From Our Editors
A sweeping memoir spanning 35 years, A Leaf in the
Bitter Wind chronicles the life of Ting-Xing
Ye, who watched her family and life torn apart during
China's cultural revolution. She tells of the murder of her
parents, the psychological torture she endured at a prison farm,
and her eventual job with the Chinese Secret Police. Ultimately,
she falls in love with a Canadian and defects, making the
heartbreaking decision to leave her daughter behind. A
Leaf in the Bitter Wind shows Ting-Xing
Ye as a survivor, a woman almost claimed by the changing
tides of history.
From the Publisher
One of the best ways to understand history is through eye-witness
accounts. Ting-Xing Ye's riveting first book, A Leaf in the
Bitter Wind, is a memoir of growing up in Maoist China. It was
an astonishing coming of age through the turbulent years of the
Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1974).
In the wave of revolutionary fervour, peasants neglected their
crops, exacerbating the widespread hunger. While Ting-Xing was a
young girl in Shanghai, her father's rubber factory was
expropriated by the state, and he was demoted to a labourer. A
botched operation left him paralyzed from the waist down, and his
health deteriorated rapidly since a capitalist's well-being was not
a priority. He died soon after, and then Ting-Xing watched her
mother's struggle with poverty end in stomach cancer. By the time
she was thirteen, Ting-Xing Ye was an orphan, entrusted with her
brothers and sisters to her Great-Aunt, and on welfare.
Still, the Red Guards punished the children for being born into the
capitalist class. Schools were being closed; suicide was rampant;
factories were abandoned for ideology; distrust of friends and
neighbours flourished. Ting-Xing was sent to work on a distant
northern prison farm at sixteen, and survived six years of
backbreaking labour and severe conditions. She was mentally
tortured for weeks until she agreed to sign a false statement
accusing friends of anti-state activities. Somehow finding the time
to teach herself English, often by listening to the radio, she
finally made it to Beijing University in 1974 as the Revolution was
on the wane - though the acquisition of knowledge was still frowned
upon as a bourgeois desire and study was discouraged.
Readers have been stunned and moved by this simply narrated
personal account of a 1984-style ideology-gone-mad, where
any behaviour deemed to be bourgeois was persecuted with the
ferocity and illogic of a witch trial, and where a change in
politics could switch right to wrong in a moment. The story of both
a nation and an individual, the book spans a heady 35 years of Ye's
life in China, until her eventual defection to Canada in 1987 - and
the wonderful beginning of a romance with Canadian author William
Bell. The book was published in 1997.
The 1990s saw the publication of several memoirs by Chinese now
settled in North America. Ye's was not the first, yet earned a
distinguished place as one of the most powerful, and the only such
memoir written from Canada. It is the inspiring story of a woman
refusing to "drift with the stream" and fighting her way through an
impossible, unjust system. This compelling, heart-wrenching story
has been published in Germany, Japan, the US, UK and Australia,
where it went straight to #1 on the bestseller list and has been
reprinted several times; Dutch, French and Turkish editions will
appear in 2001.
About the Author
Ting-Xing Ye (her surname means "Leaf") was born in Shanghai in
1952, three years after the founding of the People's Republic of
China. Her mother didn't encourage education for girls, but
Ting-Xing went to school anyway and eventually to university to
study English language and literature, just as China was opening up
to the west. In a moment of profound irony, she was offered one of
the highest placements available for an interpreter, with the hated
Secret Service. But her request for a transfer back to Shanghai,
where she could look after her kind great-aunt, was accepted.
Working for the municipal government, she dealt with the
delegations of visiting royalty, presidents and other dignitaries.
She married and, a year after the introduction of the
one-child-per-family rule, gave birth to a daughter. After six
years, she returned to Beijing to enter an international studies
program, where she met William Bell, the Canadian author and
teacher, who was teaching English at the college.
Although the official policy was to distrust foreigners, "I felt
safe with Bill," she says, and a deep bond began to form between
them as she finally felt safe to express her true thoughts, at
first through the journal he encouraged his class to keep. When
Bell returned to Canada, they began a correspondence. Ye was tired
of the oppressiveness of Chinese society, the constant surveillance
at work, and her loveless marriage. When a scholarship to York
University (which Bell had helped fabricate) arrived, she took
"My freedom came with a big price… I sometimes doubt my decision."
Ye made the hardest decision of her life when she did not return to
China after her studies ended in 1989. The relief of being in a
free country with a secure future that she could control was
tempered by the anguish of separation from her daughter Qi-Meng.
Her husband cut off all contact, making it impossible for her to
see her daughter for over ten years; when she realized she might
never see her again, she decided to write down a record of family
memories that Qi-Meng might one day read. "Even now, I question
whether I was too selfish. My fear is that people will read my book
and think that I sought my own freedom at the expense of my
daughter." Happily, after years of searching - during which readers
wrote with offers of help - she was finally able to make contact
with her daughter again. Qi-Meng is studying to be a teacher at a
university in China.
William Bell, who now lives with Ye in Orillia, Ontario, encouraged
Ye to turn her memories into a book. At first she thought it was
too personal, and didn't want people to think she was looking for
sympathy; when she began to write, it felt as though she were
reliving the worst times. However, the freedom of her new life has
unleashed Ye's creativity. As an antidote to the painful memories
dredged up writing the memoir, she also began to write children's
books based on folk tales and sayings she grew up with. She has now
published four books for young readers, and continues to write. The
contrast with her former life in totalitarian China could not be
greater. Even private diaries were regularly examined during the
Cultural Revolution. "You would never write on your own because it
was too dangerous."
Most of those who have published memoirs of tumultuous times in
China defected to the United States, and they are from a variety of
backgrounds. Nina Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai
describes the six years she spent as a political prisoner; Rae
Yang's Spider Eaters tells how her Communist intellectual
parents were denounced; Zhu Xiao Di's Thirty Years in a Red
House shows how his father suffered in spite of being a
high-ranking Party member. The internationally renowned Wild
Swans: Three Daughters of China, published in 1992, follows
Jung Chang's family from the 1870s to Deng Xiaoping's reforms.
Meihong Xu's Daughter of China also involves a
cross-cultural romance, as she fell in love with a visiting
American, though with less happy consequences than Ye. Finally, Jan
Wong's extraordinary Red China Blues recounts her
experiences as a Canadian student and later, a journalist for the
Globe and Mail, in Maoist China. All are accounts of
China, yet none could have been written there.
By virtue of offering freedom of expression, the West has also
inherited a wealth of fictional literature by emigrated Chinese
writers. Among the most recently celebrated is the acclaimed novel
Waiting by Ha Jin, set during and after the Cultural
Revolution. Other authors have chosen to focus their fiction on the
second-generation Chinese experience in Canada (such as Wayson Choy
and Judy Fong Bates), the U.S. (such as Amy Tan) and the U.K.
It's interesting to consider the importance of the memoir in recent
years, and its ability to transport us to other times and places.
Of course there is the unforgettable Ireland of Frank McCourt's
Angela's Ashes. Ernest Hillen's story The Way of a
Boy, an account of growing up in a Japanese prison camp in
Indonesia during the Second World War, was a bestseller in Canada
and Australia. In 2000, Ken Wiwa wrote of the repressive regime in
Nigeria in a book about his relationship with his executed father,
In the Shadow of a Saint, and Nega Mezlekia wrote of the
turbulent 1970s and '80s in Ethiopia in Notes from a Hyena's
Belly. In an interesting twist on the theme, Jack Todd's 2001
memoir of escaping from the U.S. during the Vietnam War, A
Taste of Metal, also gives a fascinating account of being in
the wrong place at wrong time and, like Ting-Xing Ye, making a
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
The life of a writer is still very new to me. I never planned to be
a writer and only started writing at the age of 40.
After studying and working in Toronto for five years, I moved to
Orillia, a small town about 130 km north of Toronto. For months I
couldn't find a job. The notion that job-seekers must have previous
experience was a tough reality for me to face. I worried that I
might be unemployed for the rest of my life, even though back in
China I had supported myself since I was 16.
One day in the spring of 1993, when Bill [William Bell] was on a
book tour, I found myself sitting in front of a computer trying to
turn an old saying my mother often used into a story. I just wanted
to find something to do so that at the end of each day I could say
to myself that I hadn't sat around, doing nothing. As for why I
chose writing instead of something else, looking back I realized it
was Bill's influence. Bill was a full-time high school English
teacher but he's also a young adult novelist with more than ten
published books. He would write at night and on weekends, after
marking was done. I found myself in a situation where he had too
much work to do and I, too much time to kill.
After eight rejection letters in one year, my story was accepted by
Annick Press. The acceptance of that story generated tremendous
confidence in me and was the driving force behind my writing. At
least in writing no one is fussy about whether I have previous
experience or not.
2) What inspired you to write this particular
My memoir, A Leaf in the Bitter Wind,is my second book.
The reason I wrote it was that I wanted to leave something behind
for my daughter to read.
Shortly after I became a Canadian citizen in 1994, I went back to
China to try to contact my daughter. By then I hadn't seen her for
nearly seven years because when I divorced her father he took his
revenge by denying me access to her. I was unsuccessful. The grim
possibility that I might not see her for the rest of my life made
me decide to write something down for her to read, probably after I
am gone. I wanted to tell her something about me and my parents,
whom she never met, about my childhood and teenage years, about my
six years living and working on a prison farm, and particularly
about my decision to leave China. The project started as a sort of
record. Yet as days turned into weeks and weeks rolled into months,
I watched on the computer screen as my jotted notes became
paragraphs, pages grew into chapters, and chapters called for more
chapters. Bill convinced me that my life story would be interesting
to others so I should keep writing and try to get it
3) Who is your favourite character in this book, and
The person who stands out as remarkable in this book is my
great-aunt, Chen Feng-mei. After I examined my experience growing
up in a society in which bloodline was all that mattered, and how
that had affected me and every Chinese person's daily life, I
recalled that Great-aunt, who took care of me and my brothers and
sisters after our parents passed away, was not a blood relative. It
was my great-aunt, a woman without education, a woman who had a
pair of bound feet which were smaller than her own hands, who had
given me courage and strength during the darkest moments in my
4) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being
interviewed about your book?
I can't remember any. But I did learn something about make-up. When
I saw myself on TV after a CTV interview I realized I looked like a
panda due to heavy make-up and dark eye shadow. That pretty much
summarizes my knowledge of make-up.
5) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish
I wish all the interviewers would read my book or at least know
something about it before they put me on the stand.
6) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on
So far, not really. I write about things that interest me.
7) Which authors have been most influential to your own
English literature and its writers are still relatively new to me
even though I read a lot. My approach to reading is finish a book
whether it's good or not so good. I can't identify any particular
author or book that influenced me.
8) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing
for a living? What are some of your other passions in
I often think about the first question: Who would I be or what
would I do if I had been born here in Canada? What kind of career
would I like to pursue? I would like very much to be a doctor. I
guess this may have a lot to do with the memories of how helpless
my brothers, sisters and I were, watching our parents suffer and
die from illness. But then again, I am terrified seeing blood!
Being a teacher would be my next choice. But after living in Canada
for over ten years, living with a teacher, I am not so sure now.
Teachers are not as respected as they used to be.
When I am not writing, when housework is done and the garden is in
good shape, I like sewing and knitting. I find they help me to
relax; meanwhile, I still can keep thinking about my stories.