Hunger Tale: A Review of Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River

Hantian Zhang

Daughter of the River
by Hong Ying
translated by Howard Goldblatt
New York: Grove Press, 1998.
288 pages
$14.00 (Paperback)

When I read others’ writing about my Chinese hometown, Chongqing, I step into the story through my own memories. Han Suyin’s wartime love in Destination Chungking evokes my grandparents’ story, and Peter Hessler from River Town could have well taught me English. When I discovered Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River, a memoir recounting the author’s growing up in a Chongqing slum in the ’60s and ’70s, my own upbringing resurfaced between the lines. Even though I came of age decades later, the city’s fog, overcast winters, and unspeakable sadness are all it takes to prime me for her story.

To enter Hong Ying’s story is to be with her on the eve of her eighteenth birthday in 1980. A man was following her, but she was more concerned about feeling alienated from her family. Mother, a porter turned furnace stoker who came home only on Sundays, found fault in everything. Father was reticent and kind, but lived largely in his own world as he was turning blind. The three older sisters and two brothers were occupied with their own problems. Confined in a two-hundred-square-foot shack, Hong Ying felt her family was always “stepping all over each other.” Almost drowned in the quarreling crowdedness and squalor, Hong Ying only wished her family would “spend the rest of their lives tortured by remorse.”

Poverty — both material and emotional — took a heavy toll, shrouding Hong Ying like a fog even when she was outside of the family, as an unhappy senior soon to take the college-entrance exam. In the ever-present, suffocating isolation, she was paradoxically — or understandably — hungry for love. Romance budded between her and her history teacher twenty years her senior: he walked her home; he gave her a book on human anatomy, whose pictorial depiction of the penis was “beautiful” and “dangerously seductive.” Days after turning eighteen, Hong Ying knocked at his door, and they had consensual sex. With a power waking up in her, she was “willing to abandon everything or be totally abandoned, all for love”; she had become an adult.

And as an adult, Hong Ying was entitled to something else: the revelation of a family secret. During the Great Famine of 1959-62, Father was a boatman away from home, and Mother struggled to feed five children. Out of physical and emotional hunger, she had an affair with Mr. Sun, whose financial support proved critical for the family to survive. Hearing of the extramarital pregnancy, Father beat Mother up but kept the child. Mr. Sun agreed to child support and no contact until her adulthood. But now, as Hong Ying turned eighteen, it was time for him to become present.

Hong Ying now knew the identity of the man following her: her biological father. She let him take her to a good restaurant and then a theater, but instead of being touched by his eighteen-year-long waiting and his unfailing financial support, she resented him for making her illegitimate and reappearing uninvited. She was not to see him again afterward.

Then, days later, news broke that her lover had committed suicide, probably out of fear of his misconduct back in the Cultural Revolution. That evening, Hong Ying went alone to the riverbank, where she “tore up every diary entry that hinted at him, and tossed them into the river, to be swallowed up and swept away.” The abrupt changes prompted a wish to leave, but not before she found herself pregnant. “Are hungry women naturally endowed with hungry wombs?” she asked, reasoning that the unfilled organ must clutch the first chance.

The striking question marks the impact hunger had on her life. It was not just a driving force of behavior, since even though she liked meat buns and bought two as a birthday present with the fifty cents Father gave her, she could not bring herself to eat them both by herself. Nor only a patterning of thoughts, as even though she regarded college as not for poor kids like her, she still prepared for the entrance exam set for the following year. Hunger was both but also more, an everyday philosophy she used to make sense of her still being called a “little girl” at eighteen: she had grown up malnourished and was slow to develop. We can go as far as saying that hunger was the precondition of her being: should there be no famine, Hong Ying would not have been born. She was, literally, the daughter of hunger.

This is not to say the title is a misnomer. The Yangtze flows through the book. Mother and Father made their livings by the river; Brothers scavenged for valuables there using homemade rafts. Family secrets were revealed on the bank, and the eastbound flow carried away her torn love letters. The great river — its seasonal swells, its fog, its sadness — is what I recognize, as well as the city’s hot summers and the spicy food; but the ever-present hunger, the horrifying squalor, and the superstitious practice of eating the placenta are what I have never associated with my hometown. At these moments, Hong Ying might have put on an Orientalist lens unawares: when she describes the horrible condition of the slum, or when she focuses on certain “backward” practices, she might have chosen certain perspectives and language that feed into certain negative stereotypes of China, even if it is not her intention.

There are moments when the narrative jumps arbitrarily, its backstories disconnected from the time arc. But the story’s melody is touching because of its genuineness, its unwavering honesty in portraying the cruelty of life — both in what life did to her and what she did to others. This is how Ying Hong describes her abortion:

The thought suddenly struck me that it wasn’t too late to climb down from the operating table, that I could still keep the child, no matter what it cost me down the line; I wanted this child, just as I had wanted its father that day, and I would give myself to him, body and soul, the way I’d given myself to his father. Tears wet the hair on my temples. The doctor shifted her position, and from where I lay I could see a shallow white enamel pan under a table in which lay several bloody hunks of flesh shaped like pigs’ kidneys. So that’s where my child would end up. Now was the time to hop down from the table and get out of the room. There was still time. Holding on to this child would be the same as holding on to his father, the same as bringing his father back to life. But just as my legs moved, something cold and sharp was rammed up my vagina, and a piercing scream tore from my body. My hair was wet with tears. After the scream died out, I clenched my teeth and held on to the table with all my might.

And this is how she mourns her biological father’s death:

On the 20th of April 1986, when my natural father breathed his last, where was I, his twenty-four-year-old daughter? Probably hanging out with friends, drinking and laughing and throwing myself into the arms of some guy who thought he was in love with me, who knows? I couldn’t recall, although something seemed to be pounding inside my head.

In such a headlong confrontation with life’s crudities, the author comprehends the sum total of her struggle and thus finds her truth. At this moment, the book is no longer just an exposé shedding light on slum life and a forgotten famine, nor simply another Bildungsroman tallying the pains of coming of age. In its genuine and graceful storytelling, Daughter of the River goes beyond both genres and becomes an authentic show of a tormented soul. Only Hong Ying can tell such a story, one that resides at a long-gone moment and in my remote hometown, but speaks to the general, enduring grits of being human.


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