The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century of Chinese History

  • By Lan Yan; translated by Sam Taylor
  • Harper Paperbacks
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by James Carter
  • June 22, 2020

A prominent expat reflects on the change and upheaval in China.

The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century of Chinese History

We live in a time when the familiar feels dangerously unstable. Norms and standards that have guided many of our lives are suddenly under challenge, ranging from everyday acts like sending children to school or shaking hands, to seemingly unchangeable institutions like baseball or police departments, to grander assumptions like diplomatic alliances and membership in international organizations. Little can be taken for granted.

Lan Yan’s The House of Yan feels familiar in today’s upheaval. The book begins with the author’s grandfather being rousted from his comfortable Beijing home by Red Guards and arrested amid a tide of violence that was rising fast and soaking through all of China.

Connections and hierarchies that had been in place for years were suddenly subverted, and for Lan Yan and her family, like today in the United States, the effects ranged from the mundane to the profound. Lan — 10 years old when her grandfather was arrested in 1967— soon found every institution in her life — school, family, friends, home — disrupted.

Lan’s family was an important one. The book’s subtitle — “a family at the heart of a century of China’s history” — is no overstatement. Given this, it would be easy enough to trade on the celebrity of the Yan family alone. The cameos by friends, colleagues, and students are impressive. Zhou Enlai, novelist Lao She, “last emperor” Puyi, Deng Xiaoping, and even Mao Zedong himself are just some of the characters who appear in the book’s pages, but the story goes beyond this.

Yan writes that the history of her family is “in microcosm, the history of 20th-century China.” In this combination of memoir and family history, the author supports that claim well, for the family had front-row seats to many of the century’s most important events.

Her grandfather fought for both the nationalists and the communists in midcentury China’s wars against the Japanese. Her parents both served as important translators and interpreters — her father was Mao’s official Russian interpreter — and traveled to the Soviet Union, meeting with Khrushchev, Stalin, and other Soviet leaders.

Because several generations of the Yan family were prominent, the book slices through different eras of China’s history. From stories of spies and counterspies during the war against Japan to the poignant moment when Yan Mingfu pleaded with demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square, few books give such personal insight into such important public moments in China’s history.

The House of Yan has elements of three different genres familiar to students of China’s modern history. It shares common ground with physician Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao, though Yan gives us unique access to figures of historical importance. However, Yan’s access is less intimate to these characters — young Lan Yan watched movies in Mao’s personal cinema, but knew little of the chairman’s private habits, so the book is not as shocking or lascivious as Li’s book or other “historical celebrity tell-alls.”

Comparisons have also been made to Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, a bestseller that in many ways defines the family memoir as a form for Chinese studies, or Lijia Zhang’s Socialism is Great!, though The House of Yan differs from both of those in that it presents an elite voice, someone with access to the highest echelons of the party-state.

I think the genre that most closely matches The House of Yan, though, is the Cultural Revolution memoir exemplified by Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, a pathbreaking book that has been followed by dozens of others. As does Cheng’s, Lan Yan’s firsthand experience of the Cultural Revolution, both for the hardships she went through and her view onto the suffering of her parents and grandparents, illustrates the brutal challenges the Chinese people faced through decades of upheaval.

Like the best of this genre, The House of Yan makes sweeping social and political movements personal. The author’s anguish at seeing the effects of reeducation camps on her mother, or of learning of her grandmother’s death just days before they were to be reunited, provoke powerful emotions.

The book is difficult to place politically, and this is a strength as well as a weakness. Criticism of events like the Cultural Revolution is implicit. The author not only writes compellingly of the pain — literal and psychological — caused by the Red Guards (and even some family members), but mocks the absurdity of how gestures as small as telephone salutations became ideological yardsticks.

The events of 1989, though, are presented without editorial comment. The author’s father, who spoke to students in Tiananmen Square, is shown to have defied hardliners and suffered (temporarily) the consequences, but the students’ actions — which the author viewed from abroad — are not described as heroic or subversive.

And the failure of the Great Leap Forward — government policies that led to the starvation of tens of millions in the late 1950s — is attributed repeatedly to “natural disasters” and failed harvests, a standard talking point of the Chinese Communist Party aimed at deflecting blame from Mao Zedong.

As a whole, The House of Yan is satisfying, a look into the lives of Chinese elites who helped forge the People’s Republic over the course of a tumultuous 20th century and who suffered as the forces of revolution spiraled (repeatedly) beyond their control. The book’s short paragraphs and transparent prose — translated from the French by Sam Taylor — bring the reader in and do justice to a remarkable story.

In today’s world, which seems to have come unmoored from its foundations, the lesson that nothing can be taken for granted, even for the powerful and influential, is more relevant than the author might have imagined when she first wrote it down.

James Carter is the author of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (W.W. Norton & Company), which came out last week.

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