Saturday 15 July 2017

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang (1997)

Red Scarf Girl is a young girl's account of her life between the age of 12 to 14 years during the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 when she was in the sixth grade. Up until then, Ji Li Jiang had lived a comfortable and happy family life in Shanghai. She excelled in her school studies and athletics, and was looking forward to a bright future.
Almost overnight, her way of life fell apart, and she was faced with choices that were totally confusing to a young girl. Ji-Li later became one of those now known as the 'lost generation,' an entire group of young people who were separated from their families and forced to forfeit their education when they were sent into the countryside to perform manual labour.

'After ten years of sacrifice in the primitive countryside most of these young people returned to the city with little education, few skills, and no beliefs. All regretted the waste of their youth, and all have struggled to start over again.'

Mao Ze-dong had led the Communist Party since 1949, but when his economic measures proved to be calamitous for the country and his rivals began to be more powerful, he implemented the Cultural Revolution or 'The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' to re-establish his authority.
For ten years this policy produced absolute chaos and social upheaval as masses of young people were mobilised into Red Guards who waged war against the "four olds” - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
This is the true story of the impossible dilemmas Ji Li and her family faced as a result of Mao's policy, told simply with a child-like innocence and transparency.
For Ji-Li and others like her, Chairman Mao was God. It wasn't until Mao died that they realised they had been brainwashed and that the Cultural Revolution was basically a power struggle and they had been manipulated.
I've read numerous books on this time period but this is the first one I've read through a young girl's eyes. It doesn't go into great detail about the atrocities committed during this time period, but it does give a very personal account of what the author and her family and friends went through, including her father's imprisonment, beatings, humiliations, and the suicide of an elderly neighbour who threw herself out of a window.
At one point she describes how she thought that she didn't want to live but she had promised her mother that she would take care of her younger siblings if anything happened. She came to a point where her goals didn't matter to her and seemed unimportant:

'Now my life was defined by my responsibilities. I had promised to take care if my family, and I would renew that promise every day. I would not give up or withdraw, no matter how hard life became. I would hide my tears and my fear for Mom and Grandma's sake. It was my turn to take care of them.'

It's a little difficult but to know what age range it would be best for, partly because of the way it's written, (i.e. in a young girl's voice) but I think about age 13 or 14 years and up. The effect of the advent of the Red Guards on the school students would make for a valuable discussion, with bullies, troublemakers and lazy students gaining the advantage over the conscientious and those who were considered to be from a 'bad class' - Ji-Li's grandfather was a landlord, so that put her family in that category. Power was placed into the hands of those most unfitted for it.
It is frightening to read about how easily someone could have been accused of being an enemy of the people just because of jealousy, how a stray word could lead inadvertently to betrayal, and how the youth were manipulated and so quickly rejected their respect for older people that was inherent in the Chinese culture.
A simple but powerful story. 285 pages.


Michele Morin said...

This sounds like such a great book, especially for helping us to understand present-day China. I just finished reading Street of Eternal Happiness which is kind of a profile of a number of different lives that live along a Shanghai street. Because it was written by a journalist, it has lots of great detail and background, but, for me, it read like a novel because I was so interested in the characters.

Carol said...

Never heard of that one, Michele! I had a quick look & it sounds very interesting. I'm on a China splurge at the moment. I've heard that Life & Death in Shanghai is good also.

Brian Joseph said...

This sounds like it is well worth reading. Sometimes we lose sight of its effect of these events on everyday folks. I agree that reading a book like this is something that young people would benefit from.

Marian H said...

Great review; this sounds like a thought-provoking read. My family and I just finished watching the new PBS documentary "The Story of China," which was good, but very condensed. It left me wanting to learn more about the Mao era. As a half-Vietnamese, I can't help but see the effects of his influence from a personal lens; even so, the story of his regime should be taken as a universal lesson/warning.

Gently Mad said...

Good review!

I read this book a number of years ago (here's my review:

I found it to be a fascinating study on how an entire country can be destroyed through the manipulation of the masses. How they can go along with Mao Zedong's Revolution baffles me. Other than the truth that the human heart races towards its own destruction.

Carol said...

Thanks, Marian. It would be very interesting from your personal perspective. I've just finished reading another book set in pre-WW2 China & the lead up to the Communist takeover. China went through some radical changes.

Carol said...

The power of story - seeing these events through the eyes of every day people. It's easy to read about things like this & wonder how people could be so manipulated & duped. But it wasn't the first time & it won't be the last.

Carol said...

Hi Sharon, I read your review. The story did end abruptly, as you said. I suppose she was just focussing on those two years of her life but I wondered how things went for her family in the years immediately afterwards.
Re the manipulation - it was the 'peer pressure' elements that stood out to me. Neighbours, schools, friends turned on each other. The power of shaming was used great advantage, something that you mentioned in your review.

Ruthiella said...

This sounds fascinating. I am putting it on my list. Coincidentally I have recently read two books about North Korea (Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick and The Accusation by Bandi) which have obvious echoes here.

If you are interested in other memoirs and haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It is longish, but it read so fast.

I would be interested in reading fiction from Chinese authors. The only thing I have read so far is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and A Free Life by Ha Jin. Do you have any suggestions?

Carol said...

Funny, I read a review of Nothing to Envy just the other day. I read Wild Swans some time ago & loved it & would like to read it again.
Mao's Last Dancer - non-fiction. I liked that up until the protagonist moved to the USA & I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much after that. The description of his boyhood in China was excellent.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck - she grew up in China & her writing is beautiful but this was a really hard book for me emotionally.
I can't think of any fiction by Chinese authors off the top of my head but there are some non-fiction books I'd like to try:
Life & Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
Prisoner of Mao by Bao Ruowang
A Single Tear by Wu Ningkun & Li Yikai
No Wall too High by Xu Honci

I hope you post about the North Korea books!

Jeannette said...

Thanks for this review. I read several books about China back in the 90's, "Wild Swans" for one. I will put this one on my list and pop this review of yours on my FB page for more exposure. Real history can help us be more alert to possible consequences, direct and unintended, of social-political programs...

Carol said...

Thanks, Jeannette! "Real history can help us be more alert to possible consequences, direct and unintended, of social-political programs..." - your comment reminded me of an observation made by Don Cormack, the author of 'Killing Fields, Living Fields,' about Pol Pot and other perpretators of genocide getting their Marxist ideas when they went to university in Paris. In Cambodia, the socio-political ideals were taken to their logical conclusions. Tragic!

Barbara H. said...

I have read a few books based in China, but nothing from this era. It sounds fascinating.

Carol said...

I've read a few books set in this time period that were well written & fascinating, but usually very sad too.