A Heart for Freedom
post written by Emma Filbrun
Title: A Heart for Freedom
Author: Chai Ling
Major Themes: China, Democracy, Freedom, History
Synopsis: When she becomes heavily involved with the student movement in Tiananmen Square that resulted in a massacre, Chai Ling has no idea where this will lead her later in life.
Back in 2014, I requested a few books from a book review site, but then never got around to reading them. I’ve since changed the way I handle my for-review books so I can actually make sure to read them, but I’ve been working through the archives, too. A Heart for Freedom is one of those long-forgotten books, and I have spent approximately the last month reading it. This is a very intense story, and very long, but it has been quite the informative read!
Chai Ling’s life was not easy growing up. With both parents as doctors in the army, they were gone for long stretches of time, and Chai Ling was in charge of her siblings during these times. She never had a brother, so she always felt like she had to prove herself to her father. As time went on and she realized she could gain her father’s respect by having excellent grades, she worked to become a model student—and managed to get into the prestigious Peking University when she was old enough to go there. While there, she met different students with a desire to see more democracy in China, and eventually a movement started to petition the government to allow free speech and democracy. Her husband was one of the leaders, so as his wife she was instantly involved—but through a long series of events, she became commander in chief of the students at Tiananmen Square. We all know how that ended up—but what brought about the massacre? And what happened to the leaders who survived the massacre?
Beyond knowing that a lot of students died in the massacre, I hadn’t given this piece of modern history a lot of thought. However, “seeing” it firsthand through Chai Ling’s eyes was quite incredible. It was interesting to see how she ended up being the leader—with all the concerns and responsibilities that come with the position. It was not an easy task, but with her heart set on freedom, she tried to do the best she knew how. After the massacre, she spent many months in hiding before finally being able to escape China—but that wasn’t easy, in and of itself. She ended up in America, but you can read about that in the book. For me, seeing the reasons behind the movement and what happened in the end was probably the most interesting. Selfish ambition and true desire for good can be so easily mixed—and often it’s hard to know what’s really going on underneath. Looking at the country today, I can’t say as this movement did a huge amount of good—but perhaps the results aren’t all in yet.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading A Heart for Freedom. The part about the Tiananmen Square effort was definitely the most interesting to me. When that finished, it felt like the book dragged a lot more (especially after her freedom). There was a lot of detail I’m not sure was necessarily needed—but then I read in the acknowledgments that the book’s current form is half of what it was originally, so I’m very, very thankful to the editor for paring it down this far, at least! If you’re interested in an “inside” view of this piece of history, I’d recommend you read this. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fascinating portrait of what China was like in the 1980s.
I requested a free review copy of this book, and this is my honest opinion of it.
WARNING: This is not a book for younger readers. There was a huge list of warnings, so much so that the list would end up much longer than the review itself! I will try to give you a good overview of the content, but do know that for the most part, I was surprised by the lack of intense descriptive detail; the story was told in a matter-of-fact manner, which I felt made it a lot easier to read.
Of course, the biggest topic in this book is the Tiananmen Square Massacre. There is some violence throughout the book as the government tried to keep people under control. Ch. 12 mentions a man trying to write a sign with his own blood. Ch. 18 mentions a story of someone who burned themselves alive to prove a point, and ch. 21 tells how people in the student movement were willing to do the same thing. Ch. 22 contains the massacre portion itself, with a couple of awful stories—but mostly it’s told in generalities (“people were crushed…”).
Sleeping around and marital relations are mentioned a few times through the book. A girl is nearly raped in ch. 7. In ch. 6 and 10, relationships between a boyfriend and girlfriend are mentioned briefly. Later, in ch. 26, a woman’s husband falls in love with quite a few different girls, they are together as husband and wife in ch. 27, but soon after she divorces him because he keeps sleeping around with other women (he also beats her up at one point when she resists him). In ch. 31, two divorced people marry.
Abortion is a fairly large topic in this book; the author had four abortions, I believe. The first one is described in some detail in ch. 6, and another woman’s horrific experience is told about in ch. 33. Different stories are told in ch. 32-34, along with mentions of problems in China with gendercide, trafficking, child brides, abandoned girls, etc. The author runs a program to try to help women in desperate situations in China, so some statistics she’s discovered through that are quoted. There is also some talk about how suicide is a big problem in China (there are a few stories sprinkled throughout the book), and in ch. 9, a girl sees her mother trying to commit suicide (which, thankfully, didn’t end up happening).
Some Buddhist teachings are mentioned in here, as the author was a Buddhist for a little while. She talks about capturing energy and what the “energy” did to help her work through some of her problems. Later, after becoming a Christian, she mentions a couple visions either she or other people had.
If any of the things mentioned here are triggers for you, I’d recommend you be careful. Like I said, most of it is only spoken of in general terminology instead of specific, which I really appreciated, but some descriptions could still be a problem for more sensitive people.
Reading Independently—Ages 15 and Above, Adults
Links to buy this book:
Keywords: China, Democracy, Freedom, History, Autobiography, Biography, 20th Century, 1950-2000, 21st Century, Asia