♪ ♪ But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow . . .
John Lennon, Revolution
I am reading Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl to my daughter. I recommend this book about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which took place in the mid-60’s. It is amazing to reflect that while Westerners were adulating pop stars, enjoying the hedonistic fruits of relative prosperity, and celebrating youth counterculture, on the other side of our globe Red mobs were punishing rank-and-file Chinese citizens for thought-crimes and counter-revolutionary values. The novel is autobiographical, and for that reason very striking. It is written for 11-14 year-olds but it is relevant for any age. The author recalls events starting at age 12 as she finished primary school. One senses how quickly Marxist mob justice was unleashed on the people of China. There are many parallels with life today in the US and Canada, although things are not yet as drastic as in the novel. One sees how education and municipal government were used as organs of a repressive and fanatical state to persecute and harass citizens and how people developed coping strategies to survive. This book used to be part of Middle School curriculum where I live. I am not sure if it is still. It is one of those books that makes me want to buy a case of a hundred copies and distribute it to friends. It is very enlightening to read it along with the viewing of To Live, filmed in 1994 and directed by Zhang Yimou. The film (watch it HERE) covers some of the same ground as Jiang’s book and will give younger readers visual images in a historical context. It is a favorite film of mine. All the actors are excellent, especially the children. It is massively tragic so be prepared to hold back your tears in several scenes.
Back to the book: an odd detail is the author’s few references to allah within the novel. It turns out the family, who seem very Chinese and live in Shanghai, had Mohammedan ancestors, although the protagonist certainly is not attached to that religion. I was curious about this and emailed the author, telling her how much my children were interested in and affected by this novel. A few days later I received a very warm email message from the author! If you have children who are curious about political history or if you are simply interested in understanding the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966, read this book.