Posts Tagged ‘China’

Coming of Age in China

About two months ago, I received The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir (2012) by Wenguang Huang, as part of a LibraryThing Early Reviewers giveaway. Based on the blurb and description provided, I expected a moving and perhaps humorous story set in Communist China of the 1970s. Huang’s memoir is remarkably poignant, and he is certainly has a sense of humor, but The Little Red Guard is also a surprisingly complex story of an unfamiliar culture at a particular period in its history, and the familiar struggles of its people.

The Chinese belief that “When a person reaches the age of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call”, leads Huang’s grandmother to obsessively start preparing for her death when she turns seventy-one. Believing that being buried next to her late husband is the only way to join him in the afterlife, Grandma endlessly urges her obedient son, the author’s father, to promise to bury her properly. The family then sets about acquiring a coffin and burial clothes, and making plans to ensure a befitting burial – which consumes their energies and finances for the next decade and a half, and leads to conflict and comedy, but mostly conflict. All this in the 1970s,  during China’s Cultural Revolution, when traditional practices and elements, including burials, were strictly banned from Chinese society.

… in the 1970s, buying a coffin for a living person in the city was considered an act of defiance against the Party policies and punishment could be severe.

The family lives under the stress of the risk of discovery, which would certainly destroy all prospects for Huang and his siblings. The book’s blurb…

The unbending dictates of Communist China pit one generation against another in this story of a family’s fifteen-year struggle to honor a grandmother’s final wish.

…certainly sums up this story well. But only that story. Undoubtedly, Grandma’s death wish, which Huang describes in this essay in The Paris Review, is a major theme that runs throughout the book, but it is so much more than that – a rich account of   private lives and public performances from a remarkably different time and place.

I’ve visited China earlier through books, but they have either been through the eyes of a non-Chinese person (River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), or set before Communism took root in the country (The Rape of Nanking and The Good Earth). River Town does offer some glimpses into Communist living, but mostly public Communist living. The Little Guard was a good starting point to remedy my ignorance.

It is quite remarkable how an ideology can take over every aspect of people’s lives. Even their names.

In the mid-1960s, many parents opted for more progressive names for their sons to express their loyalty to the Party: “Yaojin”, to honor Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward; or “Wenge”, the Cultural Revolution; or “Weihong”, “defending the Red Revolution”.

Huang’s own name, Wenguang, which has something to do with being scholarly, was thus quite nontraditional coming from a family that embraced Communist ideology. But only in public. Even though Huang’s father was quite the model party member, the family’s (and other families’) private opinions and practices were quite different, even contradictory, evident in the trouble they took to purchase the hard-to-acquire coffin and other accessories required for a proper burial. They did, however, practice contradiction with caution, for you couldn’t be too careful with the communist climate encouraging neighbors, relatives, siblings, parents, and children to rat on each other. Very big brother-esque.

Father gave me a serious look [when Grandma mocked their Communist ideas] and said, “Don’t listen to your grandma and don’t tell the others what she says. She is illiterate and backward in thinking”. As I left the room, I heard him tell Grandma, “Watch out. He doesn’t know any better and could talk to his friends. If they report us to the authorities, they might think those were my ideas”. It was true.

The Red Guards were a youth organization, mobilized by Chairman Mao Zedong, to make and keep China red. Huang was the head of the Little Red Guards and the Communist Youth League throughout his elementary and high-school years. He writes:

As a “Little Red Guard”, I was supposed to defend and fight for Chairman Mao’s revolution, not to guard Grandma’s coffin. Each time I looked at the “Little Red Guard” scarf that I wore around my neck at school, I felt a pang of guilt. I was even hit with a fleeting thought of reporting it to my teacher. Then, the idea of seeing Father being paraded publicly deterred me.

Communist indoctrination began at a young age.

When American preschoolers reading Dr. Seuss or watching Sesame Street, we were memorizing Chairman Mao, starting with his simpler quotations and graduating to whole essays by elementary school. Thanks to visits to Mother’s factory, my revolutionary vocabulary was extensive because I asked what this or that character meant until I could easily read banners – DOWN WITH THE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES AND RIGHTISTS and THE WORKING CLASS IS THE LEADER OF THE REVOLUTION. When I became the first memorize the three famous essays by Chairman Mao in first grade, I was made class leader.

Little Huang had to deal with these, often dangerous, contradictions between his public persona and his family’s private practices. He writes about walking the tightrope – sharing forbidden secrets with classmates, being constantly prodded by teachers to stay true to their Communist faith, and surprised by his father who espoused Communism on the surface but acted very differently at home. Lest you think that Grandma’s elaborate burial plan was motivated by a sense of duty co-existing with Communist beliefs, Huang writes about his confused childhood.

Often, the teachings I received at home contradicted what I was taught in school. For example, the most important lessons at home were about filial piety…In my third year at elementary school, we were taught that filial piety was part of the Old Confucian philosophy, which needed to be eliminated. “Only Chairman Mao and the Communist Party are your closest relatives”, said our teacher. “If your parents or relatives engage in any counterrevolutionary activities, you should not hesitate in reporting them or publicly denouncing them. It is a true test of your revolutionary will.”

Ideological differences aside, Huang also speaks of differences in culture, much of the sort we hear in presentations on cross-cultural adaptability.

Unlike parents and teachers in the West, who encourage children to stand out from the crowd, be confident, unique and let their individuality shine, my parents insisted that I be ting hua or obedient and conforming, because “the gun will shoot the head of the flock.” Speaking from his own experience, Father warned me, “Don’t show off and be overly aggressive at school. Go with the flow. Otherwise, if anything goes wrong, you are likely to be a bigger target.”

He talks of the emphasis on rote learning as a way to discourage creativity and critical thinking. Echoing what Nurtureshock has to say about the inverse power of praise, Huang also notes that:

My parents, like many in China at the time, believed that praise led to arrogance and that criticism encourages children to aim higher. Throughout my school years, my academic performance was among the best in the class. Never once did I hear my parents praise me.

In 1974, Huang is designated coffin-keeper at age nine and shares his room with a big black secret coffin. Apart from describing his family’s preparations to honor Grandma’s wishes, the author also reflects on his own coming of age and changing worldview, from being deeply entrenched in Communist ideals as a child, to becoming a “bona fide Capitalist” who even tries to cut all ties to his Chinese self and past. Huang’s journey begins when he gains admission into the prestigious Xi’an Foreign Languages School and following China’s open-door policy in the 1980s, visits the United Kingdom as an undergraduate student. Being exposed to Western philosophy, witnessing intoxicating freedom and encouragement of critical thought in the West, Huang becomes increasingly disenchanted with the tenets of Communism. As the years of Communist indoctrination slowly wear off, Huang seeks to escape what he calls an “oppressive environment” by moving to the United States, where he is accepted at a graduate program.

Traveling back to China later, Huang speaks of Xi’an, his hometown, transformed in much the same way as Akash Kapur writes of India in India Becoming.

The courtyard houses were gone. Skysrapers punctuated the skyline, and gaudy traditional-style retail outlets lined the widened streets, and loud billboards glittered with the universally exclusive consumerist icons of Chanel and Rolex in the hastening dusk…Nowadays, all is transition and impermanence. In today’s rapidly changing China, both the living and the dead must give way to development…People are no longer to their birthplaces, and as they search for better job opportunities, many have migrated to the sprawling cities and to distant parts of the world.

Towards the end, the reader begins to realize what the book is really about. Huang grows somewhat estranged from his father in his college years, in part due to his father’s obsession with tradition. Ironically, his grandmother outlives his father, who dies an untimely death at age 60. At his father’s funeral, Huang deliberately sets aside ritual, and does not deliver the expected  long and touching eulogy that tradition demands of him. In his later years, Huang regrets his behavior. This book is his eulogy.

This book represents my effort to make up for my foolish reticence at Father’s funeral in November 1988. It is also my attempt to rescue an obscure family story that I believe speaks universally to the contradictions that are thrown in our paths as we grow up.


My only criticism of this book is that the title simply doesn’t do it justice. In retrospect, I think the title suits the work admirably.




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“I don’t understand. These were Jews escaping the Nazis? But – they were going to Shanghai?

“It was their only choice”

“What do you mean? I thought they went to other countries in Europe, or came here [United States of America].”

“Survivors did, after the war. But as the Nazis rose in the thirties, countries all over the world closed their doors. Everyone knew what was happening, but no government was willing to deal with a flood of desperate refugees.”

– From The Shanghai Moon (2009) by award-winning author S. J. Rozan

I would not have expected a lesson in world history, a tidbit that has escaped me entirely until now, from a mystery that involves a jewelry theft in New York City, but I’ve come to expect treats in unexpected places.

In Shanghai Moon, Lydia Chin and partner Bill Smith are private investigators, hired to recover jewelry that belonged to a young brother and sister who fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938. Chin and Smith’s mysterious Swiss Client informs them that the jewelry thief, a corrupt official from China, is in New York City, and is likely to sell the jewelry in Chinatown. While Chin (who is Chinese-American) and Smith navigate the crowded alleys of little China, a couple of people involved in the investigation turn up dead, and the duo realize they have something big on their hands. And that is the mystery they must solve.

Chinatown is described deliciously in the book which brought back memories of eating delicious, vegetarian, Cantonese grub on Mott Street, and looking for egg tarts and hand-pulled noodles in the area.  I found the plot complicated (in a good way), exciting, and just a little confusing and read the book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. The denouement is reasonably satisfying, while the much of the story is told through letters and diary entries, that sound quite unnatural. And because there are so many of them, I found them a tad wearisome. But the detectives are spirited, and I did enjoy my introduction to the Chinese-American detective, and the cultural references that came with it. Also, a lot of history is interwoven into the plot, from the Japanese invasion, to the conflict between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s Communist army, and the tumultuous climate that prevailed in Shanghai during those times.

Now, onto the history lesson. According to Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World

From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents, such as visas, health certificates and financial statements.

What happened to them during the Japanese occupation of the city?

Under the pressure of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Authorities proclaimed, on 18 February 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month…Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous and insufferable situation.

And? What happened when the War was over?

they were able to leave, and most made plans to go to another country to join their family or relatives. They had never planned to come to China in the first place, ending up there simply because they had no other choice. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, became their preferred destinations, but the door of most countries were not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel, and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

There was Jewish presence in China much before theWar, and this continues today.

You learn something new everyday.

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