China may be the country we most need to understand in today’s world. (Apart from our own, of course.) With 1.3 billion people, the world’s second largest economy, and its most powerful leader since Mao in Xi Jinping, China sings both ancient and modern songs.

Today’s post features two memoirs and one collection of short stories I read traveling to and from Beijing (and during occasional sleepless hours).

Each of these books provides a window onto an essential period in modern Chinese history – the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). These were hard years in the United States as well, featuring assassinations of national leaders, riots, the winding down of Vietnam, and Watergate. And yet…

These books ask, among other things: How do we survive each other – and our leaders? What are we humans NOT capable of? What do we learn, and how are we shaped?

The books are: Red Azalea, by Anchee Min (1994) (New York Times notable book, national bestseller); Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo (WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD, 2017 ); and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories, by Yiyun Li (2011).

For context, let’s begin here…

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A Quick History of Modern China

I’ll start in the mid-19th century, just as I might start with the Civil War if I were giving a brief history of the modern United States.

China looked inward for most of its history, a self-contained universe, with highly developed arts, commerce, and thought within its borders. During the Opium Wars, intermittently fought between 1839 and 1860, Western powers forced China to open its ports to outside trade – and its society to diplomatic contact – on unfavorable terms. The Opium Wars were seen as a great humiliation at the time and even today.

Ruins at The Old Summer Palace, one of five imperial gardens destroyed by Western powers during the Opium Wars

The Empress Dowager Cixi came to power in 1861, in the aftermath of those defeats. She ruled China from “behind the curtain” – controlling two emperors and enthroning the third – from 1861 until her death in 1908. She’s sort-of the Chinese Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 until her death in 1901. (That being said – it’s pretty clear that Cixi had the second emperor poisoned mere hours before her own death, which wasn’t QV’s style.)

Empress Dowager Cixi

China’s last emperor was forced to abdicate in 1912, and the subsequent three decades saw unsettled times, with regional warlords and at least one visionary competing for power. Japan had its own ideas about governing China, invading in 1937 and not fully defeated until the end of World War II.

Mao Tse Tung and his Communist army united China in 1949 after defeating the Nationalists, who had more liberal ideas about what their country should look like. (The Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai Shek, took up residence in Taiwan.)

Entrance to Forbidden City

Mao thought that Lenin and Stalin had the right ideas – that the common people should lead, and benefit, from a society that oriented itself towards the collective good. His philosophy elevated the peasant and the laborer. Mao himself may have been humiliated when he worked in the library at Peking University, the “Harvard of China,” which might explain a lot. He came into power with a deep distrust of intellectuals.

In 1955, he initiated the Hundred Flowers campaign, in which he asked people to express their ideas about how things were going under Communist rule. He led with a phrase from Classical Chinese thought: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.”

More than a hundred flowers bloomed. The result? Flowers were sent to prison and hard labor camps.

Mao then led the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962, pushing people from farms to factories. He collectivized the remaining farms and centralized industry under Communist party and central government rule. It is believed that millions suffered, starved and perished during the Great Leap Forward – maybe 30 million, at a consensus/respected estimate. As a point of reference, executions and starvation under Stalin may have been as many as 20 million.

By 1962, Mao had come under significant criticism for the suffering of the Great Leap Forward. His power diminished for several years, but he found a way to reinvigorate his leadership. In short – he found an enemy. Thus began the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

For Mao, the enemy was the three-headed: the intellectual, the “capitalist pig,” and the feudal past. The feudal past included longstanding traditions relating to Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The capitalist pig was one who wanted to benefit, individually, from his own labor. The intellectual was anyone who questioned Mao’s ideas about the best way forward.

Some of the most prominent players in the Cultural Revolution were Mao’s wife, Jiang Chang (“Madame Mao”) and the Red Guard, young people encouraged to join an organization that was one part militia and one part cotillion. Members of the Red Guard tortured and humiliated teachers, parents, and other authority figures with the full support of the Communist Party. Intellectuals of all sorts (teachers, doctors, leaders in any field) were executed or sent by the thousands to labor camps in the countryside. Madame Mao’s “revolutionary operas” – gorgeous propaganda – were performed throughout the country while other arts were suppressed.

“The invincible thought of Mao Zedong illuminates the stage of revolutionary art!” (Jiang Chang pictured)


Photo of younger Jiang Chang

Jiang Chang and Mao, 1945

By 1976, at Mao’s death, China was in a state of tremendous transformation. Madame Mao and her allies, the “Gang of Four,” got a lot of blame for the Cultural Revolution. She committed suicide in prison.

Subsequent leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and today’s Xi Jinping, have allowed far more freedom in the economic sector while preserving Communist one-party rule, known as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Socialism with Chinese Characteristics doesn’t allow people access to Google or Facebook – the free exchange of ideas and social information. It does allow search engines and social networks like Baidu and WeChat that can be – and are – monitored by the state. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has produced a China that now plays on the world stage in every regard, with an ever-increasing standard of living.

Taking a step back: Xi Jinping, among many others of his generation, was sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Any of the three books featured in today’s post is a terrific place to begin to understand what the Cultural Revolution meant to China, then and now.

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Red Azalea, by Anchee Min

Red Azalea conveys the bloody beating heart of an era in the words of a Shanghai-born girl.

Anchee Min was the first of four children born to Shanghai teachers in 1957. In 1967, the family was driven from their upstairs apartment by the downstairs neighbor, who believed that the Min family lived too comfortably in their two rooms (two rooms for a family of six). The downstairs neighbor wanted his own family to live upstairs instead. How did the neighbors make the Min family leave? By coming up with chamber pots and “pouring shit on our blankets,” assaulting the mother while calling her a “bourgeois intellectual,” and eventually moving all of their furniture onto the street. Anchee’s family had no recourse. They had no legal right to their apartment that would be enforced. The Min family then moved to a two- room apartment shared by three families in another part of town. The one toilet shared by all of the people in the apartment was located next to the stove in the kitchen.

Anchee, a gifted student, thrived in school and in the Red Guard, despite the difficult living circumstances. A formative moment in her youth came when her favorite teacher, Autumn Leaves, was accused of being a class enemy and an American spy. “Her goal is to make you betray Communism,” a party secretary told Anchee, pressuring her into testifying at a public denunciation. Anchee loved her teacher deeply but eventually complied, and the scene she describes – of her betrayal and her teacher’s public torture and humiliation – is horrifying and hard to read.

The memoir becomes even harder to read when, in 1974, Anchee is selected – as a student leader and model for others – to “become a peasant” in the countryside. Her principal said “a true Communist would love to take challenges. She would take it with dignity.” “I was seventeen. I was inspired. I was eager to devote myself. I was looking forward to hardship,” Anchee remembers.

Hardship came.

At Red Fire Farm, Anchee worked with other young women in rice fields, among leeches, madness, death, and illicit love. Each night featured self-criticism sessions, and Anchee initially participated with her whole heart:

Everyone did the same. We helped each other to examine our thoughts, to get rid of the incorrect ones. We believed if we failed to do so, our hearts would be murdered by bourgeois evil spirits. Mao had warned us that those bad spirits were everywhere, hiding and waiting for the right time to get us. The class struggle must be talked about every day, every month and every year, said Mao.

Eventually, Anchee is selected for leadership within the camp – but her heart and mind have begun to change. To question what she has been told. She must keep these thoughts and feelings quiet and deep inside. She can only share them with one of her superiors, a woman with whom shares an intimate friendship.

At the same time, Madame Mao has sent talent scouts to the countryside seeking women with “peasant beauty” and impeccable political backgrounds to star in her revolutionary operas, the propaganda pieces of the Cultural Revolution. Incredibly, Anchee is selected to audition for a role. The remaining section of the book chronicles her experiences in a film studio in Shanghai. Violent ups and downs await her there – and the end of the Cultural Revolution comes as swiftly as its beginning when Mao dies in 1976.

The Cincinnati Post called it “[a]n autobiography that reads like a novel… [Its] candor and simple beauty are reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The Chicago Sun-Times described it as “Scorching… Powerful… A remarkable story… This is Min’s first book, but few seasoned writers can convey the uneven terrain of the human heart as well as she has… Red Azalea is a book of deep honesty and morality, and also of profound anguish for her generation.”

Anchee Min immigrated to the United States in 1984. She has written six historical novels and two memoirs.

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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu (To Western ears, “Chaow-lu”) Guo was born in 1973, sixteen years after Anchee Min and a world away in Southern China. Xiaolu’s mother gave her away to a peasant couple in a mountain village, possibly because Xiaolu’s father was in a hard labor camp at the time and her mother could not care for her, in addition to the couple’s young son.

The baby did not thrive. After two years, the couple found her paternal grandparents in the tiny fishing village of Shitung and gave her back.

Xiaolu was raised in dire poverty by her grandparents, her grandfather deeply embittered by the loss of his fishing boat to the state’s collectivization of the fishing industry, her grandmother abused and marginalized yet with a heart full of love for her granddaughter.

Some of the most deeply moving parts of this memoir are Xiaolu’s memories of her grandmother, with her bound feet, praying to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. Xiaolu’s descriptions of hunger – and what it will drive a child to – are also memorable.

Xiaolu’s parents retrieved her when their daughter was seven years old, bringing her back to the city of Wenling where her mother worked in a silk factory and her father was a state-supported artist. The move did not prove to be a happy reunion in many ways. It both broke her heart and saved her.

Xiaolu’s memoir begins in a London hospital, where she has given birth – at the age of forty – to a daughter. She calls her mother only after the baby is born – her mother didn’t even know she was pregnant. “Are you coming back for Quinming Festival?” her mother asks (Shinming, to Western ears).

Quinming is a day in April when we pay our respects to the dead. We sweep their tombs, burn incense and pray. I said nothing, only listened to her angry sobs through the telephone…

This time, I thought, I have no excuse not to go. None. I might as well go and pay a debt of filial duty, once and for all.

The remainder of the memoir looks backward, recounting Xiaolu’s long journey from fishing village to Wenling to Beijing to London – and her trip, finally, back home.

Marion Winik, at the National Book Critics Circle Award site, writes this:

‘Nine Continents’ is the equal of [Glass Castles by Jeanette Walls] in both sheer vicarious horror and also its creation of a deeply appealing child persona through which we observe the operation of resilience in lives that are so twisted by both circumstance and cruelty. It also belongs on the shelf with ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Red Azalea,’ the best-known memoirs of life in Communist China.

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Truth is stranger than fiction, we say.

When women like Anchee Min and Xiaolo Guo tell their truths, their words speak with the power and emotion we associate with fiction.

That being said, fiction also has its purposes, beauties and strengths – and offers another way to understand essential truths about modern China.

Yiyun Li was born in 1972 in Beijing (only one year before Xiaolu) and grew up there, moving to the United States after graduating from Peking University in 1996.

In her short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she imagines the yearnings of ordinary people in a world turned upside down – often, the world of the Cultural Revolution.

“Kindness,” the novella that begins the collection, feels like a fictional riff on Red Azalea. The young narrator is sent to the countryside to work as part of a farming collective. She has an important relationship with her (female) superior there. Before that, she had an important relationship with an older woman who tutors her in Beijing, a neighbor, who teaches her English by reading Charles Dickens aloud. By the story’s end, you feel the narrator’s alienation from her own culture – and deep loneliness.

In “Number Three, Garden Road,” a young girl remembers a hot day forty-five years earlier when “government-issue furniture – tables, chairs, desks, and beds, painted brownish yellow with numbers written underneath in red – had been unloaded from flatbeds and assigned to the new tenants.” She remembers Mr. Chang, in his mid-twenties then, a scientist working on developing China’s first missile. Forty-five years is a long time, and they are the only two residents from that time who remain. Will memories tether them only to the past – or could they find a new present together?

Some of the stories in this collection are set partly in America. In “Prison,” a Chinese-American couple’s only daughter is killed in a car accident six months after getting her driver’s license. The husband and wife, after a period of profound mourning, decide to go forward with a surrogate pregnancy. It’s easier in China to find a woman willing to carry your child. The process bears bitter fruit.

Here’s what Jane Ciabattari at NPR says:

Yiyun Li is a marvel. Born in Beijing in 1972, she was trained as an immunologist, came to the States to study medicine in 1996, then switched to the Iowa Writers Workshop for an MFA…

Although Li is young – she was cited as a writing talent to watch on the New Yorker’s recently published “20 Under 40” list – the stories in her masterful new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, often focus with great empathy on older generations who survived the chaos and personal disruptions of the Cultural Revolution…

Li’s insights into Chinese culture make her stories fascinating reading. But the greatest pleasure comes from the admirable elegance of her work. Her writing is lyrical, circular and finely etched, with an emotional impact that both satisfies and surprises.

Generally speaking, I don’t love short story collections. It troubles me that the stories don’t stay with me. I read them – I love some of them – and generally, I forget them.

Why read Yiyun Lee’s collection? You might not keep all of the details of all of the stories. But you will not forget some of what you learned – and how reading her stories makes you feel. Curious. Grateful. Sad. Stretched.




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