Da Chen, whose memoirs for both adults (Colors of the Mountain) and young readers (Girl Under a Red Moon) chronicled his experiences growing up in a family that was persecuted during China’s Cultural Revolution, died of lung cancer on December 17 in Temecula, Calif. He was 57.
Chen was born in the small farming village of Yellowstone, China, in 1962, the youngest of five siblings. In a 2019 interview with PW, he estimated that his grandfather, a poet and calligrapher, owned roughly 60% of the land in the village, “which made him a target of jealousy,” said Chen, who recalled that he was too young to understand the politics of why villagers threw rocks at the older man and considered him a pariah. As the Cultural Revolution took hold in the 1960s, the family’s lands were seized by the Red Army and Chen’s grandfather was sent to a labor camp. When his grandfather became too old and weak to complete his sentence, Chen said his father was forced to take his place.
The assaults on the family continued. Chen’s eldest sister, Xi Xi, was expelled from school and threatened with jail and a humiliation parade at age 13, and was encouraged to run away. Chen’s father arranged for Xi Xi to attend an agricultural school in the mountains run by family friends. Her escape—with her younger brother at her side—is the inspiration for Girl Under a Red Moon (Scholastic Focus, 2019).
Following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Chen was able to resume his school studies. He gained admittance to the Beijing Language and Cultural University to study English after achieving an outstanding score on the country’s national college placement test. Upon graduation, Chen worked at the university as an assistant professor. At 23, Chen immigrated to the United States after being offered a scholarship to Union College in Lincoln, Neb. He often shared the story of arriving in the U.S. with nothing but $30 in his pocket and a bamboo flute.
In Nebraska, Chen supported himself with part-time jobs that included waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. He took the LSAT during this period and received a full scholarship to Columbia Law School in New York City, earning his J.D. in 1990 and landing a position with the Rothschild investment banking firm. Chen subsequently left Wall Street to become a writer, with the encouragement of his wife Sunny, a family physician and fellow author with whom Chen had two children. His debut memoir, Colors of the Mountain, recounting his childhood, was published by Random House in 1999 to much acclaim and became a bestseller. A version of the book for young readers, China’s Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution, followed in 2001. And a third memoir, Sounds of the River (HarperCollins, 2002), focused on Chen’s college years in Beijing in the 1980s.
Chen went on to write fiction as well, and taught courses in creative writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut and at New York University. His published works include the adult novel Brothers (Crown, 2006) and the YA novels Wandering Warrior (Random House/Laurel Leaf, 2004) and Sword (HarperCollins/Geringer, 2008). His book for middle graders, Girl Under a Red Moon, was among the inaugural titles for the nonfiction imprint Scholastic Focus that was launched last year and is overseen by Lisa Sandell, editorial director of Scholastic Press. Chen recalled that he and Sandell had initially met more than 15 years ago and became reacquainted in 2017 when they attended the same writers’ event. “I didn’t realize I sat at the next table to Lisa,” he said in a recent PW interview. “After the dinner she came up and said ‘Da, do you still remember me? I’m starting Scholastic Focus, a nonfiction children’s imprint. Would you write me a China book?’”
Sandell, reflecting on her project with Chen, offered these words of tribute: “It was an honor to work with him to bring the story of his extraordinary childhood to young readers. He was an incredible writer and a dear friend.”