I’ve recently read three books related to people growing up in China during (at least in part) the Cultural Revolution. Two of the books were biographies, the third was a more general book on China (modern and past). I want to talk briefly about each of the three books first, before talking about all three of them together.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
This is more than just Jung Chang’s biography. The book is actually about three women, Chang’s grandmother (who lived in pre-Communist China), her mother (a CCP party member) and herself (a member, if briefly, of the Red Guard). Each of the three women’s stories are, in many ways separate as they all lived in very different worlds, while all still living in China. Chang’s grandmother was born and grew up, at least for a time, in the world of bound feet and royalty. Her mother, on the other hand, grew up during the Japanese occupation of China and grew to support communism under Mao (though not in the end) and Chang was born in the midst of Mao’s ruling and bought (again, for a time) into the whole Red Guard/CCP world. All three women’s lives were entangled with Communism, rules and, of course, each other. The book is long, but both inspiring and heartbreaking (and very revealing, at least to me).
China In Ten Words by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr)
Yu’s book is ten sections about ten different words he finds that describe and encompass China. He fills each section with anecdotes about his life and people he knows, along with his evidence (I can’t think of a better word) to explain why he choose the ten words (which are: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle). He talks about growing up (his parents were doctors) and being a dentist (of a sort) before figuring out what he really wanted to do, which was write. My favorite parts, aside from his descriptions of his childhood, were the ways he tied writing (and his love of writing) into each of the ten words. China In Ten Words isn’t a long book, it’s not a detailed history nor a focused study on “modern” China. But it’s a richly written portrait of the country. If you only read one book on China, I’d recommend this one.
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang
Jiang’s biography is geared toward young adult readers, but is in no way restricted to that age group. Red Scarf Girl is Jiang’s coming of age story — during the Cultural Revolution. While in the previous two books, the Cultural Revolution is part of a larger story (or stories) being told, it is the story in Jiang’s book. The writing style is easy to understand for such a complicated subject, which makes it ideal for teens not yet ready for more heady stuff. That being said, Jiang doesn’t hold back and talks about everything she experienced as the daughter of a ‘black’ family (her grandfather was considered a landlord, which was a very bad thing in Communist China, even though he was long dead before Jiang was born). She talks about her friends and family — and how they were directly impacted by their poor standing in the Communist party.
It was only when I was halfway through Red Scarf Girl that I realized something about all three of these books. Though each of the authors grew up during the Cultural Revolution, their stories were quite different. With Red Scarf Girl and Wild Swans you have two extremes. Chang’s parents were relatively high up (especially her father) in the CCP and she lived, for most of her youth, in a compound and had no real knowledge of the famine (which came before the Cultural Revolution). She was sheltered from the worst and was a mostly willing participant in the Red Guard. Compared to Jiang in Red Scarf Girl who suffers at the hands of her classmates (her parents at the hands of the Red Guard and other Party members). Jiang, in the end, courageously picks her family over the Red Guard and the CCP. Then you have Yu’s China In Ten Words were he experiences some of the worst (his family, though doctors, were not rich, but at the same time they managed to take care of themselves), but not completely. His story falls somewhere in the middle.
That’s not to say that one of these authors is more qualified to tell the story than the others or that Chang’s story is better or worse than Jiang’s or Yu’s. What struck me was how I could read three different books about similar periods in China’s history and get three very different stories. People tend to view those who aren’t similar to themselves as vastly different and all the same. As I’ve gotten more and more interested in Asian culture/history (as a whole) and Chinese culture/history (specifically), I’ve begun to realize just how little I actually know (about the world, about Asia and about China in particular). These three books, along with the others on China that I’ve read, have helped me learn and grow.
But I think the thing I really love is the idea that there are so many stories to be told — not just these, but hundreds of millions more. There are stories about the Cultural Revolution, about the famine, about life in modern China that are just waiting to be told — that need to be told. And to be able to read three different books, written at different times and to find both similarities and profound differences is pretty enlightening (and kind of awesome).
Books that make me think are the best books.