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EGG ON MAO The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced An Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship

By Denise Chong

Random House Canada, 249 pages, $32.95

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Among the most riveting stories of the late 20th century was the massive student protest on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. What began as a spontaneous outpouring of grief at the death of reformer Hu Yaobang burgeoned into a demonstration by hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens calling for democratic reforms and an end to political corruption. The seven-week protest ended brutally, with the People's Liberation Army turning on civilians, killing hundreds in what has come to be known as the Massacre in Tiananmen Square.

This decade has seen China's gradual application of market principles elevate the country to superpower status. And yet these reforms remain brazenly at odds with a despicable record on human rights and the repression of political dissent. As recently as Christmas Day, intellectual Liu Xaibao was sentenced to 11 years in prison for co-authoring a petition calling for freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Snug in our peaceful pocket of the universe, we can hardly imagine exhibiting such courage, or even the need to do so. In Egg on Mao, Ottawa's Denise Chong examines the fearlessness of one young man determined to take a stand for democracy.

In May of 1989, Lu Decheng and his good friends travel from their small town in Hunan province to Beijing to support the students' cause. Once there, they hit on a startling plan: The trio decide to lob 30 paint-filled eggs at the giant portrait of Mao overlooking the square, disfiguring the iconic image with globs of sticky colour. Their exhilarating action quickly lands them in custody, charged with counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement, sabotage and destruction of state property. Decheng, who feared receiving the death penalty, is sentenced to 16 years. In prison he becomes even more committed to democratic ideals.

Chong is the author of The Concubine's Children and The Girl in the Photograph, both nominated for Governor-General's Awards. Despite its gripping subject matter, however, Egg on Mao suffers somewhat in the telling. China's aphoristic languages, woven through with proverbs and superstitions, generally translate into elegant, delicately embroidered English. But here, Chong's prose, especially her dialogue, transposes awkwardly and flatly.

The work commingles a variety of genres: biography, bildungsroman, political history, romance. But Chong never settles on a specific approach, which makes for a less forceful reading experience. Still, the sincerity of her intent and the simple power of Decheng's struggle do much to minimize these flaws.

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Chong's close account of Decheng's personal life illustrates the quiet evolution of a radical. He is born in 1963 to Bus Driver Lu and his frail, gentle wife. Decheng's mother dies when he is nine, but memories of her kind nature remain. His father's mother also exerts a powerful influence. Her status as a martyr's widow comes with special privileges. In private, though, she expresses her disdain for the Communist party.

His father, on the other hand, is mean-spirited, weak-willed and terrified by original thought; he embodies for Decheng the negative impact of the government's demoralizing policies. Lu is mortified by his son's headstrong nature, his reluctance to bow to authority. When Mao dies in 1976, Decheng refuses to cry on cue with his classmates.

Decheng's relationship with the beautiful Qiuping illuminates the role of the state in one's most intimate affairs. By law, the pair is too young marry. They run off, but cohabitation is illegal. Qiuping's pregnancy is also illegal; they lack the official permit that allows married couples to conceive. During the hardships of these early years the couple's path is eased by the kindness of strangers, by peasants who help them locate new lodgings and avoid detection by local monitoring committees, by medical officials who imperil their own careers. Chong shows how willingly ordinary people go out of their way to protect one another.

Decheng, increasingly cynical about the prospects for democratic change, grows close to two young men. Yu Zhijian is a primary school teacher who has been demoted several times for outspoken view; Yu Dongyue is art editor of the Liuyang Daily. These are the intellectuals who accompany Decheng to Beijing and with whom he is arrested.

Growing up, Decheng is hardly interested in books. While detained as a teenager, however, he reads Tolstoy's Resurrection, in which the protagonist gives away his money to the poor. He sees this as an example of "real socialism." In their political debates his friends casually discuss literature and recite passages of Chinese poetry. Before his sentencing, fearful of death, Decheng repeats to himself poetry by the revolutionary hero Tan Sitong: "I cannot escape my fate/ For the sake of ideals I have been striving for I shall die joyfully."

In prison he purchases a copy of a vast Chinese history, The Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, written a thousand years earlier. It contains the tale of the Emperor and the Assassin, which reveals the source of China's unceasing political debate: Is brutality too high a price to pay for the security of the state?

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One of the most enlightening aspect of Decheng's personal journey turns out to be his discovery of the link between poetry and individual power.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.

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