Writer of Communist China memoirs, Sun Yi, dies at 85


Sun Yi, a Point Reyes Station resident since 1977, died September 4 at age 85. Sun Yi’s memoirs about her life in China earned her prominence in her native country, though her presence remained a quiet one in West Marin. A lifelong writer, she was mother to Rose, mother-in-law to John, and grandmother to Christopher and Tessa Hulls. Longtime Light publisher Dave Mitchell interviewed her for the following profile, published August 14, 2003 as she was completing her seventh book. —T.E.


The year was 1928, and the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) led by Gen. Chaing Kai-shek finished taking almost total control of China. The country had stagnated in the 19th century, and Russia, Britain, and Japan had taken advantage of China’s dying empire to politically and economically dominate important areas.

By chance, 1928 was also the year Sun Yi, a resident of Walnut Place senior housing in Point Reyes Station, was born in Suzhou, a major city inland from Shanghai. While she is hardly known to most West Marin residents, among many older Chinese, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Sun Yi is a prominent writer whose stories tell the story of their generation.

Sun Yi’s first book, Eight Years in Shanghai, written just after she escaped the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1957, was an immediate best-seller in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Total sales were in the hundreds of thousands, but they were impossible to tally. As her daughter Rose Hulls of Point Reyes Station explained on Saturday, “They were pirating the book left and right. Everyone wanted it.”

Why? Not only had many of Sun Yi’s readers experienced the abuses she described, she wrote openly about intimacy, such as her affair with a Swiss vice counsel that led to Rose’s birth. The book was exciting, readable, and provided some of the only public information coming out of the PRC.

A writer throughout her working life, Sun Yi is now completing her seventh book, a series of memoirs called Chaotic World: My School Days, which are set in Japanese-occupied China. Her school days were, indeed, chaotic. Partly because her family was forced to flee advancing Japanese forces, Sun Yi attended 10 schools before finishing high school.

Only one of Sun Yi’s books, The Pajama Story, has been translated into English, which is why she is little known in this country. Her other books include a collection of short stories called The First Good Morning, a novel titled Revelation, a newspaper serial made into a book called First Night of the Thirteenth Moon, (which was just reissued by the publishing house Enlighten Noah), and a collection of poetry.

Having read The Pajama Story, this writer can vouch that it is a significant historical novel. Set in the early days of the Communist regime, which began in 1949, The Pajama Story tells about a family’s being repeatedly harassed by the party until they sacrifice their home and earnings. Sun Yi vividly describes the party’s publicly shaming people into acting against their own interests, along with their forced self-confessions and their being encouraged to spy on neighbors so that no one trusts anybody else.

“The Communists left no freedom in your life,” Sun Yi recalled on Saturday. “They would even interfere with the most private aspects of relations between men and women. Literally the police could come into your house at anytime. It was the government’s way of spying while saying it was regulating personal behavior.”

Ostensibly, the police were concerned about unmarried couples having affairs, she said, “but not for morality.” Rather, if two people were already having unauthorized relations, she explained, the police thought “they might keep [other] secrets from the government.” With a sarcastic laugh, Sun Yi noted that once the Communists took over her country, “you were not allowed to lock the door.”

Paradoxically, despite the brutality of Japanese soldiers on many occasions, Chaotic World: My School Days describes the Chinese people as more repressed under the Communist Party than during the Japanese occupation.

In 1931, Japan seized China’s provinces of Manchuria; in 1933, the province of Jehol; and in 1937, China proper. Sun Yi can remember that “the conversation of the grownups” during the early stages of the war mainly concerned “avoiding getting bombed...

“The first time Suzhou was bombed, my family were all terrified and hid, but my sister ran the window to see what was happening. In the beginning, we saw the airplanes fly over; then the bombing; and then the occupation. The bombing was terrible.

“Only when the bombing actually started,” Sun Yi said, “would people leave the cities in droves.” As her own family retreated further and further into the countryside, Sun Yi attended religious, government, private, and nonprofit schools. “Many kids missed years of school,” she said. “I skipped several grades and sometimes was in classes with kids five years older.”

Ironically, once the Japanese occupation was complete, people felt free to go back to their communities. Amazingly, Sun Yi said, “when we returned to Suzhou, our house was the only one still standing. Nothing was bothered. Every other house was bombed out.”

As it happened, she said, “when the Japanese came to the house, the commander went in and saw Japanese books. He then wrote a poem on the pavement outside, saying, ‘Do not touch this house.’” The commander must have been “highly cultured,” Sun Yi added, because the poem lyrically commented, “This house is the beginning of Japanese friendship and culture.”

The actual reason Sun Yi’s father had Japanese-language books in the house was that before the war, he operated a large chicken farm in Suzhou, and “state of the art” books on chicken farming were all written in Japanese, Rose Hulls noted. Her grandfather, therefore, taught himself and Sun Yi that language.

Before the war the Kuomintang had made Sun Yi’s father one of Suzhou’s counselors, and after the occupation began, he was often called upon to translate between Chinese and Japanese. Did his knowledge of Japanese make him suspect in the eyes of other Chinese?

During the occupation, Sun Yi replied, all Chinese students were required to study Japanese, and when she was in the sixth grade, her father was ordered to teach Japanese to her class. “One sixth-grade student stood up and said he was not going to learn the language of the oppressor,” she recalled. Instantly, she feared for her safety and her father’s.

“The shock was so great it was paralyzing,” she said. “It was sheer terror.” Her father, however, was enough of a diplomat to avoid a student revolt. He said he didn’t want to be there himself and that the students should regard studying the Japanese language as separate from supporting the occupation, Sun Yi remembered.

Nonetheless, her family’s relations with the Japanese were decidedly mixed. Not only did Japanese soldier pillage towns they occupied, rapes were common. Sun Yi said she was “fortunate” never to observe a rape, but she did see Chinese men lying dead in the streets from bayonet wounds.

When the soldiers arrived in a neighborhood, she noted, the Chinese in her area used “an informal network” to warn each other. When they knew soldiers were coming, “young women would run from one house to another, going in backdoors and sidedoors. Girls would hide,” Sun Yi added.

One of her second cousin’s, however, had the misfortune of being spotted out in the open. “My cousin was on the street when Japanese soldiers chased her to rape her,” Sun Yi recalled as her eyes teared. “We don’t know what happened, but ever since then she has been insane. She is still alive, and relatives say she is still in a large hospital in Ming Hong.”

As for the cousin’s father, the Japanese hanged him. They knew he had come from Suzhou and must have brought valuables with him, Rose Hulls said. “The hanging occurred while they were torturing him to find out where the family’s valuables were. However, he had probably gone through any wealth by then.”

Once their occupation was complete, however, the Japanese began trying to “woo” Chinese teenagers by providing good schooling, and Sun Yi was a beneficiary. When the Japanese started a student newspaper at her high school, it started her career as a writer.

Because the Japanese were not as “prudish” as the “fuddy-duddy” Chinese authorities had been, Rose Hulls explained, the student paper seemed relatively progressive.

Many student groups, nonetheless, were plotting against the occupiers, Sun Yi, and the Kuomintang and Communists were continuing to fight in remote areas. The fighting forces were so disunified, however, that Sun Yi was uncertain whom to root for when they began attacking each other after the Japanese were expelled from China in 1945. By 1949, the Communists had driven Chaing Kai-shek and the Kuomintang off the mainland to the island of Taiwan.

Sun Yi met Rose’s father during this period and became pregnant, only to have him recalled to Switzerland when the PRC was created. Sun Yi never saw him again.

Between 1949 and 1957, Sun Yi applied for permission to leave the PRC with Rose four times, receiving a permit only when the country was suffering from a famine. By then she had suffered repeated harassment from the party.

The Communists barred her from working as a journalist and instead assigned her to work in a factory, which soon closed. “It got to where there was no money to eat,” she recalled.

She was desperate to leave even though only half of those who did survived because getting an exit permit did not include an entry visa anywhere else. Sun Yi and Rose were among the survivors. Hidden on the bottom of a sampan, they traveled to the Portuguese colony of Macao and then hired a “yellow [water] buffalo,” the Chinese equivalent of a Mexican slang “coyote,” to get them across the border into Hong Kong.

Once in Hong Kong, Sun Yi wrote Eight Years in Shanghai, and although it was a best seller, she “took a dive [emotionally] a year after that,” Rose Hulls noted. “Who knows what made her snap?”

Although Sun Yi was hospitalized several times for what would years later be diagnosed as manic depression (or bipolar disorder), she never stopped writing columns for newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong. In 1970, Rose came to the United States to attend Macalester College in Minnesota, and seven years later brought Sun Yi here.

Rose Hulls talked candidly about her mother’s manic depression, stressing that it is important for people to understand bipolar disorder better. People need to know that a manic depressive person, such as her mother, can live a productive life despite occasional suffering, Rose said. At the same time she praised the heroic will her mother showed in successfully supporting Rose and herself as a writer despite manic-depressive episodes.

In this, Sun Yi was in the company of many great writers believed to have been manic depressive, such as novelists Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville or poets Byron and Shelley, to mention just a few. Indeed, “studies have found that rhymes, punning, and sound associations increase during mania,” noted Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) in her book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.

Few writers around here have had to overcome as many challenges, both personal and political, as Sun Yi. Yet her ability to poignantly describe her life and the history she’s been part of makes her one of the truly great authors to come out of 20th century China.