In 1966, Mao Zedong unleashed the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Estimates suggest that between one and three million people died over the course of 10 years under Mao’s repressive regime. Katherine Luo was sent to a labour camp for three and a half years for the crime of being from a bourgeois family with relatives living “overseas” in the British colony of Hong Kong. Luo’s recollections of that tumultuous era form the backbone of this book of essays, presented here with a foreword by Madeleine Thien.
As a young adult, Luo was a true believer in the Communist Party. She left Hong Kong in 1955 to study drama on the mainland as a patriotic gesture. But by middle age, she felt caught in an “iron cage” even as the country moved away from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Since repression never seemed far away, she immigrated to Vancouver at the age of 62.
The chapters in the book range from a lyrical sketch about nature’s ability to sustain a person in times of darkness to pieces of full-out reportage; over the course of the book, Luo encapsulates an entire generation’s story. It is an expansive narrative, covering the Japanese invasion in 1937; their overthrow in 1945 and the civil war that followed; the birth of a new nation in 1949; the perils of the Cultural Revolution; the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square; the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997; and, finally, the economic bullishness of contemporary China.
Luo offers neither a conventional history of the period nor a straight biography, and she uses footnotes to fill in some blanks left in her text. She skilfully and gently recalls the stories of family, friends, and others whose lives were wrecked by the manipulation of public opinion during Mao’s reign, when citizens were made to report on other citizens.
The stylistic variety among these pieces results in some having more emotional impact than others. Luo often omits the most personal details of her life – a divorce is barely mentioned – resulting in some frustration at her reticence to confront significant material. And yet The Unceasing Storm brings to life the anguish of a time when the whims of those in power irretrievably altered a person’s fate.