Book summary: Drinking the Water While Thinking of Its Source: The Life of a Scholar¡¯s Family in China is a memoir describing the life of a Western-educated scholar¡¯s family mainly under the Communist rule in China from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. The title refers to a well-known Chinese saying, meaning that one should be grateful to the origin of his well-being by serving his homeland that nourished him. This was central to the value system of Chinese intellectuals of older generations. Jingshan¡¯s (the author) grandfather Ye used this saying in his poem to Jingshan¡¯s father Pa at Cornell to express Ye¡¯s expectations for Pa¡¯s return after his study.
This is a story of life and death, perseverance, hardship, responsibility, struggle for survival, as well as love, help, and mutual support. In its broad outlines the story goes as follows: Ye was a supporter of Sun Yat-sen and a member of the first Parliament in China in the beginning of the twentieth century. After his retirement, he returned to his hometown and lived on the land he owned. Jingshan¡¯s maternal grandfather was a General under the Guomindang (KMT) government led by Chiang Kai-shek and was killed by the Communists in the beginning of the 1930s.
Upon his graduation from Cornell University, Pa returned to China in 1947 and taught as a professor at the Law School of Peking University. He was among the last group of the Chinese scholars who ever came to America to study and who then returned to China before the Communist takeover (and would be among the last until China reopened its doors in the early 1980s). Pa returned to China amid the country¡¯s instability and uncertainty caused by the political situation there. The Communists claimed victory in 1949 and Pa soon became the target of political campaigns launched by the Communists. He was forbidden to teach for political reasons in 1950, and it was not until 1979 that he was able to teach again. Jingshan¡¯s sister, a college student and a lively and gifted person, died far away from home during a political campaign in 1966. Jingshan¡¯s aunt, who lived with the family and took care of the children, was beaten and humiliated on the streets at the start of the Cultural! Revolution (1966-1976). She was forced to return to her original village and died soon after in 1966. The remaining five members of the family were dispersed throughout China to do hard labor.
Jingshan was sent to the countryside¡ªas hundreds of thousands of high school students were during that time¡ªbut was unable to leave and stayed in the countryside for seven and half years; later, when she was finally hired by an oil field company after the Cultural Revolution, her family background once again prevented her from being able to attend college. Jingshan¡¯s younger brother was sent to a border region between China and Burma when he was only fifteen and did hard labor there for several years. Jingshan¡¯s family, however, endured all the sufferings and hardships.
Unlike most of the books on a similar topic, this book is not restricted to detailing political movements, or to recording a family¡¯s (or an author¡¯s) life chronologically. Rather, it is primarily about the daily life of an ordinary Chinese scholar¡¯s family. Through her vivid, concrete, detailed, and, sometimes, humorous decriptions, the author not only shows her readers how ordinary Chinese intellectuals' lives were affected by the political environment during that period, but she also embraces her readers with the richness of Chinese culture, Chinese traditions, and Chinese customs -- the ways of living that are increasingly becoming remote due to the passage of time even to people in China today.