The Cultural Revolution

When I was 14, I read Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth. It changed my life. I became obsessed with China, reading as much as I could about it. At one point in high school, I could boast that I owned all of the books that they sold in the Chinese history section at the local Barnes and Noble (about 2 dozen).  Not too long after I read The Good Earth I discovered Life and Death in Shanghai on my mom’s bookshelf. While I continued to read broadly about the history of China, this account of being imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution as a political dissident stuck with me and I gave special attention on the Cultural Revolution.

Throughout high school, I read about Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, Madame Mao, the Gang of Four, the Red Guard and the “Let 100 Flowers Bloom” campaign. What happened to that obsession with China? I think my vision of devoting a scholarly life to Chinese history and/or politics was derailed when they didn’t offer Chinese at my high school; I had to settle for Japanese instead. Which I did and then went on to minor, almost major, in Japanese Studies in college and study abroad in Hirakata City, midway between Osaka and Kyoto. That dream slowly died as my interests in history shifted to religion, theology then ethics, and I discovered feminist theory during my junior year. 

Now, 25 years out of high school, my knowledge of Chinese history is shaky. But, the interest in it is still there. Every so often I read something about the Cultural Revolution that reminds me of how Sara, age 14 was fascinated with (and horrified by) dictators, oppressive regimes, anti-intellectualism, rebellion against tradition, secret police and corrupt governments. hmmm…maybe it’s not just reading about the cultural revolution that makes me think about this in 2017…

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a 2016 novel that was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. So good!

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

W.W. Norton and Company

Storytelling is central to the book and to the survival of the families through the copying, retelling and distributing of The Book of Records. (For more on the power of storytelling and music, which also is central to the story, check out this review: What could resist the Red Guard? Music and Storytelling.)

I’d like to think more about storytelling and resistance in this book. So many interesting ideas about it. Like, the fact that the Book of Records is always only a copy of a story by an unknown author (a copy of a copy) and that every time it is copied (which is a lot), the story is slightly different. Or like how the copies are used to send secret messages; the copier adds details that only the intended receiver would recognize as clues, hints and/or directions.

Through the process of writing this post, I’m realizing that my interest in the Cultural Revolution and stories about China, is not really random or unusual compared to my other interests in ethics, storytelling, troublemaking and feminist and queer theory. The common thread: I’m drawn to stories/accounts of resistance, survival and impossible/unrealizable/tragic hope. So many of the accounts that I read about The Cultural Revolution were stories of resistance, providing me with possible answers to the questions: In the face of intolerable conditions, where hope seems lost and survival impossible, how do people manage to survive? What enables them to resist, to refuse to give in, to hold on to hope or at least the belief that they must persist, must keep on living?

I’d like to think some more about these ideas. They are an important part of my intellectual history and connect all my Saras, from Sara age 14 through Sara age 42. 

Bonus: While looking through my Safari Reading List, I discovered a link to an interactive story about the Cultural Revolution that I had added some time ago:

Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution