The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that swept communist China between 1966 and 1976 was such a traumatic period that memoirs of the time are known as “scar literature.” Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of China, launched the Cultural Revolution to defeat his rivals and destroy the “four olds” of Chinese culture—old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Intellectuals, the educated, and authorities of every kind—including the Communist Party itself—were savagely persecuted. For survivors, writing was cathartic, but their memoirs, stories, and poetry also provide a historical record of a tragic decade. Most scar literature authors were adults when the Cultural Revolution began and wrote from a grownup perspective. Some, though, were children: Da Chen and Ji-li Jiang are two such authors.
Da Chen was born in 1962, the final year of the Great Famine, a disaster caused by the Maoist campaign called the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) in which between 30 and 45 million people perished. Chen was the son and grandson of formerly prosperous landlords. The youngest of five children, his infancy and childhood passed under multiple shadows and threats.
Due to the Famine, Chen’s parents and older siblings lived in constant fear of hunger, which he picked up through osmosis. His father was repeatedly arrested and confined to “reeducation” camps for the crime of being a former landowner, and his siblings, expelled from school for their family background and “having enough education,” were forced to labor on the collective farm whose lands they had once owned. Chen himself became an easy target for bullying by both students and teachers at the elementary school.
The one remnant of the family’s past prosperity that Mrs. Chen managed to save was their library, which they concealed in a hole beneath a pig trough in the courtyard of the government cottage where they lived. Through these books, Mrs. Chen educated the older children and provided them with a sense of identity and purpose transcending the daily bullying and persecution they all endured. The Chen children, despite being excluded from school, received a traditional liberal arts education that their peers lacked and which stood them in good stead when the regime’s policy changed yet again. The Chen parents’ determination that their two sons at least would leave the collective village to pursue university educations and enter the modern world shapes the narrative arc of the memoir.
Chen’s memoir Colors of the Mountain, adapted for young adults as China’s Son, is a moving account of a child’s view of the chaos and brutality caused by collectivism. On the one extreme Chen saw his own family ripped apart and humiliated simply because of their descent, and on the other he saw his former persecutors and peers left behind and confused in 1976, when the government’s anti-intellectualist policy and glorification of the illiterate, collectivist farmer abruptly ended with the death of Chairman Mao. More importantly, the book is a paean to the indomitability of the human spirit in response to adversity from the perspective of a child who rose in spite of opposition, when modern popular wisdom suggests that he should have been broken forever by his early suffering.
Unlike Chen, Ji-li Jiang, the author of Red Scarf Girl, benefited from the advent of communism. Jiang’s father became a powerful party cadre during the first decade of Mao’s rule, despite the family’s descent from landlords. Until her early teenage years, when the book begins, Jiang and her siblings lived the life of royalty, but saw their parents little, being raised primarily by their paternal grandmother. In her elite party schools, she discovered that her classmates shared the same predicament: they were princelings, envied by all around them, but they often lacked stable family lives or emotional nourishment from their parents. When the Cultural Revolution began, the Jiang family fell out of favor and were hurled into the worst of the country’s sufferings.
When Mao instituted anti-intellectualism as a core principle of the Cultural Revolution, individuals with university degrees—like Jiang’s parents—joined the ranks of the proscribed along with their families. Now at the bottom of the totem pole, Ji-li and her siblings and schoolmates experienced the persecution and discrimination that Da Chen and his sisters and brother had endured their whole lives. There was one silver lining, though: for the first time, the Jiang children got to know their parents, who were now home full time, when not incarcerated at “reeducation” centers.
Like the Chen family, the Jiangs revered education, but unlike the Chens, they did not take the sensible step of hiding its external trappings. Jiang relates that she only fully recognized that they were no longer protected when Red Guards invaded the family’s apartment in Shanghai and destroyed her parents’ library, among other possessions. On another occasion, a Red Guard squad leader destroyed a book particularly treasured by Jiang’s younger brother as a form of psychological humiliation. The shredded pages and broken book spines left behind by the Red Guard tornado were an apt symbol of the state in which Mao’s collectivist policies left China.
While Chen’s story is one of resurrection, Red Scarf Girl is one of cannibalism. The communist party stole the Jiang children’s infancy by demanding the devotion of their parents and then repaid the adults by betraying them. Through a process of destroying one perceived elite, such as the Chen family, and building up another, the Jiang family, and then knocking both down, the communist regime’s true elites, specifically Mao and his friends, retained power through a diabolical combination of false promises and incentives, manipulation, and fear. The Party thrived by devouring its devotees.
These two authors’ youth makes their testimony all the more remarkable. They discuss normal factors of the adolescent experience, such as social anxiety, but also famine, terror, and state-sponsored bullying, revealing the misery of growing up under communist totalitarianism. Their memoirs are attractively non-moralistic: while the authors present themselves simply as pre-adolescents who survived a very difficult situation through necessity, young readers in the West will learn by contrast how much they take for granted.