• This is a true story of privation and survival – about a Chinese woman caught up in the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong.In her home town, Qingdao Mary and her older brother Main were the children of high ranking parents. However everything changed when her father was arrested and sent to a labour camp.
Mao worked on the principle of divide and conquer. He divided the people into two groups. Factory workers and peasants were the ‘good’ ‘red’ class, while those from wealthier backgrounds were the ‘evil’ ‘black’ class. The chairman initiated the theory of class struggle so he could watch and enjoy his power untouched.Mary was bullied by the red elements — her school days crowded by cruelty and humiliation. Eventually, at age 21, she was forced to toil in the inhospitable Gobi Desert for 10 years.The conditions were appalling. Mary was a virtual slave, farming wheat, maize and opium in the arid atmosphere. She starved. Third world diseases were rife and Mary lived for 10 years in a cave.It is all the more amazing that she retained her sanity and optimism. Throughout her years in the desert, Mary secretly learns English. Her life improves when she goes through all sorts of officialdom to become an English teacher at a leather factory.Mary’s life still has many highs and lows. She marries three times — each husband is a failure in one way or another. But a chance meeting with a New Zealander, Bruce Renton, changes her circumstances forever.Bruce offers her a trip to New Zealand in 1986 for a year to improve her English. Mary returns in 1995 to join her eldest daughter Enya. In the meantime, she educated herself to university level and was an English tutor at Qingdao University from 1989 to 1993.The book ends happily, with Mary meeting and marrying Ian Collins, a professor at the University of Auckland and celebrating the birth of her first grandchild. Mary has become active in the community, focusing on helping new immigrants to settle. She provides counselling and support, guiding new New Zealanders through depression, relationship problems and language difficulties.Few of us can even imagine the hardships this plucky woman survived. Some of the passages in the book are harrowing and hard to accept. Yet through all her experiences, Mary remained cheerful and still managed to care about others.“Desert Rose” can be best summed up by a quotation at the beginning: “Hardship is invaluable, it teaches you how to seek happiness.”