Cover image for A memoir of misfortune
A memoir of misfortune
Su, Xiaokang, 1949-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Li hun li chieh tzu hsü. English
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2001]

Physical Description:
xi, 329 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
General Note:
"A Borzoi Book."
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PL2904.H654 Z46513 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A compelling memoir--both gripping and deeply personal--by one of the leaders of the democracy movement in China, who managed to escape to America with his family only to find himself faced with a tragedy more terrifying than he had ever imagined. In the 1980s, Su Xiaokang, a young journalist, wrote the script for a six-part television series, River Elegy, which probed so deeply into the core of Chinese beliefs and values that it galvanized the entire country in an explosion of intellectual debate. Having survived the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he now became the focus of a massive pursuit as one of the regime's five most wanted "criminals," and was smuggled out of China, leaving behind his wife, Fu Li, and their young son. After two long years and great international pressure, the family was finally reunited in Princeton, New Jersey. For a brief time, it seemed as if the worst was behind them. But on June 4, 1993--exactly four years after Tiananmen--while the family was being driven to Niagara Falls, the car they were in sped off the road. When Su Xiaokang regained consciousness, he discovered that Fu Li was in a coma, from which she would eventually emerge unable to speak or to control her limbs. Suddenly, the national hero who had accepted his place at the center of a political revolution was a husband and a father who had to remake an emotional world for his wife and son. Throughout his candid and extraordinarily moving memoir, we become party to this man's innermost thoughts and feelings, his guilt and fear, his moral self-questioning, his bravery and strength, as he tells the story of his wife before and after the accident, and of how his sense of love, marriage, responsibility, and the true goals of life was profoundly and forever changed.

Author Notes

Su Xiaokang was born in 1949 in China's Zhejiang province

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When he was smuggled out of China in 1989, after his appearance in Tiananmen Square, the author, a well-known Chinese journalist, wondered if he'd ever see his wife and son again. Two years later the family was reunited, living in Princeton, New Jersey. But barely two years after that, while driving to Niagara Falls, an automobile accident left his wife brain-damaged, possibly permanently. This intensely emotional memoir chronicles the author's devotion to his wife and her painful journey toward recovery. It's a story of love, honor, and self-doubt. How does a man face, every day, the knowledge that the woman he loves, no matter how far she recovers, will never be quite the same again? How does he cope with the possibility that he may lose her forever? It is impossible to read this memoir without reflecting on one's own life and whether, in the author's position, we would be as strong as we needed to be. A profoundly affecting book that will stay with readers long after they've finished it. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

The English title of this book, which was first published in China, may put off readers unwilling to voluntarily subject themselves to 300-plus pages of someone else's suffering. That would be tragic, because they'd be missing out on a startling and remarkable odyssey, one that's both literary and personal. Su, a prominent journalist in China, was smuggled out of the country after making the government's "most wanted" list after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Two years later, his wife, Fu Li, and son joined him in the United States. Misfortune in the form of a devastating 1993 car accident that left Fu Li paralyzed and brain injured is at the core of Su's story. But in working through his guilt about the accident, he spirals outward and beyond it to explore differences between China and the U.S., political movements, love and spirituality. The latter discussion is especially enlightening. Su's reflections are a clear look at the way people without faith in God can find meaning in life through unimaginable tragedy and suffering. There are also some wonderfully pithy observations, particularly Su's discovery, when trying to buy a home, that "in the United States to clear your credit history is just as arduous as it is to remove a counterrevolutionary stigma in mainland China." Su makes regular references to Chinese literary and historical figures, but also provides lucid footnotes for the benefit of his Western readers. The translation is awkward at times, but because it heightens many of the points Su makes about differences in Western and Chinese culture, that awkwardness works to strengthen the overall effect of this powerful story. (Apr. 25) Forecast: This extraordinary memoir of both personal and national tragedy should find a large audience if it is widely reviewed, as it should be. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

While some of the many demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 were killed or went to prison, some escaped China and found asylum abroad. A journalist and producer for television in China who had gained some degree of fame, Su escaped to Paris, then made his way to the United States. He settled in Princeton, NJ, along with a number of other exiles, who formed a sort of Chinatown there. After many difficulties, he managed to bring over his wife, Fu Li, and son Su Dan, only to see her paralyzed in a horrific car accident exactly four years after the uprising. Touching and delicate, this memoir mostly recounts Su's doubts, fears, adjustments, reassessments, and, yes, gratitude. Unfortunately, the translation occasionally seems clumsy. Recommended for larger public libraries. Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau Coll., Garden City, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One a black hole Fu Li and I, with our son Su Dan squeezed between us, were in the back seat of a '93 Dodge rental. I was dozing, thanks to a bunch of Chinese students in Buffalo who had kept me up the night before. It was my own damn fault, of course, with my "elegy" of the "yellow civilization" and all the rest of it. I had been badgered with questions on the subject all the way from one end of the world to the other, and in Buffalo, the night before, the discussion had lasted into the small hours. Mind you, to bemoan the fate of the "yellow civilization" under the night skies of North America-that in itself was a form of self-indulgence, an exercise in words-at least until Fu Li walked into the room. "Su Xiaokang, you are driving tomorrow. Time to break it up." That was Fu Li's style: no mincing of words, no room for saving face. Her goal in life had always been clear-cut-to be a doctor. But in China even the unenviable job of seeing a hundred patients every day had been taken away from her as one of the side effects of my being on the wanted list. In the United States, she had struggled through the exams needed to qualify as a registered nurse. The exams were now over, and I was dragging her off to see the country. Fu Li was dressed in a loose-fitting cotton top and shorts, but she was not relaxed. Even half asleep, I could feel the tension in her as she sat on the other side of Su Dan. She had always lived life as if it were filled with pitfalls, while I was perfectly relaxed. For a period of several years I had actually let fame and fortune go to my head, which Fu Li had found intolerable. Fu Li is the sort of person that folks in her home province of Henan refer to as "women with heads held high and men with downcast eyes"-that is, people who do not conform to their prescribed roles. Fu Li always held herself upright, the expression on her face calm and collected. My own infantile attempts at sophistication, added to my general inability to say no-what is called the "amiable ear"-had always roused in her a kind of loving resentment, and she would call me a good-for-nothing. I had taken my wife and son on this kind of aimless roving several times before. Once, with a group of five or six people, we drove down to Virginia to see where the early English colonists first landed. When we stopped at a restaurant on our way, I picked up my courage and tried to order in English. One young woman giggled, and Fu Li exploded. "What's so funny? His English is not as good as yours? So what? Isn't it just a matter of your being a few years younger?" She got up and walked out, leaving the girl, Chai Ling, with a flea in her ear. On another occasion, we went up north to Montreal and then to Toronto and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. Now we had been to see Niagara Falls again, but from the American side, as if there were some strange affinity between its raging turbulence and something in ourselves. Within the Falls area, Route 90 on the U.S.-Canadian border, though not wide, is neatly divided down the middle by grass dividers. It has an air of tranquillity typical of the East Coast, nothing like the superhighways of the West Coast, where, rather than driving, one seems helplessly propelled forward by a frenzy of speed. Anyway, there we were. It was three or four o'clock in the afternoon and there was very little traffic on the road. The sky was a wash of blue and I dozed off and on, oblivious to Fu Li's tenseness. I knew Fu Li had doubts about the driver. This was one of the differences between us. Ever since landing in this nation of cars, I had never hesitated to entrust this hundred-plus pounds of whatever I'm made of to whomever it might be at the wheel, driving at whatever chosen speed. I was like one of the eight hundred million Chinese who put themselves into the hands of Mao Zedong to be experimented with during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, without bothering their heads about possible disastrous consequences. My trust had always been given cheaply: I would gladly entrust my safety, my reputation, and my honor to my friends to do with what they liked, as if they were honoring me and giving me "face." Fu Li could never stand this side of me, and we had had many rows about it after we got married. She had never stayed in the West before, but she was by nature a very private person and always drew a line between herself and the rest of the world. During our aimless driving about after her arrival here, she always avoided riding in other people's cars. She did not trust other people's driving, just as she did not trust other people's morals or other people's consciences. But on this occasion she had no choice. I had spent the previous night holding forth and had driven all morning; in the afternoon I was burnt out and had given the wheel to someone else. Fu Li probably had been worrying about this since the night before. Route 90 was so smooth and the traffic so light, it seemed the Dodge had the road to itself. The Falls area was immersed in the serenity of the summer afternoon. The world had never been so genial. On these open roads, driving was child's play. What was there to worry about? I finally fell sound asleep. The last thing I felt before I departed into slumberland was eleven-year-old Su Dan's little head resting on my shoulder. I now say "departed" because at the time I did not realize that this interval in slumberland (I am not even sure for how long) was a threshold, an entry into another world. Fu Li took leave of me across this threshold, and I did not even give her a parting glance. She had not slept and had not gotten over her tension. Later I realized that people who can sleep through a high-speed car trip must be people like me who are incorrigibly credulous and trusting. So far, the world had treated me well. I do not understand why suddenly, on a quiet highway near Niagara Falls, it changed face without warning. Seven days and seven nights later, I woke up to a gray misty world similar to one I had woken up in after a raging fever during my early childhood in the city of Hangzhou: a gray mist accompanied by the smell of antiseptic. Shadowy human shapes flitted before me. They said, "You were in a coma for three days, and then you were raving for three days." Their voices seemed to come from some cavernous depth and made a buzzing sound. Could I walk? I couldn't feel my right leg, and my hipbone hurt excruciatingly. What happened? Where were Fu Li and Su Dan? The car had flipped over a short distance west of Buffalo, and all three of us were found unconscious. Fu Li and I were taken to Lake Erie County Hospital, while Su Dan was taken to Children's Hospital in Buffalo. He had regained consciousness the next day and was safe in Princeton with a friend. Somebody came for me and put a pair of crutches in my hands, and I hobbled after him into another room. There was a single bed in the room, surrounded by a network of colorful tubes and gadgets. A figure lay on the bed, hair spread untidily on the pillow, mouth covered by a strange-looking mask. This was not an apparition. The shape under the white cotton sheet was unmistakable. I would know it if it were burnt to ashes: Fu Li. I had a dim memory of her all tensed up in the car when my world was still intact. Now she was lying here, not only totally relaxed but not knowing where her soul was hovering. I realized that something bad had happened to my beloved. It is a dreadful thing, this unbearable shock of realization that flashes through the brain and drains it. The brain breathes, and it can asphyxiate. The world had given me three such shocks during my life thus far. First, when I was sixteen years old, Father stood with his back against the light of the window. I could not see his face. I only heard his voice tell me, "Your maternal grandfather has been executed by the government." This meant I was a "damned cur" one generation removed, not one of the five categories of "red offspring." The second time, I was forty years old. In a darkened room, poring over a pencil scrawl on a piece of paper, I made out the words saying that I was fifth on the government's most-wanted list. The third shock came when I was overseas. My cousin called and sobbed over the phone, "Second Aunt has passed away." Her second aunt was my mother. Always during those moments my mind would at first go blank and then realize in a flash that my world had changed. But July 19, 1993, was different. This time my world collapsed. I had fallen asleep and, asleep, had passed through a disaster, the details of which I will never know. It was a dream without memory, blacking out the most fateful moment of my life, leaving me nothing with which to go on. I had no choice but to accept other people's versions of what happened. The car flipped over because the driver, a woman, was fumbling for the windshield wiper. Did it rain? How can one be thrown off the highway for lack of a windshield wiper? The police report stated that when the car went off the highway and flipped over, it landed on its right side, where Fu Li was sitting. Another version had it that both Fu Li and I were thrown out of the car and knocked unconscious. I was sleeping and did not wake up even when my world crashed. Yet a third version held that Fu Li, awake, stretched over from the back seat to help the driver control the car, which had gone insane; that she was struggling in an upright position, and when the crash came her head hit the windshield. This was the cruelest version, and I could not bear to hear it. Lying in my hospital bed, I tried but could not piece together anything that had occurred in the hours after the crash. I felt frustrated, having my life described to me by others. I felt as if the day of my birth as told by my mother was the only kind of information that was trustworthy. Come to think of it, however, isn't it true that the Chinese are always having the "unexpected" in their lives interpreted for them by others, and isn't this especially true of my generation, which seems to have grown up through a series of "unexpected" events? For instance, in 1971 Lin Biao tried to "defect" and his plane crashed in the desert.1 At the time the whole country seemed to have gone into a state of shock, and everyone waited for Premier Zhou Enlai and company to offer a proper version of what had happened. At the same time, we did not trust this official version and were always hungry for alternate ones. Again, in 1989 in Tiananmen, there was another crash. How many died? Who gave the orders to shoot? The world would not accept the version offered by the Chinese leadership but could not come up with a version of its own. Why didn't the students retreat? one might ask. The so-called student leaders at Tiananmen Square each have their own versions. Whom should we believe? About the car crash of July 19, I accepted only two facts. One was that Fu Li was in a coma. The other was that the police report stated the driver could not drive. By then I had lost even the capacity for anger. From that day onward, the world turned upside down and swallowed me up. "In a Land Far Far Away" On August 12, 1993, Fu Li opened her eyes. From then on, she stared silently at nothing for days on end. Had she lost the power of speech? Was she brain-damaged? Paralyzed? Would she become a vegetable? The moment she opened her eyes, she had to fit into one or another of these categories. It seemed there is a wide range of definitions for the state of existence between non-living and non-dying. She did not appear to notice the people who came to see her. However, when our son was brought to the hospital from Princeton one afternoon, the minute his loud voice was heard from the corridor, a shiver went through her whole body and her eyes turned this way and that, trying to locate the sound. Yet when our son entered the room and bent over her, calling "Mummy!" she looked at him dumbly, without uttering a word. I marked this day as the day of her awakening and wrote in my diary, "Fu Li has regained consciousness." I wondered if she recognized me. My one way of checking was to hold her tremulous right hand every day and try to register its every squeeze, as well as each twitch of her leg. I firmly believe that it was her way of responding to me, the only way she could. Suddenly one day, a tear welled up in her right eye and lingered over her cheek. I wiped her cheek and cried uncontrollably, turning to the window to hide my tears. Suddenly I felt a tapping of her right hand on my left. I turned around and saw her face contorted intensely. In desperation she tried to tap me again. I suddenly understood what she was saying: "You mustn't cry, mustn't cry." Only when vocal communication failed did I realize the importance of speech. I tried another kind of language and whispered a song into her ear. I remembered a lullaby, "Little Swallow," that she used to sing our son to sleep. Now I was singing it to wake her up. Here is a woman with whom I shared life for more than a decade, and now I have to see her reduced to this. Was this kind of life worth living? I had thrust this life upon her. These days, during changing time, when I saw her limp body being turned this way and that by the nurse, all I could do was stand aside and weep. "I am a good-for-nothing," I would tell her, over and over again. This was the first time I ever saw myself in this way. Excerpted from A Memoir of Misfortune by Su Xiaokang All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
1 A Black Holep. 3
2 The Twinsp. 50
3 On the Plateaup. 82
4 The Search for Salvationp. 125
5 The Exiles' Holiday Resortp. 162
6 Fu Li's "Noble Dames"p. 213
7 Tulipsp. 255
Afterwordp. 321