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.