implicated as a counterrevolutionary. She was subjected to sleep-deprivation torture for fourteen days, and continually harrassed, including by those she had worked alongside - she wondered 'How could all of them hate me so?'

That was the low point, after which Ah Si studied English, and eventually won a place at university, telling us that 'Maybe now I could lay my hand on the rudder of my own life and steer out of the bitter sea.' She subsequently worked as an interpreter in Shanghai, and later moved to Canada, where she now lives and writes. Ting-Xing Ye communicates her experiences almost too well in My Name is Number 4, so that it's at times hard to read her absorbing account - especially when one reflects that this was but one of countless similar stories in this bitter era in China's long history.

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