Saturday, November 13, 2010

Son of the Revolution

Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro is a first-person account of growing up in China during some of the most harrowing times in human history.

Liang Heng was born in 1954, just five years after China's communist revolution. Liang's childhood was turbulent. Some of his first memories were of the One Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Great Leap Forward. And then his formative teenage years were spent navigating through the chaos of the Mao's Great Cultural Revolution.

At the start of the book, Liang's life seems fairly normal. He is the youngest of three children with two older sisters living in Changsha, Hunan Province in southern China. His mother and father live a relatively happy life. His father works as a journalist at the Hunan Daily newspaper.

Things turn against Liang Heng early in life, though. His mother had family members - aunts and uncles and cousins - who went to Taiwan at the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Liang's whole family's life would be pay dearly time after time for that action. There was no way to live down such a mortal sin committed by family members, even if distant ones. The family's "politics" were always in question and Mao's campaigns/whims always affected Liang and his family gravely.

Most of the book focuses on Mao's Cultural Revolution. The idea of that campaign, simply, was to destroy China's long history in the hopes of creating a "pure" culture and society free from the "olds" of Chinese culture that existed before the communists remade the country in 1949.

The passage below from pages 66 - 68 describing the early stages of the Revolution from Liang's eyes:
The "Sixteen Articles" had stressed the need to criticize the "Four Olds" - old thought, old customs, old culture, and old morals - and this was the thrust of the Red Guards' first campaign. The immediate and most visible result was that the names of everything familiar changed overnight. Suddenly "Heaven and Heart Park" became "People's Park." "Cai E Road," named for a hero of the Revolution of 1911, became "Red Guard Road." The Northern Station where I had pushed carts for a day was now to be found on "Combat Revisionism Street," and a shop named after its pre-Liberation Capitalist proprietor became "The East is Red Food Store." Changsha quickly acquired a "Red Guard Theater," a "Shaoshan Road," a "People's Road," and an "Oppose Imperialism Road."

All this was extremely confusing, especially for the old people, and everybody was always getting off at the wrong bus stop and getting lost. To make matters even worse, the ticket-sellers on the buses were too busy giving instructive readings from the Quotations of Chairman Mao between stops to have much time to help straighten out the mess. Of course, there were some people who never did get used to is, and to this day they live on the ghosts of streets whose names today's young people have never heard of.

People changed their own names, too. One of my classmates rejected his old name, Wen Jian-ping ("Wen Establish Peace"), in favor of Wen Zao-fan ("Wen Rebel"). My neighbor Li Lin ("Li Forest") called herself Li Zi-hong ("Li Red from Birth") to advertise her good background. Zao Cao-fa ("Zao Make Money") became Zao Wei-dong ("Zao Protect the East"). Another friend got rid of the "Chiang" in his name because it was the same as Chiang Kai Shek's.

So, there is a lot of excitement in the city, but at home it was very quiet. Father spent every evening at his writing, and Liang Wei-ping (Liang Heng's second sister) and I never felt much like talking. We were sitting silently like this, reading and writing, on the hot night that Liang Fang (Liang Heng's oldest sister) came home. I hadn't seen her in more than three weeks. She was a changed person.

She looked splendid, never better, strong and slim where her leather belt cinched in her waist. Her green army-style uniform with its cap of authority over her short braids gave her an air of fashion and confidence I had never seen in her before. She looked a real soldier, and I sat up straight and stared with big eyes, unsure whether or not she was really my sister. My desire for my own Red Guard uniform dated from that instant.

Father emerged when he heard voices and looked glad to see Liang Fang. "How have things been going?" he asked. "We haven't seen you in a long time."

"The situation is excellent," she answered in the language of revolution. "We're washing away all the dirty water. But I never sleep. Every night we're out making search raids."

"What's a search raid?" I asked.

"You know, before you've been on a search raid you have no idea what's really going on in this society. People have been hiding all sorts of things. Counterrevolutionary materials, pre-Liberation Reactionary artworks, gold, jade, silver, jewelry - the trappings of Feudalism-Capitalism-Revisionism are everywhere."

My father looked surprised. "What do you care about those kinds of things?"

But Liang Fang was too involved in her story to answer. "We have a schedule to follow. Every night we go to a series of homes and go through every book, every page to see if there's any anti-Party material. It's an incredible amount of work. We have to check all the boxes and suitcases for false bottoms and sometimes pull up the floors to see if anything's been hidden underneath."
Liang's family, not too long after Liang Fang described giving these raids as a Red Guard, is the victim of such raids. Because of Liang's father's position as a writer (a "stinking intellectual") and because of his family's "political" history, Liang is always treated particularly harsh by the maniacal campaigns being directed by Mao from Beijing.

Liang Heng, going through everything he did, has fantastic stories. There are the accounts of machine gun firefights between rival gangs on the streets of Changsha. There is his trip to Beijing where he saw (with his own eyes!) the great leader, Mao Zedong, in Tiananmen Square. There is his own personal "Long March" where he and friends take a pilgrimage from Changsha to the revolutionary shrine, Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province.

There is a lot in Son of the Revolution. This account of the book has only scratched the surface. It's hard for me to say that I "enjoyed" the book. It was grueling to finish. But it is something I'm glad I've read.

Liang's life and the China the book describes are tragic. But there is hope in Liang's story. The simple fact he survived to write it is a testament to human endurance. By the end of the book, you have to marvel at the man he's become.

I feel that that same hope can also be found looking at China as a whole. No matter what one thinks of its currency manipulation, environmental degradation, or strict internet regulation, there's no denying that China and its people's story is a remarkable one. I think and hope that there is still much progress to be made. But even for China to be where it is today, after having suffered the heartache and turmoil just a few decades ago described in Liang's book, is astonishing.


Ramesh said...

Its truly amazing that all this suffering was not so long ago. It makes China's story of today even more astonishing.

As usual a nice book tip. Anybody interested in China would do well to simply follow your reading.

Anonymous said...

i guess you moderate the comments before they go live?

but i was just in the middle of a game of scrabble, and suddenly thought of you, and then thought i hadn't heard any news for a while

then suddenly thought that was because facebook is banned china, or something crazy.

but wanted to get in touch to say hello, and i hope all is going well.

are you still in xi'an? i assume a lot has changed since i last saw you there.

i'm still in london. drop me a mail anyway - would love to hear what you're up to - and i will get around to reading your blog (i guess that's a good way of finding out what kind of things you're up to!)

anyway - i'm in charge of score keeping so better get back to it

hope all is lovely


(ps - i am totally kicking ass in this game of scrabble, which is why it reminded me of you!)