The Daughter of the Red Land—Yan Li


yanliBy Huai Bao

A veteran of twenty-five years in Canada, a professor, novelist, literary prize winner, recipient of many awards and grants, and a finalist for Books in Canada’s First Novel Award, Yan Li (1955-) is certainly not an ordinary woman. She has been called the “Jane Eyre of China” by readers and fans due to her inspirational life experiences—a “dreams-come-true” process of struggling for self-actualization (Zhao, 2012). Her novels also offer points of entry for understanding the relationship between female immigrants and Canadian feminism and between immigrants and the promise of Canadian democracy.

The author of Lily in the Snow (2010), Married to the West Wind (1998; 2000), and Daughters of the Red Land (1995), Li, born in Beijing, China in 1955, is one of the few female diasporic Chinese writers in North America who have published award-winning novels in the English language. Aside from writing, she is Associate Professor and the coordinator of the Chinese language and culture program at Renison University College, and the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo.

In Writing Chinese Diaspora, Shao-Pin Luo suggests that Chinese-Canadian literature is divided into two categories: works by the children of earlier immigrants and those by newcomers from China and elsewhere (2012).  The first group largely narrates lives of Chinese railroad workers and historical Chinatowns in a collective repudiation of institutional racism and construction of a new identity. The second reflects the concerns of arrivals from the Sinophone world such as Lien Chao (born 1950 and arrived 1984), who published a bilingual narrative long poem, Maples and the Stream (1999); Ting-Xing Ye (born 1952 and moved to Toronto 1987), the author of the memoir, Leaf in a Bitter Wind (1998) and young adult fiction; and Ying Chen (born 1961 and emigrated to Montreal 1989), who writes in French (2012). These latter writers are studied more as diasporas than racial minorities: contemporary scholarly interest focuses largely on their “ancestral, cultural, and economic ties” with their country of origin that “cross national boundaries” (Yu, 621-622, 2007). The prejudices of Canada connected with historic Chinatowns and discrimination are of less interest, although systemic racism along with racial stereotypes are often the target of the writers’ satire.

With strong ancestral and cultural ties to her birth country and newer emotional ties to her adoptive land, Li falls firmly into the second category of Chinese-Canadian writers. She spent her girlhood during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all the institutions of higher learning in China, in response to the call of the Communist Party to “transform all universities with Mao’s thought” (Zhang, 2010), suspended the national college entrance examination and were open only for “re-educational” purposes. After she finished high school, Li became an industrial worker, a peasant, and a soldier in Shangxi and Beijing until the resumption of the national college entrance examination system in December 1977, when she was 22 years old. She was accepted to Shanxi Teachers’ College, where she was assigned a major, English, of which she had no prior knowledge.

Born to parents who were both academics—her father a physicist and mother a research fellow in adult education and editor-in-chief of an educational journal, Li had always aspired to an academic career. After she earned her BA, she attended the China Academy of Social Sciences to pursue a MA in English journalism. After working for six months as a news editor and reporter with Xinhua News Agency, the largest such body in China, she was accepted in 1987 by the University of Windsor to study North American history, an academic discipline about which she had always been interested.

Even before graduation from Windsor, Li had decided to write the novel, which became Daughters of the Red Land, for English-speaking audiences. Applying for permanent resident status during her first year in Canada, she, like many others, struggled to support her ambitions. Li answered the advertisement of a rich elderly Canadian widow in need of a housekeeper. In return for cooking, dog-walking and cleaning, she made enough to survive and, very importantly, had access to a private library of thousands of volumes for two years (CCTV-10, 2012). Her life with the Canadian widow is vividly documented in Daughters of the Red Land. Li herself narrates the story in which her employer becomes the “Mrs. Thompson.”

Li mailed the manuscript to several publishers. After it was turned down five times, she received an offer from Sister Vision Press, a feminist Toronto-based publishing company. Founded in 1984, it specializes in serving Black women, “Native Sisters,” “Asian Sisters” and others who define themselves as women of colour who challenge and enrich Canadian feminist theory and research (2012). It proved a congenial home for Li’s approach to her subject matter.

In 1995, Daughters of the Red Land was published. It is a compelling semi-autobiographical story about three women of different generations surviving 20th century China’s social upheaval:  the foot-binding Laolao[1], her Communist-emancipated daughter Qin, and Qin’s daughter Peace—effectively Li herself, who has moved to Canada and narrates the story. Laolao is the victim of the feudal patriarchal society, who lives as men’s subordinate and serves as their instrument for reproduction. Qin, while embracing Communist emancipation of women wholeheartedly, also struggles against male dominance in a traditional relationship as well as political persecution and resulting family trauma. In contrast, Peace, Li’s presumed embodiment, positively experiences the potential openness and pluralism of Canadian feminism. With more freedom than her female kin, she is allowed to choose her values and shape her own identity.

Prior to coming to Canada, all Li knew about feminism was Mao’s slogan, “Women hold up half the sky” (2013). Daughters of the Red Land employs the story of the three generations to “metaphorically” represent “the historical advancement of the female subjective consciousness from its absence, to enlightenment and finally to elevation” (2012). The result is “a political novel in the deepest, most admirable sense: it exposes and condemns violence and hypocrisy by allowing us into the lives of those affected” (Tihanyi). Although to a lesser degree than the other group of Chinese-Canadian writers, Li also uses the novel to acknowledge racism: for example, the drunken Mrs. Thompson is clearly understood as ignorant and prejudiced when she claims that Chinese “all eat rats and grassroots” (1996, 2012).  [2]

In 1996, the novel received Books in Canada’s First Novel Award and Li was selected by the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest, Ontario to be ‘Woman of the Year’ in Art/History/Literature. Li has expressed pleasure at readers’ reports of the impact of her writing. She has also sometimes been astonished by ignorance as when one naive White reader from Vancouver confessed that Daughters of the Red Land gave her new appreciation for the Chinese in her community as something more than  “simple-minded” and “expressionless.” (2012).

Perhaps in response to such reception, Li’s second novel in English, Lily in the Snow (2009) seems more preoccupied with immigration, displacement, cultural clashes and prejudice. It takes up the story of the transformation of Lily, who leaves Red China and moves to Canada, inspired by the “Norman Bethune spirit,” a reference to the Canadian doctor whose assistance to Mao’s army in battling the Japanese in the 1930s made him a national icon (Shao, 2012). She starts a new life in the fictitious “Mapleton,” constructed by Li out of a mélange of her own experiences in Windsor, Kitchener, and Waterloo. Lily’s mother, Grace, arrives to join her daughter to “find out what’s good about Canada,” a question that unsettles the entire novel. Subsequent intergenerational conflict is treated with humor and sensitivity.

If the special value of diasporic literature lies generally in writers’ ability to translate their personal experiences “into two (or more) systems” and enrich “both cultures” (Maver, unpaginated), Li distinguishes herself by her sharp observation and judgment of characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Along with its cast of Chinese characters, Lily in the Snow offers a kaleidoscope of individual diversity, including “an Indian woman who works at a clothing factory; a Jamaican lady who works with Lily as cleaning women in a hotel, who studied child psychology ‘back home,’ and wanted to be a teacher; and a Vietnamese grandma who lives in Lily’s building nicknamed the ‘refugee camp,’ as it is full of recent immigrants” (2012). Li both conveys  “trenchant humour” about “the characters’ reactions” (Tisseyre, 2010) and satirizes the “promised land” as experienced and viewed by the recent immigrants—especially women of colour—who struggle near the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy. Also new in Li’s work here is her treatment of the relations between feminism and women of different racial groups. The Jamaican woman in her story, for example, equates gender equality and the emancipation of women with her freedom to go to a male strip club and hire a male escort. A White Canadian woman is astonished upon hearing from Lily that women in China do not have to take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. A prostitute at the hotel where Lily works as a cleaner flaunts her income, leaving the former to reconsider the meaning of “emancipation” of women.

As the author of seven books, Li is internationally recognized as a bilingual Chinese-Canadian writer. Canadian literary critic Michelle Tisseyre concludes that, “Her style is unique, its images and cadences enriched by the mysterious fusion-like process of writing in two languages simultaneously, but her voice is unmistakably Chinese, resonant, even in English, with the boldness, power and elegance of that ancient language” (2010). In navigating the waters of her birthplace and her new home, Li travels a route not always chosen by Canada’s many diasporic writers. Her character Lily ultimately finds beauty in the cold northern dominion: She found “The snowstorm was over and the whole world was tranquil…”  That tranquility and acceptance ultimately suggest a more positive response to Canada that that of Chinese-Canadian writers such as Sky Lee, Larissa Lai, and Fred Wah, who are far more preoccupied with the shortcomings of their Canadian birthplace. Sharing concerns with other new Chinese immigrants about the gap between the ideal and reality of immigration, lost privilege and new hardship, and the construction of a hybrid identity, Li’s texts struggle for realism and optimism.  Her response presents the possibility that modern transnational subjects can become empowered residents of new lands.  Such diasporaic writers nevertheless confront the continuing gap between immigration’s promise and the reality of economic and cultural exclusion from mainstream society. In 2004, for example, Statistics Canada’s 2004 reported that visible minorities comprised only 7.1% of all MPs but an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians. Li’s novels help depict part of the explanation of that  “democratic gap.”





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[1] “Laolao” is a Northern Chinese colloquial term for “grandmother.” Her personal name is never mentioned, an omission that suggests distance, perhaps emotional as well as temporal, from the modern-minded narrator, though the author answers in her email that she uses “Laolao” for the mere convenience of English speaking readers to remember since the pronunciation is simple.

[2] In a CCTV-10 interview, Li claims that Mrs Thompson was “basically” kind, which is suggestive of the unpleasant memory of the latter’s racist remark.

Huai Bao
Huai Bao, a.k.a. H. B. Dhawa, received his Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. Thanks to the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, he is currently conducting postdoctoral research with the host institution being University of Toronto. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Waterloo, and has published two books and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles in North America, Europe, and Asia. His personal website is