Author George Lee experienced China’s notorious Cultural Revolution first-hand, experiencing an upbringing of “ideological indoctrination and brainwashing” that aimed to reduce the population to ‘robots’ giving their souls, bodies and minds to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – being forced to obey instructions and view China as the supreme nation with the West as the enemy.

Now aged 60, and having lived in Canada for the past three decades, he has captured his traumatic, formative years, and how he was able to reclaim his individualism through the world’s great works of literature, in his debut novel, Dancing in the River. Part fiction, part memoir, its lyrical tone and deep examination of the human condition has been critically acclaimed, receiving a prestigious Guernica Prize.

We caught up with the author to learn more about his life, his novel, and his hard-earned insights into a terrifying existence where freedom of thought and belief is forbidden.  

Q. What inspired you to write Dancing in the River?

A. “Why is China different from the Western world?” When I came to study English literature in Canada 30 years ago, I was burdened with finding answers to that question. Then, I busied myself with my own life and threw it off my mind for quite some time. But the journey to reconcile myself with my past never ceased. Due to the traumatic experience in childhood during the Cultural Revolution, the old pain always tried to open its mouth to swallow my new life.

Then, I decided to embark on a soul-healing journey. By God’s grace, I was converted to Christianity and began to search for answers in the Bible. At the same time, I read hundreds of personal development and spiritual books and studied with Richard Bandler (co-creator of NLP) and Tony Robbins. One day, the lightbulb is turned on in my mind, and I know I’m ready to share my awakening in a fictional form. As in life, so in fiction.

Q. How would you sum up Dancing in the River to a new reader?

A. Life is a symbolic journey from the river to the sea; you cannot control the torrents as the rushing waves flow downward, but you can enjoy the triumphant dancing in the river. Our destiny is not controlled by others but by our own will. The destiny of our journey is to find our true selves and the purpose of life.

Q. Many in the West have never heard of the Cultural Revolution. How would you define this, and what impact did it have on you as a child and young man?

A. To illustrate this point, I can quote philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “Insanity in individuals is rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” The Cultural Revolution in China was one of the darkest eras in present-day human history. Although over 40 years have since passed, the hurt (depression or post-traumatic stress disorder) caused by the madness is still felt in the nation's psyche and its people, including me. If we don’t learn the lessons from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Q. How did the English language and literature prompt a new phase of personal development and intellectual growth?

A. When I was ushered into inductive and deductive reasoning by reading the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I began to call into question the moral universe where I had lived for so long.

Breath-takingly beautiful and profoundly moving, Dancing in the River should be added to every reader’s must-read list.

Q. Why, among all other works of literature, are the stories of Sherlock Holmes so important to you, and to your understanding of the difference between Chinese and Western thought?

A. In Chinese culture, morality is still the order of the day, and reasoning is an alien concept. Inductive reasoning is one scientific tool to distinguish truth from falsity.

Q. You saw first-hand the terrible impact of the Chinese Communist Party’s top-down ideology on its citizens, especially when you were a teacher. Can you explain further?

A. I am not interested in politics but more in exploring human nature and our subconscious mind (i.e. the whys behind who we are and what we do).

Q. Given the culture you were raised in, how difficult a decision was it to relocate to Canada – a Western nation and, therefore, viewed as an enemy of China?

A. When China opened its door to the West, it was the dream of the educated youth to go abroad to receive an education in the West. And I was one of them.

Q. What do you hope readers will gain most from reading your book?

A. When I read Ha Jin’s novels, I told myself, “I can write, too.” When people read my book, I hope they can resonate by declaring: “If this poor guy can achieve his dreams and change his fate, I can, too.”

Q. Dancing in the River has received universal acclaim since its publication and was the winner of the Guernica Prize for 2021. How does this make you feel?

A. I was thrilled. To be honest, in the process of writing, I had already visualized this moment. I saw my name in the newspapers; I saw myself autographing my books in the bookstores; I saw people reading my book in the book clubs … I had assumed the feeling of success before I even started my book. Because I believe in the power of imagination.

Q. What three books or authors – aside from the Sherlock Holmes stories – have had the greatest impact on your self-growth, and in what ways?

A. The Power of Imagination by Neville Goddard, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy, and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

Neville entertained a conviction that our human imagination is God dwelling in our spirit, and we can utilize this divine power to create everything we desire. For him, imagination is an act of creation. Neville also believed that feeling is the secret to achieving our goals and dreams. He deduced this spiritual law from his interpretation of the Jacob and Esau story in the biblical Book of Genesis.

From reading Dr. Murphy, I understand that it is our subconsciousness, which is like the iceberg hidden in the ocean, that determines who we are. If there is a conflict between the conscious mind and our subconscious, our subconscious mind will always prevail.

As such, we can use visualization to tame our subconscious to serve our conscious needs.

“Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” So said Napoleon Hill. I had pondered Hill’s declaration and couldn’t sleep well for a few nights. Finally, I understood what the Gospels mean about the sowing metaphor. Our human mind is a garden: thinking is sowing. What you sow in the garden of your mind is what you reap in the physical world.

These new concepts from the three great authors revolutionize my thinking. I have interwoven all these important messages in my novel.

As Dancing in the River attests, George Lee is a master storyteller. Inspiration and insight have never been presented so lyrically.

Q. From a technical standpoint, how challenging was the book to write, given that English is not your first language?

A. I spent years visualizing the plot and characters of my book. I was more eloquent in my mind but when I transcribed thoughts onto the pages, I struggled for words. For a time, I tried to switch my mind to transcribe my thoughts into my mother’s tongue, but my thoughts did not agree with my mind. In other words, the words were clogged in my mind. Then, I realise English is the language to carry my messages onto the pages.

The biggest challenge I encountered in the process of writing was the fear of inferiority, given that English is my second language. In the beginning, I couldn’t help comparing my incomplete draft with David Copperfield or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After struggling for a long time, I decided to forget about Charles Dickens or James Joyce to become myself. “I need to cultivate the courage to be disliked,” I warned myself. I planted on my computer screen a writing motto from E.B. White: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” This realisation became the turning point in my writing.

Q. How challenging was it to write emotionally, given the personal trauma that you had to recount?

A. When I wrote, I shed tears, cried, and couldn’t sleep; it was a healing process because I finally released anger, bitterness, and sorrow and let my past flow into the river.

Q. In a time of rising threats to Western democracy and personal freedoms, what is your message to the world?

A. I am not a politician, but I can only cite a fairy tale to illustrate my point: to kiss the frog and turn evil into good. But first, we need to understand the nature of the frog.

Q. You are a life coach, and your book has drawn favourable comparisons to The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. What would your key piece of advice be on how to kickstart personal growth and transformation?

A. Human beings are eager to learn about the fates of our fellow humans, and we identify ourselves with them. The art of storytelling is the bridge to connect the writer with his or her readers.

When Little Bright (also known as ‘Victor’), the protagonist, embarks on a life journey to challenge his reality and to discover his core identity through education, he finds his destiny and purpose in life. Education, or awakening from within, is an endless life process; it is NOT something we can finish with. Transformation shall start from within and not without. Our reality is only the mirror reflective of our face. Unless we change our face, the reality will not change if we just replace the mirror.

Self-discovery is a life-long process; the more we know ourselves, the more vision we have. It is endless.

Q. What can readers expect from you next?

A. A historical novel that will explore the life struggle and human nature amidst desperation and doom on a small, isolated island.

Dancing in the River by George Lee (Guernica Editions) is out now on Amazon, priced £19.99 in paperback and £7.95 as an eBook.

Tagged in