The prologue of Flower Drum Song chronicles a Mei-Li’s’s journey escaping from political oppression in China for the “Land of the Free” in America. It would be easy to oversimplify what you’re seeing as “Life was hard in the old country, so she jumps on a boat headed for the US,” but the actual historical context to Flower Drum Song sheds light on Mei-Li’s journey. For those of you out there who need a refresher on their Modern Chinese History, here you go:
When Mei-Li arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Chinese Cultural Revolution is in full swing. Those who were (un)lucky enough to survive Mao ZeDong’s Great Leap Forward, which lead to the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961) were subject to political persecution during the Cultural Revolution.
Mao believed that anyone he perceived to stand against him and his policies (such as Mei-Li’s father, along with other teachers and artists) were “Counter-Revolutionaries” and therefore enemies of the state. He labeled upper class intellectuals from large cities “revisionists” and insisted they be removed by violent class struggle. Red Guards, youth groups loyal to Mao, sprang up to enact his communist ideology, guided by Mao’s Little Red Book published in 1966. The Red Guards attacked and killed opponents of Mao’s regime, and were charged with destroying the Four Olds: Old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. This included desecrating monuments of cultural significance, like Confucius’ tomb.
Anything traditional (such as Chinese Opera and other art) was to be purged. Imprisonment was arbitrary, torture was rampant, as was public humiliation & the seizure of property, and those in the cities were forcibly displaced to work in the countryside, all in the name of “re-education.”
On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese Americans had been facing their own struggles. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US. Chinese Exclusion was the first of only 3 times in history when people of a specific country were banned from immigrating to the US (In case you’re wondering, the other two are Iran in 1980 during the hostage crisis, and the Executive Order other day). This led to widespread discrimination against Chinese and Chinese Americans.
Even though the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, after China allied with the US during WWII, a national quota of only 105 immigrants from China were allowed each year until the Hart Celler Act abolished the national quota system in 1965.
At times throughout Flower Drum Song, we see and hear from Chinese refugees. We hear about their hardships back in China as well as here in America. This is what they are fleeing from, and fleeing to. They leave a life of struggle only to be met with a different struggle when they arrive on America’s shores. But, like the lotus blossom, which is often surrounded by mud, they grow strong and tall, and the mud at their roots help fuel the ability to rise above it and flourish.