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On Sale: May 20, 2003
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-7594-2
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"I was born in southern China in 1962, in the tiny town of Yellow Stone. They called it the Year of Great Starvation."

In 1962, as millions of Chinese citizens were gripped by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards enforced a brutal regime of communism, a boy was born to a poor family in southern China. This family—the Chens—had once been respected landlords in the village of Yellow Stone, but now they were among the least fortunate families in the country, despised for their "capitalist" past. Grandpa Chen couldn't leave the house for fear of being beaten to death; the children were spit upon in the street; and their father was regularly hauled off to labor camps, leaving the family of eight without a breadwinner. Da Chen, the youngest child, seemed destined for a life of poverty, shame, and hunger.

But winning humor and an indomitable spirit can be found in the most unexpected places. Colors of the Mountain is a story of triumph, a memoir of a boyhood full of spunk, mischief, and love. The young Da Chen is part Horatio Alger, part Holden Caul-field; he befriends a gang of young hoodlums as well as the elegant, elderly Chinese Baptist woman who teaches him English and opens the door to a new life. Chen's remarkable story is full of unforgettable scenes of rural Chinese life: feasting on oysters and fried peanuts on New Year's Day, studying alongside classmates who wear red armbands and quote Mao, and playing and working in the peaceful rice fields near his village.

Da Chen's story is both captivating and endearing, filled with the universal human quality that distinguishes the very best memoirs. It proves once again that the concerns of childhood transcend time and place.

From the Hardcover edition.


In September 1971, I entered third grade. Dad had come back from the camp on the mountain and was at another reform camp ten miles away from our town. They made him dig ditches from morning to night to expand an irrigation system that eventually failed to work, while continuing to press for more confessions about my uncle in Taiwan, which had always been China's sworn enemy.

Sometimes I was allowed to visit Dad and bring him food. I would stand on the edge of the work site, searching for signs of my father among the hundred or so other people being "reformed." Tired, curious faces would look at me, word would pass on down the line, then eventually out would come my dad from the ditches, his back straight, head held high, and a dazzling smile on his face for his son as he busily dusted off his ragged clothes. I would have nothing to say and could only look at his blistered hands, while he asked how everybody was and how my schoolwork was going. Then it was time to leave; if I delayed, the foreman would chase me off the site with his wooden stick.

Grandpa was suffering all the time now. An expensive medication was bought to cure him, but he was outraged when he heard its price, since he knew that what it cost could have bought the whole family some decent food for a month. Despite his frail condition, he was still ordered to go to the rice fields every day to chase the birds. After he had had an especially bad night, I brought in another petition. The cadre ripped it to pieces in front of me.

"The stinking dogshit!" he screamed, and spat on the floor. "Tell your no-good grandpa to wake up. I've already given him the lightest job and he doesn't appreciate it. What does he want, to sleep in his warm bed all day and plot his revenge against our Communist system? Well, that's not going to happen with me in charge." He thumped his chest. "Do you hear me? And as for you, you little shit, I don't want to see you this often. You'll be in trouble yourself one of these days, running all these errands for your no-good family."

I ran home angrily and told Grandpa the answer was no.

My eldest sister, Si, had graduated from junior high school. Brother Jin had had to stop one year short of completing it, and Ke and Huang were asked to leave before finishing elementary school. The Red Guards took over the classroom and put some teacher on a humiliation parade. They had made the lives of landlords' children and grandchildren miserable. Si's classmates had hacked at her hair with scissors, which made her look like a mental case, and Jin, while he was still in school, had been constantly hassled and beaten by his classmates.

One day we received a notice from the local school authorities. It read, "Due to overcrowding in our school system, it has been decided by the Communist party that the children of landlords, capitalists, rich farmers, and the leftists will no longer be going directly to Junior high or high school. This new policy is to be implemented immediately for the benefit of thousands of poor farmers." The curt notice didn't explain the logic behind such a decree. But we understood that they considered us the enemy and a danger to their world. Education could only further our cause and threaten theirs.

Thus I became the last student in our family. Every day Morn would whisper to me before school that I should cherish this precious opportunity. I should work hard and be a good student, or I would have to stop school like my siblings and become a farmer or a carpenter, with no hope for a better future. She said the more they wanted you out of school, the more you should show them how good you are. She admonished me to behave myself and not give them reason to throw me out.

The pressure weighed heavily on me. The idea of being a farmer for the rest of my life, working in the fields unceasingly, rain or shine, chilled my bones. I saw my sisters and brothers, still so young, getting up before dawn to cut the ripened rice in darkness before the biting sun made work unbearable. They came home by moonlight after laboring a full day, their backs cramped and sore, cuts on their fingers, blisters covering their hands. Sometimes they were humiliated because the older, more experienced farmers in the commune trashed them for making mistakes. And sometimes they were angry because they were made to work the heaviest jobs, like jumping into manholes to scoop up manure. At night, my sisters often cried in Mom's arms. They were no longer children.

I looked at school in a different light. It was still a fun place, but now it was much, much more. It was the key to a bright future. I knew if I could somehow stay in school, I would do well. There was hope. I arrived at school early every morning and volunteered to sweep the classroom and clean the blackboard. I still managed to have my morning reading assignment done before the others arrived so that I had time to play and help those who needed some tutoring. But the new teacher wasn't the least impressed with me. I sometimes became aware of him staring silently at my back as I sat alone in class doing my work. He was cool and abrupt and seemed disgusted with the little boy who wanted so hard to please him.

My third-grade teacher was a young man about twenty-five years old. He had icy, protruding eyes, and thin lips that squeezed out his words slowly and deliberately. His nose was pointed, with long, black hairs sticking out of both nostrils, and a receding chin that melted into his long neck. He had a habit of looking at his reflection in the window, preening and recombing his hair before entering the classroom. His name was La Shan.

La Shan invited many of his students to his dormitory on campus, where they played chess and talked long after school. He also organized basketball games among the students, but I was never included. I stood at a distance, watching them play with the energetic young teacher, laughing and shouting. When I sometimes quietly inquired about what they did in his dormitory, my friends Jie and Clang would tell me that they played and listened to La Shan talk about politics, about things like the class struggle and what to do with bad people like landlords and American special agents.

I became quieter and less active in his class. He continued to act as if I didn't exist, and I became more and more isolated, but I still carried on my work with pride and always scored the best in quizzes. I missed my teacher, Mr. Sun, terribly.

In the back of each classroom there was another blackboard on which the best poems or compositions by the students were displayed. It was an honor to have your work posted, and mine used to appear there every week. Many years under my grandfather's tutelage had made me the best calligrapher in the entire school, and I had won school-wide competitions against older students. But since La Shan had become my teacher, my work never appeared on the blackboard. He also deprived me of the task of copying the poems onto the blackboard with chalk, a task only students with the best calligraphy were allowed to do.

I was no longer the head of the class. In my place stepped the son of the first party secretary of Yellow Stone commune, the most feared man in town. La Shan also made him the head of the Little Red Guard, a political organization for children. I was the only one in class who was not a member. I coveted the pretty red bands worn on their arms and had applied to join, but La Shan told me I needed to make more of an effort, that he wasn't sure I was loyal in my heart to the Communist cause like other children from good working-class families. Whenever a Little Red Guard meeting was held, I was asked to step outside. I would hang around the playground by myself until they finished.

My whole life seemed to be drifting away from the crowd. It puzzled me and kept me awake at night as I stared up at my mosquito net. I didn't tell my family about any of the changes; they already had enough to worry about. At home, I pretended to be cheerful and told them how well I was doing in school. Once a cousin of mine mentioned to my brother that I was no longer doing the blackboard copying. I made up a story, telling my family that I needed a change, so was giving my fellow students a chance.

Because I was driven and still confident in my abilities, I worked even harder and volunteered even more for tasks before and after school. It was like throwing myself against a stone wall. The harder I tried, the more the teacher disliked me. He even criticized me in front of all the students about my overzealous attempts to win his praise. This upset and confused me. What more could I do to try and fit into the place that I once used to love?

My first real brush with La Shan came when he was collecting the weekend homework. The assignment had been to copy a text of Chairman Mao's quotations, but my work had been soaked in the rain on the way to class and I had thrown away the smeared, useless paper, intending to redo it in the afternoon. When he found out I had nothing to turn in, La Shan called the class to attention. "Students, Chen Da has not done his homework, which he knew was to copy the text of our great Chairman Mao. It is a deliberate insult to our great leader."

"I did the homework like I always do," I protested loudly, "but the rain got it all wet."
The whole class looked at me quietly.

La Shan turned red, the muscles in his cheeks twitching. He had lost face because I had answered back.

"What did you do with it?" he demanded.

"I threw it into a manhole on my way to class because it was all messy." The students laughed.

" "at did you say?"

"I said I threw it into a manhole," I screamed back. I knew I was acting irrationally, but couldn't stop.

"You threw Chairman Mao's quotations into a stinking manhole?" His face flamed and spittle flew from his mouth with each word. "Do you realize how severe an offense you have just committed?"

A deadly quiet came over the class. Everyone looked at me, waiting for my reaction. In that split second, I glimpsed the possible serious trouble he could make if he chose to. Mom's words, "Stay out of trouble, " rang in my ears.

I felt dizzy, as if I had been hit with a club. I already regretted my actions and wished I could take everything back, but it was too late, the damage had been done. I thought of Mom and Dad and the trouble I might have just brought to my family if the teacher blew this thing up. My head began to pound.

"I am sorry, honorable teacher. I will redo my homework and hand it in as soon as possible."

He stared at me silently with his icy eyes, looking like a wolf that had just caught a rabbit in a trap.

"You think it's going to be that easy?" He shook his head slowly. "Everybody!" His voice cracked out. "Let's have a vote. Those who wish to have Da thrown out of our classroom, raise your hands."

There was a moment of silence. Then slowly, the son of the party secretary raised his hand. A few more hands from the La Shan club went up. Next the whole class raised their collective hands, even my friends Jie and Clang.

I felt trapped. I felt half-dead. I couldn't understand how even my best friends could vote against me.

"Please, I don't want to leave this class. I would like to stay."

"We'll see about that. Class is over for the day," La Shan said, slamming his book closed and walking out of the room, his disciples trailing behind him.

I walked home in a daze. Nobody talked to me. I redid my homework and turned it in right away. I waited for La Shan to throw me out of school, but nothing happened. I sat in the back corner of the class by myself. No one talked to me, not even my friends. Occasionally, La Shan would throw disgusted glances my way. The worst thing was when he disparagingly called me "that person in the corner" without looking at me. Why did he take the whole thing so personally, as if I had desecrated his ancestor's tombstone?

Then one day during the morning exercise break La Shan called my name and asked me to stay behind while the others noisily poured out of class.

"I have received reports about you," he said, pacing in front of the classroom. "Really bad reports."

My heart began to race. "What kind of reports?"

"You have been saying antirevolutionary and anti-Communist things to your classmates, haven't you?"

"No, I haven't." He was trying to paint me as a counterrevolutionary, just as they had done to Yu Xuang, a fifth-grader whom they had locked in the commune jail for further investigation. It was a dangerous situation.

"I have never done anything like that! You know that!" I said, using the best defense a nine-year-old could muster.

"I have the reports here"-he waved a thick sheaf of paper-"and I can ask these people to testify against you if necessary."

"The people who wrote those reports were lying. I have never said anything against our country or the Communist party."

"Shut up! You have no right to defend yourself, only the chance to confess and repent," he spat out angrily. His voice deepened. "Do you understand what kind of trouble you are in now?"

"I have nothing to confess!" I was losing control again. My throat dried up and my arms began to tremble.

"I said, shut up! You have today and tonight to write a confession of all the treasonous things you have said, to explain the motivation, and to state who told you to say these horrible things. Like perhaps your father, mother, or your landlord grandparents."

He was trying to involve my family. They would put my dad in prison. They would take Grandpa out into the street and beat him to death.

"They did not tell me to do or say bad things against the party! They didn't!" I cried. I couldn't afford to have my family dragged into this. I was scared and began to sob helplessly. The sky had just caved in and I felt that nobody could help me. I would be a young counterrevolutionary, a condemned boy, despised by the whole country. I would be left to rot in a dark prison cell for life. That was what had happened to Shi He, another high school kid, who was caught listening to an anti-Communist radio program from Taiwan, and worse, to the banned Teresa Deng's love songs. His prison sentence had been twenty years.

I don't remember how long I cried that morning. When I walked home alone in the afternoon's setting sun, I felt the weight of shackles already around my ankles.

A condemned man at the age of nine! Confession tomorrow! The thoughts played over and over in my mind.

When I got home, I told Mom what had happened and she started sobbing, hitting her face and chest and pulling out her hair. She mumbled hysterically, in broken sentences, that their generation had brought the curse to the next generation. After a while, she sat down quietly, weak and limp like a frightened animal. Finally, she got up and sent Si and Jin to Dad's camp to ask for advice. They got to talk to him by using the excuse that Mom was very sick again.
Da Chen

About Da Chen

Da Chen - Colors of the Mountain

Photo © Thomas Jack Hilton


Da Chen is thirty-seven years old and is a graduate of Columbia University Law School, which he attended on full scholarship. A brush calligrapher of considerable spirituality who also plays the classical bamboo flute, he lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife and two small children.



?A story about suppression, humiliation, vindication and, ultimately, triumph.??The New York Times Book Review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Colors of the Mountain, Da Chen's touching, often funny depiction of the hardships, adventures, and dreams of a child living in a world turned upside down. For ten years, Mao's Cultural Revolution swept across China, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Accused of holding counterrevolutionary values, the middle classes—landlords, doctors, teachers, and intellectuals—were severely persecuted and suffered great deprivations. Colors of the Mountain, Da Chen's memoir of his childhood as the grandson of a landlord in a rural village, offers a unique perspective on this infamous period.

About the Guide

The youngest of five children, Da Chen was born in 1962 in the small village of Yellow Stone. His family, once one of the most respected in the village, loses everything under the brutal policies of the Cultural Revolution. His grandfather, who owned land and several local stores, is stripped of his property, publicly humiliated, and beaten by hostile neighbors and power-happy Communist officials. His father is fired from his teaching job and periodically hauled off to the labor camp to be "reformed." His older siblings, forced to leave school because of their ancestry, toil for long hours in the rice fields. At an early age, Da Chen learns that ordinary trips to the commune's grocery store and to neighborhood yards where other children play are perilous undertakings, exposing him to ugly taunts and vicious harassment.

In the face of adversity and injustice most of us cannot imagine, Da remains feisty, mischievous, and determined to prove his own worth. Mocked by teachers and denounced as a counterrevolutionary by the principal, he nonetheless becomes the star pupil in school and excels in his private English lessons with an elderly retired professor. Ostracized by his classmates, he is taken in by a group of older boys whose genuine affection for him and for one another belies their notoriety as reckless troublemakers. Da's intelligence and drive, however, are continually undermined by the arbitrary rules of the Communist regime. His dream of college is nearly destroyed when the school board decides that the members of his family have "had enough education," but it reverses its decision when the Cultural Revolution is abruptly abandoned in the upheaval following Mao's death. As new leaders rise to power, the once-hated intellectuals are restored to honor and position. For Da and his family, the promise of a better future finally becomes a reality.

As he weaves together chilling vignettes of an abusive society and loving, evocative scenes of family life—grand feasts on New Year's Day, flute lessons with his father, storytelling sessions with his grandfather, and mornings of prayer at his mother's side—Da Chen not only offers a unique portrait of an era, but also evokes the universal experiences of childhood.

About the Author

Da Chen graduated from Beijing Language Institute with top honors and then served as an assistant professor at the school. At the age of twenty-three, he came to America and won a full scholarship to Columbia University Law School, and after graduation worked for the Wall Street firm of Rothschild, Inc. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife, who is a physician, and their two young children.

Discussion Guides

1. Da Chen's mother has taught her children "to be quiet, stay out of trouble, and wait for better days" [p. 4]. Given their position in the village, is it possible for them to follow this advice? Is Da's grandfather's rebellious behavior a more natural reaction to the cruel and arbitrary rules imposed during the Cultural Revolution? In what ways does his mother show a spirit of defiance, and what impact does this have on Da's character?

2. When his teacher chooses him as class monitor, Da writes, "I was born with a political defect that no one could fix. But once in a while they threw a bone out to us . . ." [p. 15]. What does this tell you about Da's sense of himself? Why does he become so popular with the other students, despite his "political defect"? Later, when the Communist party escalates its campaign against former landowners and intellectuals, Da is ostracized by his new teacher and his classmates. Could a more sympathetic teacher have made a difference?

3. Are Da's descriptions of his life at school unique to his circumstances? Or do his experiences—for example, his feelings about being excluded from the Red Guards [p. 23] and reactions to Han and his gang [p. 41]—resemble incidents that might be experienced by every school-age child? How do they differ from the experiences of a child going to school in America?

4. Why is praying to Buddha with his mother so important to Da? Beyond its religious significance, what role does it play in their lives? Why does the family maintain traditions like the opulent New Year's Day feasts even during the most difficult times? What events in the book show the extraordinarily close ties among the family members? For example, what do you learn about Da's brothers and sisters when he helps them in the fields [pp. 164-66]? How do the familial relationships Da describes differ from those in American or other Western families? Do you agree with Da's description of his father as "the dreamer" and his mother as the more practical parent [p. 217]?

5. Da objects strongly to the corruption and bribery rampant in the commune, yet when he is forbidden to continue his education, his father, an acupuncturist, treats the principal's ailing father, and Da is allowed back into school [p. 125]. Da's father is also treated well at the reform camp because of his medical skills [p. 113]. Do Da's father's actions compromise his integrity?

6. When Mao dies, why does Da say, "In my heart, there was no other leader who mattered as much to me . . . good or bad. . . . Even though my parents' generation hated him, I had embraced him in my own way" [p. 138]? Compare this passage to his sharp criticism of Mao [pp. 256-57]. Is the ambiguity that Da feels understandable? Does the book offer any evidence, either explicit or implicit, that Mao made positive contributions to Chinese life and society?

7. In addition to teaching Da English, how does Professor Wei expand his view of the world? Why does the fact that the Wei sisters are "the closest thing to real Westerners" in the village [p. 154] enhance their status even though the government is so vehemently opposed to the West? How does Da bring to life the closeness between the shy, awkward boy and the elegant, elderly professor?

8. How does the summer Da spends working at a factory enrich your impressions of him? In what ways is he more mature than an American child of his age? More naive?

9. The contradictions between the Chinese government's austere policies and life as it was actually lived by party officials [pp. 180-81] appears to reveal the profound hypocrisy of Mao's rule. How do these hypocritical tendencies differ from those of governments in the rest of the world?

10. Da recalls his difficulty with the English language in a wonderfully charming and funny way [p. 212]. How does his confusion offer insights not only into his impressions of the English-speaking world, but also into Chinese culture as well?

11. When Da and Jin are admitted to college, some of the villagers write letters of protest to the government. Da says, "It was okay to let people know when you were suffering, but not when you were celebrating" [p. 295]. What motivates the villagers? How universal are their sentiments and their actions?

12. At times, Da seems too perfect. He even says of himself, "Most of [my classmates] hated me because I was arrogant, pompous, and too much of an artistic star" [p. 192]. In what ways is he just an ordinary boy, sharing the familiar concerns and anxieties of childhood? How does the narrative convey this? Does the memoir succeed in presenting a balanced and believable portrait of a young boy?

13. How do the style and language of Colors of the Mountain contribute to the effect the book has on readers? While Da and his friends use slang and obscenities and tease each other about girls in the familiar manner of young boys, many of Da's thoughts and observations are presented in poetic language. For example, in describing his visit to his cousin on an isolated island, he writes, "Staring at the stars through a wide skylight, I heard the lulling sound of the ocean. The rhythm of its waters sounded like an . . . ancient legend as the waves lazily washed against the shore" [p. 46]. Do these voices seem equally authentic?

14. Da Chen takes the title of his book from a couplet his grandfather painted on the old Chen mansion—"Colors of the mountain will never leave our door/Sounds of the river will linger forever in our ears." How do the themes of the book embody the poem's message?

15. Da Chen is now in his late thirties and has achieved success as a university professor and lawyer, yet he presents his story through the eyes of a child. Why does he choose to present his story that way? How do his perceptions and feelings as a young boy shape his depiction of life in China? Would other members of his family have told the same story?

16. Many memoirs such as Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings deal with the profound impact of political upheavals, class conflict, and racial prejudices on ordinary people. How does Colors of the Mountain compare with other memoirs in this genre?

Teacher's Guide


Colors of the Mountain tells the story of Da Chen, a young boy who comes of age during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China. In writing about the difficulties and triumphs of childhood, Da's touching memoir also explores the fascinating history of China during a time of great upheaval. Da, born in 1962 in the small village of Yellow Stone in Southern China, begins his story by detailing the deprivation his once respected family endures as a result of the political situation in China.

As a result of the political reforms of The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the lives of Da Chen and his family were forever changed. In asserting his power and ideology, Mao sought to change the way that Chinese people thought and lived. In the area of education, intellectuals were chastised and the rural farmer was touted as the ideal teacher. As Da Chen explains in his memoir, "School was chaos.... Teachers could do almost nothing to remedy the situation for fear of being branded a stinking intellectual or a counterrevolutionary" (p. 114). In addition, various land reforms were enacted during Mao's long reign that enabled the government to confiscate property and redistribute it among the peasant population, leaving landowners with nothing but harassment from the local community. According to Mao's ideology, class determination was extremely important and it was far better to be labeled a poor peasant than a landlord in Communist China. Landowners, like intellectuals, represented a way of life that Mao Zedong saw no place for in the revolution.
Da's grandfather, once a landowner, loses his property and is publicly humiliated and beaten. His father is fired from his teaching position and is sent away to labor camps. His mother fears for her children and their futures and advises them "...to be quiet, stay out of trouble, and wait for better days to come" (p. 4). His siblings are eventually forced to leave school by the local bureaucracy and sentenced to grueling work in the fields. Da himself is moved in and out of school, accused of counterrevolutionary activities, and subjected to the cruel taunts of his classmates. Although everyone suffers, the family never loses its sense of dignity. Da's extraordinary spirit and tenacity is a testament to his family's strength and love. He triumphs in his pursuits, eventually earning a place at a prestigious university in Beijing. He excels in school, discovers friends who accept him despite his family background, learns to play the flute and violin, and masters the English language.

Da's story includes moments of hardship, but it also includes such joys as traditional New Year's feasts and beautiful rural landscapes, and the camaraderie of his friends and family. In writing Colors of the Mountain, Da reveals both the story of a boy coming of age and the larger story of a country in turmoil. His life experiences are inextricably linked to the land in which he lives.


Da Chen was born in rural Southern China in 1962. After attending the Beijing Language Institute, Da moved to the United States to attend college in Nebraska where he was offered a fellowship to teach and study. He then attended Columbia University Law School and worked as an investment banker on Wall Street. Da currently lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife, two children, and his mother who came over from China after the death of his father. His brother and one sister remain in China and one sister lives in New York City.


The questions, exercises, and assignments that follow are intended to guide your students through Colors of the Mountain as a memoir, a work of literature, and as a work of history. The experience of childhood is an excellent way to engage students in more complex political and cultural discussions about the forces that shape Da's and his family's life. The following discussion points explore China's history and its importance to the story, test reading comprehension, offer themes for more in-depth discussion, and suggest additional memoirs, autobiographies, and works of Chinese history.


Understanding China and It's Role in the Story

Brief Overview:
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was one of the most influential and infamous individuals in 20th century Chinese history. As an original member of the Chinese Communist Party, he was one of the key figures in establishing Communism in China. He was the Chairman of the People's Republic of China from 1949-1959 and the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party for the duration of his life. He remained a force in Chinese politics until his death in 1976 and his policies reverberate in China even today. In an interview for Colors of the Mountain, Da Chen explains the centrality of Mao in Chinese life. For Da, Mao "was this guy I was supposed to hate forever, which I do. But Mao was the heaven; Mao was the earth--and everything in between. That's how big he was. When he died it was like a whole dynasty had died, and I felt that China might die with him."

In 1958, Mao launched The Great Leap Forward, a program of agricultural and industrial reform that, because of poor planning and disorganization, ultimately ended in massive crop failure and widespread famine. After it became clear that The Great Leap Forward had been a disaster, Mao began to lose support within the Communist Party and was pushed to the political periphery. To combat his critics and reassert his authority and ideology, he launched The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He encouraged students to abandon school and join the Red Guard to overthrow the "four olds" -- old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Mao hoped to rid the country of any capitalist tendencies, to repudiate what he felt were bourgeois academics, and to transform education and culture to support Communist ideals. For Da Chen, this meant that his family of landowners and intellectuals had no place in the new regime.

1. The Cultural Revolution directly affects Da and his family. They suffer poverty and threats from the community. Why does the fact that Da's Grandfather was a former landlord have such a powerful impact on the family's status? How is his Grandfather punished (p. 7)?

2. What do we learn through Da's story about the government's new policies on education? On intellectuals? What is the result of these policies? Why is Zhang Tie Shan considered a hero in Communist China (p. 114)? How do students gain recognition in a system that doesn't recognize individual achievement?

3. After The Cultural Revolution has ended, Da describes the predicament of a friend. "He was pathetic and hurt, and unknowingly represented the bitter class that had obviously enjoyed the Cultural Revolution and detested its abrupt ending. The changed world was a little too much, and too soon in coming" (p. 223). What happens to those who embrace the anti-intellectualism of The Cultural Revolution after it is over?

4. The government policies shift as Da grows older. How do these changes affect Da's life and those of his family? For example, the government decides to open up the college entrance examinations to all students, regardless of their age, race or family background. This results in a great opportunity for Da (p. 147). Discuss other shifts in policy and how they affect Da.

5. Da explains that the family shrine where his mother prays is hidden in the attic, "because religion was not allowed in Communist China"(p. 6). Why is religion not allowed? What role does religion play in Da's family?

6. What does Da's experience working at the factory reveal about the impact of Communism in rural areas (p. 181)?

7. Da quotes Mao in explaining that "Farming.... was the lifeline of our country." (p. 195). Why are so many people in China forced into agricultural work?

8. At the end of his memoir, Da describes the opportunities that he imagines learning English will provide for him: "Now I had a future, a bright one. In a few years, I would be fluent in English, could go to work for the Foreign Ministry and would converse in that fine language with fine people in an elegant international setting" (p. 304). What do Da's thoughts about the value of learning English say about the changing political landscape?

9. The death of Mao in 1976 is a pivotal event in China's history. How does it affect Da (p. 138)? How do his feelings toward Mao change as he experiences more and matures (examples, pp. 256-257)?

Understanding the Story

1. The preface to the book includes a couplet that the author's grandfather painted on the wooden door of the family home:
Colors of the mountain will never leave our door
Sounds of the river will linger forever in our ears

In explaining the significance of this poem, the author suggests that the natural surroundings inspired his grandfather. Does Da discover the same solace in nature? In what ways is the landscape an escape for Da? How is this quote significant for the rest of Da's story?

2. On the first page of the memoir, Da says that "[T]he unfortunate year of my birth left a permanent flaw in my character: I was always hungry." Da is hungry for food, but he also yearns for other things. Identify the needs that drive Da to achieve his goals.

3. At the conclusion of the first chapter, Da prays for "Dad not to get beaten by the Red Guards, for Grandpa to be well, for Mom not to cry as much. My last request was always for food--more of it, please" (p. 6). What are the reader's first impressions of the family's life in Communist China?

4. In the early pages of the memoir, Da describes his feelings of isolation, "I no longer played out in the street. I had aged and had become an outcast" (p. 36). He desperately wants to be included even if this means belonging to groups such as the Red Guard that persecute his family. Why does Da feel this way? Is it a betrayal of his family?

5. Da is accused of counterrevolutionary activity (p. 25). How does this make Da feel about himself and his family? Da's father advises him not to confess (p. 27). Why does he advise this course of action? What does this say about his father's character?

6. Da's family--particularly his grandfather, father and mother--is very important to him. The following questions explore how each one has influenced Da.


1. What does he learn from his grandfather? How do his memories of his grandfather help him pursue his goals?

2. How does his grandfather react to the way he is treated in the community? In describing the rules that his Grandfather must now observe, Da says that "There were more rules, but Grandpa forgot some when he came home to tell us about them" (p. 7). What does this reveal about his grandfather's attitude towards the new laws of the Cultural Revolution?

3. In what ways does Da hope to honor his grandfather's spirit after his death (p. 281)?


1. At one point, Da describes his parents; "Dad was the dreamer. Mom was the practical enforcer..." (p. 217). Is this a just characterization? Is Da's mother a practical enforcer or does she also dare to hope and dream?

2. Da prays with his mother. Why is this time important to him? Why does his mother persist in praying even though religion is forbidden in Communist China?

3. In the dedication to the book, Da writes, "To my mother: You are all things beautiful." He reiterates this thought at the end of his memoir as he prepares to depart Yellow Stone to attend a university in Beijing, "She pulled me once more into her arms, then gently pushed me away and nodded. Only at that moment as I looked at her did I realize that she was the most beautiful woman in the whole world..." (p. 306). What qualities does Da admire in his mother?


1. Is his father only a "dreamer"? How is Da's father also a pragmatist? How does he work around the Communist system to benefit himself and his family?

2. In the dedication, Da says, "...and my father, you are forever." As with his mother, he echoes this statement in the closing lines of the book by saying, "I love you, Dad. I am your son, forever" (p. 307). What qualities does his father possess that suggest timelessness for Da? What does he admire about his father?

3. How does parting from his father on the final page of his memoir show that Da has grown and changed? What does he notice about his father that differs from his perception of his father as a child (p. 307)?

7. What are Da's options for his future? How does he feel about following in the path of his brothers and sisters and working in the fields? Da's siblings lose their innocence at an early age, "They came home by moonlight after laboring a full day, their backs cramped and sore, cuts on their fingers, blisters covering their hands" (p. 22). How does Da fare on his one day in the fields (pp. 162-166)?

8. Da's mother explains that if he doesn't want to work in the fields, Da needs to "study hard. You can choose your future, your sisters and brother can't. You're lucky. If they had blisters like yours, they would still have to be there till the last stem was harvested. It's their life" (p. 166). Why is education so important to Da? What kind of lifestyle does he think an education will ensure? Why does Da have choices that his brother and sisters don't have?

9. At one point, Da explains that "Time had changed everything for me and I was always behind, it seemed, like chasing my shadow. What had once been right wasn't right anymore. I wished I knew the future, while hoping the past would not be repeated" (pp. 146-147). Is Da referring to his own past or that of Communist China?

10. Da feels a tremendous sense of freedom with his gang of gambling friends (p. 65). Why are these boys so important to him? What do they teach him? Why does his mother allow the friendship to continue even though these boys have a bad reputation in the community (p. 76)? In what ways do these boys rebel against the stifling constraints of the political system?

11. How do Da's extracurricular activities help to shape him? For example, do his Ping Pong skills change his status among his classmates (p. 108)?

12. He also pursues music and learns to play the flute and violin. What impresses him about his violin teacher (pp. 122-123)? How does his learning to play the flute deepen his relationship with his father and his appreciation for his father's talents (p. 115)?

13. Da makes several other friends throughout the course of his childhood who act as mentors. Why is I-Fei Da's hero (p. 195)? In what ways does he represent a certain strength and freedom to Da (p. 128)? Characterize this time at school with I-Fei (p. 142). Even though he isn't applying himself to his studies, is Da still learning?

14. Dia is another important friend to Da. In what ways is Dia different then Da? In describing him, Da notes that, "...he unknowingly represented the bitter class that had obviously enjoyed the Cultural Revolution and detested its abrupt ending" (p. 223). What does this mean? How does Da's relationship with Dia differ from his relationship with I-Fei or his other friends? Does this difference say anything about Da's growing maturity?

15. Da's brother Jin plays a greater role in Da's development towards the end of the memoir. What does Da admire about his brother (p. 268)? Although Da has had more education, what does he learn from his brother? Why was Jin chosen over the other siblings to pursue an education?

16. Professor Wei also acts as a mentor to Da. Besides teaching him to speak English, what else does she teach Da? During his lesson, Da thinks: "Educate me, I prayed. Teach me, enlighten me. Make something out of nothing" (p. 188). What kind of an opportunity does Professor Wei represent to the ambitious Da?

17. Characterize the introduction of the Wei sisters and their home (p. 153). How does it differ from the rest of Yellow Stone? Da explains that the sisters are the "closest thing to real Westerners." In what ways are they Westerners? How does Da feel when he is in their home during his lessons?

18. Discuss Da's experience working at the factory (chapters 15 and 16). Does life at the factory reveal anything about how Communism in rural China has changed since Da was a young boy? Da is also exposed to different types of relationships at the factory. How is his time at the factory a rite of passage?

19. At one point Da says, "this was a defining moment: I was declaring my intention to join the race for college and if anyone had any problems with it, I couldn't care less. I had been at the bottom before, crawling on my knees. Now I was limping along. Soon I would be running. I wanted the world to know that I wasn't born in order for someone to step on me" (p. 225). What motivates Da? What pushes him beyond all the hardships and obstacles that he experiences?

20. Find examples in the text of Da's confidence. He consistently feels that he has shamed his family, yet Da also acknowledges his inner strength. For example, at the beginning, Da says, "I shone, despite their efforts to snuff me out" (p. 43). How does this pride help Da?

21. After he succeeds in passing the college entrance exam, Da is invited to the local Communist Party Leader's house (p. 301). How does this make him feel? These people tortured his family, yet his mother is still excited that her son was invited to their home. Why does she feel this way?

22. In what way are Da and Jin's acceptance to university a triumph for the whole family (p. 291)? What is the community's reaction to their achievement?


In-Depth Discussion

1. Although Colors of the Mountain is a memoir, it resembles a traditional form of the novel called a Bildungsroman. A bildungsroman follows the intellectual and moral development of a young character, usually a boy, as he discovers a place for himself in the world. The first bildungsroman is considered to be a novel by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1796, entitled Wilhem Meister's Apprenticeship. Da's story is a far cry from 18th-century Germany, but the basic narrative structure of growing up and defining one's self in society is evident in Colors of the Mountain. Discuss with students Da's key points of growth, such as being accused of being a counterrevolutionary (p. 25) or learning how to fight back for the first time (p. 39). What events are pivotal in Da's development

2. Da narrates his story through the eyes of a child. How is the reader's understanding of the political situation in China affected by the fact that Da is young and doesn't fully understand the political situation? For example, Da describes how painful it was to see his mother being hit by a member of The Red Guard, yet he later laments that he is not included in their ranks: "I was the only one in class who was not a member. I coveted the pretty red bands worn on their arms and had applied to join..." (p. 23). Does he believe in the Communist cause or does he just want to feel included? Discuss Da's reaction to Mao's death. Does he mourn the death of a political leader or is he a child mourning a loss of familiarity (p. 138)? When does Da become more critical of Mao and his policies? What does it say about Da's growing maturity? What effect does his increased awareness have on the reader (example, pp. 256-257)?

3. In the first chapter, Da writes that his mother taught her children that they "...should have dignity in the face of hardship" (p. 6). Da's family suffers tremendous losses, but they never lose their dignity. Discuss examples in the book where his family gives him strength and a sense that he can make choices and control his future despite the difficult political circumstances. For example, after a hard day working in the fields, Da's mother encourages Da to take a different path. She advises him to "study hard. You can choose your future" (p.166). Compare Da's feelings about his family to attitudes about family in our own culture. Do we have the same sense of honor and dignity and obligation? How have his family's values shaped Da?

4. In many ways, Da's life is influenced and shaped by the overwhelming political force of Communism, yet the book is also a simpler story of a boy growing up. Ask your students to discuss experiences that they have in common with Da even though they don't live in such a strictly regulated society. How does Da determine his own life?

Moving Beyond the Story

1. Research and discuss the history of China during the reign of Mao Zedong, particularly The Cultural Revolution which define Da's formative years. All major encyclopedias will have information on this period in China's history. In particular, look up "Mao Zedong," "The Great Leap Forward," "The Cultural Revolution," "The Red Guard," and the "Gang of Four." All of these are mentioned in Da's story and learning about them will enrich the reading of the book. For general histories of China, we suggest The Search for Modern China (Norton, 2000) and Mao Zedong (Viking, 1999), both by Jonathan Spence; China: A New History Enlarged by John King Fairbank (Harvard University Press, 1998); The Origins of the Cultural Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar (Columbia University Press, 3 volumes); Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker (Free Press, 1996); and A Concise History of China by J.A.G. Roberts (Harvard University Press, 1999).

2. Discuss how the political climate in China has changed? Does the country still resemble the China of Da's childhood in any way? What are the issues that govern the relationship between China and the United States?

3. Use Da's story as a starting point to introduce the bildungsroman as a narrative form. Discuss recent literary criticism which revisits the genre to include the experiences of women and people of color. Suggest reading other bildungsroman such as Virgina Woolf's The Voyage Out or Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

4. Assign students other memoirs of life in Communist China that can be compared with Colors of the Mountain. Appropriate titles include Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Red Azalea by Anchee Min, Wild Swans: Three Daughters in China by Jung Chang, or Red Flower of China by Zhai Zhenhua.


Spider Eaters: A Memoir by Rae Yang; The White-Haired Child: Bittersweet Adventures of a Little Red Soldier by Jaia Sun-Childers and Douglas Childers; Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng; Red Azalea by Anchee Min; Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang; Red Flower of China by Zhai Zhenhua; Thirty Years in a Red House: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China by Zhu Xiao Di; The Attic: Memoir of a Chinese Landlord's Son by Guanlong Cao; Red China Blues : My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong; Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang, The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway; The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley; The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston, When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago.


This teacher's guide was written by Karen Iker. Karen Iker has a master's degree in American literature and has worked in the book publishing industry for ten years.


Copyright © 2001 by ANCHOR BOOKS

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