Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution was the March selection for Captive Thoughts Book Club. As young adult non-fiction, it was easier reading than our usual fare, but it provided us with plenty to discuss and much to learn about the Cultural Revolution of China. Since another member has already summarized our discussion, I'll provide a brief summary of the memoir itself and my own thoughts.

Ji-li Jiang was twelve years old in 1966 when Chairman Mao began the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a period of persecution and upheaval that was presented as a great ideology but was mostly political maneuvering. Since her deceased grandfather was a landlord, her family is on the black list, which results in the Red Guards searching and ransacking her apartment, her father's imprisonment and persecution, and her being ostracized at school and encouraged to denounce her family. Ji-li is confused by conflicting emotions and divided loyalties. She wants to do well in school and succeed personally, but at the same time loves her family and knows that it is not right for them to suffer so much for her grandfather's past. Eventually, she comes to a crisis and must decide where her loyalties really lie.

This memoir was informative, but in a very limited way. The Cultural Revolution is described from the perspective of one child in a particular family, and most of her experiences are related on an emotional level, which is necessarily selective in its details. The glossary at the back was very helpful for orienting one to the historical and political figures and movements that are mentioned. I think this might be better read along with a basic history of the Cultural Revolution - a more straightforward history would provide the framework in which this very personal account could be better appreciated and understood.

Another friend who read this book commented that it had scary parallels with what is currently happening in America. I tried to find some of those parallels as I read, and what seemed most obvious was the adoration and blind devotion of the young people for Chairman Mao. At one point, Ji-li relates attending a rally where a girl told of her opportunity to see Chairman Mao at Tienanmen Square. "'. . . I am very lucky to have had such an experience,' she said. 'I have resolved to dedicate my whole life to Chairman Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I will give every drop of blood in my body to work to liberate all of mankind'" (107-108). Those sentiments remind me of the fervor that surrounded Obama before the election last November. I must admit that I am sadly uninformed about current events, so I didn't pick up on other parallels. However, I think Western individualism almost precludes such a blind following of a national hero and establishment of a national identity as what happened in China's Cultural Revolution. Perhaps, though, I should try to be more knowledgeable of current events to ensure that I am not merely an ignorant participant in my community and country.


Calon Lan said...

This book sounds really interesting. And I have to admit that I'm a little vague on current events as well, but I think it might be somewhat deliberate. Every time I start checking out the news, I get depressed. But I supposed ignoring the problems won't make them go away!

Page Turner said...

Calon Lan ~ it was interesting! I just wish I knew more of China's history to understand it better. As for current events, they are depressing, but I try to remember that God is in control!