Ting-xing Ye and William Bell were brought up at opposite ends of the world, in societies with different political systems and cultures: Ye in China, Bell in Canada. Chance brought them together in Beijing in the early 1980s and they developed a deep friendship. That friendship eventually led to Ye's dramatic departure from China. It also led to her career as a writer.
In her autobiography, A Leaf in the Bitter Wind (Doubleday Canada), Ye describes growing up in Mao's China-a country of shifting politics, of cruel, repressive, and often arbitrary pronouncements. "In those days," she writes, "You never knew what would happen next. It was easier to predict the weather."
Ye's family, labelled as "capitalist" by Mao's regime, was especially vulnerable to deprivation and humiliation. "I became a target of the Red Guards," she says. She recounts her confusion and pain at being singled out for belonging to the "wrong" class: "What would they mean calling me an exploiter? My family was poor and I was living on government welfare." But even then, Ye's pride and spirit were evident. "I felt the tears sting my eyes," she writes, "but refused to let them out."
Matters worsened when both Ye's parents died, before she turned thirteen. Around the same time, education and learning, which had been valued in her family, were being denigrated by the government. Slogans like "Suspend Classes to Make Revolution" were spouted. Schools were closed, lessons terminated, and teachers arrested.
Then, when Ye turned sixteen, another blow hit. The regime separated her from her great-aunt and four siblings, forcing her to live and work on a prison farm. There, her days were filled with back-breaking labour, poor food, and debilitating illness. But Ye's strong spirit kept her going. "I thought, `That's your life now. You might as well make the most of it.' " She stayed there for six long years, not knowing if she'd ever leave.
But slowly the political situation in China began to change. China started to open up economically to the West. Ye, who had studied English on her own, was suddenly in demand, and became one of the select students admitted to Beijing University.
By 1978, Ye was serving as an interpreter for delegations of dignitaries from many foreign countries, including New Zealand, Britain, and the United States. She also continued to study and perfect her English.
In 1985, she studied in Beijing with a Canadian teacher and writer, William Bell. Bell's casual, informal style of teaching was appealing. His journal-writing assignments and his encouragement were new and exciting. As Ye explains in her book, "Although it had been ten years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, I still didn't feel comfortable expressing my opinions or sharing my thoughts with my classmates.. Gradually I found it was easier for me to put things down in my journal. Bill had given us an assignment that required us to write a certain number of journal entries each week, then he would collect our journals, read them, and make written corrections and suggestions. I found myself writing more and more, telling about myself, looking forward to the return of my assignment. I felt I could trust him and that my thoughts would be safe with him."
Gradually Ye and Bell became close friends, no simple matter at a time when China actively discouraged its citizens from mixing with foreigners. As Ye puts it: "We should always remember that foreigners were to be distrusted and never, ever, taken into one's confidence."
Bell's relaxed style of teaching was also noted and criticized by the authorities. Ye describes the reaction of Department Head Feng: "Feng made it sound as if, in allowing his students to use English in real-life conversations, Bill was doing espionage work."
Nevertheless, Ye's confidence blossomed with Bell's teaching and friendship. It soon led to her yearning for a different life, and finally propelled her departure from China for Canada.
In her new country, Ye, who had grown up in a society where hiding your feelings was often a matter of survival, began to write her autobiography. It was a pivotal experience. "It threw a window open for me," she says. "When you write a book about your life, everything's open. So you can talk about and discuss anything."
Bell's encouragement throughout her writing was profound. In the book's acknowledgements, Ye says of him: "A writer himself, his love of words and solid knowledge of his craft inspired me to put down the first sentence, and his trust and confidence in me made this book possible."
Ye has now gone on to write children's books. Her first is Three Monks, No Water, inspired by a saying her mother had used to encourage Ye and her siblings to do their chores. Another book by her, Weighing the Elephant, will be published in the fall of 1998. It too is set in China and inspired by Chinese history and culture.
Bell, who has written a number of acclaimed young adult and picture-books, has continued to explore his fascination with history and the individual's search for identity. A number of his more recent books have been set in China, including his powerful young adult novel, Forbidden City (Doubleday).
In Forbidden City and in an earlier book, Crabbe (Irwin), Bell's young protagonists keep journals. Like Ye in real life, they discover that recording experiences helps them weather the uncertainties and confusions of life.
In Bell's latest young adult novel, Zack, his teenage character similarly gains insight and strength from writing, this time in a research project.
Writing is a key element in Bell's and Ye's lives. It has allowed them to communicate what they've learned and experienced. As Ye states at the end of A Leaf in the Bitter Wind: "With the help, sometimes of others, and with my own determination I have survived the bitter wind. I am free now.. I can think my own thoughts and speak out, and I can write."
Frieda Wishinsky's latest books are Crazy for Chocolate and Oonga Boonga (both Scholastic).