In August 1966, a 14-year-old boy in Beijing is thrust into violence and chaos as the Cultural Revolution begins to blaze across China. Fifty years later, Red Fire, Growing up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, offers the first intimate account from someone who lived through these events and survived.
What was the Cultural Revolution like as seen through the eyes of a child? How do people surrender themselves to ideological frenzy? How does one break free? Wei Yang Chao tells a riveting story: how rebels attached and publicly humiliated his family, upended his education, and sent him out into a country rendered unrecognizable by violence and radical ideology. At heart a gentle boy, when he is swept up by the Red Guards, he finds himself at the center of a bloody revolution. The unflinchingly observant narrator or Red Fire reveals his families' struggles in an increasingly isolated and hostile culture.
Sent to boarding school in Beijing, young Wei Yang finds that beyond the gates enclosing that peculiar, closed world, conflict roils in Chinese society. After mass rallies at Tiananmen Square, he witnesses attacks on teachers and professors, and the disintegration of his partents' lives as tolerance and freedom begin to crumble and he himself is cast into exile. Red Fire chronicles social upheaval through the keen yet naive eyes of a teenager, giving readers a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse into the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with real force and heartbreaking honesty.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading this book. Truthfully, I didn't know much about the Chinese Cultural Revolution (CCR), going into it. I had definately heard the name Chairman Mao, but my knowledge from past history lessons failed me, and I didn't know much more than he was a bad guy (I know, that's sad).
The first chapter of the book, in which the author starts to explain the violence and humiliation that his family experienced started to give me an idea of what to expect, though. I do know alot about traditional Asian culture and how important family honor is, so I understood the significance of the public humiliation they suffered and how devestating it must have been.
To give a little background, in case you are as clueless as I was before I read this book about the CCR: The CCR started in May of 1966. It was a political movement inaugurated by Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao. Mao grew up a peasant and "organized other peasants to eventually bring revolution to all of China, forcing his great rival Chiang Kai-shek to flee to Taiwan."
Chairman Mao was worried that China would fall victim to what then President, Nixon, called a "peaceful evolution from socialism back to capitalism," something he believed the Soviet Union had already fallen victim to and he would not allow China to follow suit. However, Liu Shaoqi, the country's president, had very different ideas from Mao, who believed that China should "transform itself into a powerful nation state," which would require a cultural revolution.
Mao made his conflict with Liu Shaoqi known publicly in 1966, writing and publishing a public notice, denouncing the Party and referring to Shaoqi as "people like Nikita Khrushchev, referring to Stalins successor and leader of the Soviet Union. Even though The May Sixteenth notice became the framework for the CCR, it was met with resistance at first and most high-level officials remained loyal to Li Shaoqi, which made Mao furious. For the first time since becoming the Communist Party's leader, his "authority seemed less than absolute." In 1959, Mao had given temporary leadership to Liu Shaoqi and by 1966, many officials backed Shaoqi, and he "had become powerful enough to challenge Mao's authority."
Although Mao never actually feared a power struggle, he knew that the situation must be remedied. The author explains:
From earliest childhood, I was taught that the West - America especially - was on the verge of extinction. America was dying. No, it was already dead, destroyed by greed and decadence.
The author also explains how in school, at the beginning of the CCR, they were asked to list things that were "Yes" (good for the State) and "No" (Bourgeois inclinations). Under the "No" category, they listed things like nylon stockings, stylish hairstyles, and for some reason, a pork dish that one of his class mates enjoyed, so his mother packed it for him to bring to school. The author described that classmate as the most innocent victim of exercise.
During the CCR, Mao was equivalent to a god and a billion copies of a book of his quotes was published, making it one of the most widely printed books ever, and during the CCR, it was almost illegal not to own and carry a copy. One of the first pages of this book shows a picture of the author and his two siblings, each holding a copy of the little red book.
I also was not aware of the existence of the Red Guards and was shocked at how young they were. The author was present a the same site, the day they first met and were officially established. The Red Guard started as a group of middle schoolers, ready to fight to the death to defend Mao and "Mao thought," and anyone "threatening the revolution."
I also knew nothing about the Big-Character-Posters (BCP) that were so prevalent during this time. Even though paper was so scarce that even obtaining toilet paper was rare in some places ,the BCPs were plastered EVERYWHERE - on the outside and inside of every building, including government offices, businesses, schools, and even outside of the city, in the country.
The author explains that they were everywhere inside his school, in classes, in the hallways, in the bathrooms, etc. There were so many what when there was no more space, people simply posted new ones on top of previously posted BCPs. These BCPs ruined lives and caused tradgedy in the 20 odd years the phenomena lasted (the CCR lasted a decade). The author explains:
In some respects, BCPs constituted the first real opportunity for free expression within the country's legal system. They were considered 'the best route to a people's democracy' and 'a very effective weapon of a new generation.'
They were anywhere and everywhere, all different colors and sizes, and could consist of anything the writer wanted to express. They could consist of slogans, poems, a passage from a book, an essay or even a cartoon, but even though the format varied widely, the content always aimed to shock.
No one was spared; anyone's dignity and privacy could be violated. Taking a person's remarks out of context, grossly exaggerating their actions - even slander or libel didn't raise eyebrows so long as the writer claimed 'a revolutionary stance' or 'a revolutionary purpose.' The only risk, should you have engaged in this practice, was that someone would retaliate by writing a poster to take you down too.
Here are a few pictures I found online (not from the book):
The author actually saw the first widely publicized BCP, two days after it was posted, and witnessed its author, a woman in her 40's, arguing with a group of men in front of it at Peking University, during his first trip to the campus. Mao had the message from the BCP broadcasted everywhere, which brought about more BCPs, with people arguing over who was for Mao and the revolution and who was against it, which fed into Mao's strategy to create disorder and achieve "great order from great disorder under the heavens."
This incited violence all over campuses in China, with Peking University being a "forerunner in many respects."
As the huge and almost uncontrolled political energy inspired by the BCPs grew, revolutionary fever spread through teh whole University campus. Students began to torture their instructors, which only spurred more violence at other campuses across the country.
The author was unfortunately part of the first case. He didn't understand everything that was happening and he went to Peking University to see what was happening, to try to better understand but still didn't understand why professors were being called "monsters" and "devils," words he had only heard in stories and fairy tales.
Even at his middle school, students created a BCP titled "Fight to the Death for the Proletarian Dictatporship - Mao Thought" and posted it in a large classroom. It targeted the school administration, which furthered the agenda of the Red Guards, whose oldest members were 19, and the youngest only 13 years old.
I couldn't believe some of the things I read in this book, and I couldn't believe that I had never heard about any of this before! Children from every school, incited by Mao and his call for a cultural revolution, humiliated, beat and even killed many of their instructors and other school staff and faculty! It got so bad that many instructors committed suicide to avoid more violence.
The one thing I kept thinking over and over throughout this book, was how these were children - just middle schoolers and some high school age - carrying out the "revolution." Children who dragged their teachers out of classrooms and dragged people out of their houses and businesses - beating and sometimes killing them, for sometimes something as small as the name of their restaurant, their family's background, even the clothes and shoes they wore, or the way they styled their hair! And more incredulous: the government and law enforcement ENCOURAGED this!
I kept thinking about how I've been seeing/reading about kids today taunting people that don't look like them. We've all heard about the violence that has been happening all over the country, after the election, but what's going on in schools has been talked about less. Like the stories in this article: Kids Quoting Trump to Bully their Classmates and Teachers don't know what to do about it
After a school assembly at a school that is 1/3 Latino, in which dozens of students chanted "Build that wall!" the principal talked with some of the kids and found that most had no idea what it meant. They were simply joining in, because others next to them were. Similarly, the author explains that he initially wanted to and later felt pressure to participate in the CCR with his peers.
There are tons of articles online, telling of the similar incidents all across the country, fueled by the so-called "president" and the things they hear from their parents. Although I don't foresee anyone plastering Trump's tweets up on the sides of buildings across the country, they might as well be, with all of the media coverage they get. Reading this book made me think long and hard about the similarities with the things that are happening on our country today, and what if all of the children who are chanting about building walls were to decide that their teachers are part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that Trump would support them.
I can't fathom what the author and his family experienced. They were treated horribly for reasons that would have never occurred to them as being "bad" or "traitorous." This book, like many other autobiographies by people who have survived such trauma, strengthens my faith in humanity and the power of hope among even the most hopeless.
I loved the ending! Although I was expecting... well, I don't exactly know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this ending!
I love how the author's life was changed by such an unexpected turn of events.
I am amazed at the things that happened during the CCR and am in awe of the author and his achievements, despite everything that his family went through. However, I cannot help relating things that I have been seeing/hearing/reading about what is happening today. While I know that the words/tweets of the so-called "president" would never be considered to be up there with the bible, there are too many people taking our not-so-great leader's words way too seriously.
Just like the holocaust, the Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor, and other tragedies, I think it is more important, now more than ever, for people to learn about the tragedies of the past so that we don't relive them in the future.
I really enjoyed this book. The author's writing was extraordinary, and the resilience and resolve he showed at such a young age is admirable. For most, it would have been easier to take the hand he was dealt and live the life that was forced upon him. Instead, he found a way to educate himself and lived to write this great book that taught me so much about Chinese history!
I received this book for free from the publishers, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.