A debut memoir centers on a teenager grappling with the dictates of the Cultural Revolution.
Wei Yang Chao was age 13 in 1966 Beijing when Mao incited China’s youth to enforce the ideals of the Cultural Revolution. Self-appointed bands of children and young adults publicly humiliated and beat teachers and other citizens during public “struggle sessions.” Chao was drawn in by his middle school classmates’ fervor but repelled by their violence against others. Even so, he doubted himself, as when he saw a female teacher whose head was shaved as punishment: “I questioned whether I should even allow myself to dwell on such questions.” Then Chao’s parents came under suspicion. His father was a U.S.–educated journalist and his mother belonged to a family of landowners, which in the view of Mao’s Communist regime made them both counterrevolutionaries and the boy’s father a spy. The radicals subjected the family to a public “struggle session,” beating and demoralizing the narrator’s parents. His parents, along with his young sister, were transported to the countryside to be “re-educated,” while Chao was sent to live in a cave in a different village. The very qualities that had become forbidden and a threat to Mao—individual thought and emotion—ultimately saved the narrator. The extensive use of secondary sources in a section at the book’s beginning blurs the line between memoir and reporting. But for the most part, the author vividly focuses on his mind and heart during a time in China when such personal cultivation could get one killed. The facts of the Cultural Revolution are not new, but Chao’s articulation of his inner and outer responses to the movement remains striking. As he mentally struggles to rid himself of sentimentality and commit to Mao’s cause, he remembers how the revolutionaries destroyed his gentle mother’s shoes and wonders: “What…was so wrong about Mother’s small, simple wish to wear high-heeled shoes?” The arc of this engrossing journey should transport readers to China, turning them into eyewitnesses to these turbulent events.
A deeply satisfying book that recalls the horrors of Mao’s rule.