When the world as you know it is suddenly turned upside down, what do you do? How do you keep going when there seems no way to move forward? What would you do in order to be accepted? Who would you betray in order to assuage those in power, in order to save yourself?
Those are questions I hope I never have to ask myself for real. But Ji-Li Jiang, a twelve-year-old Chinese schoolgirl, was forced to deal with all of those dilemmas many times during the 1966-1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution. Her 1997 memoir, Red Scarf Girl, tells of two of those tortuous years of her life, during which her once promising future faded away as everything familiar became alien and unwelcoming.
Up until May of 1966, twelve-year-old Ji-Li believed that nothing she strived for was beyond her grasp. As the star student at Xin Er Primary School, she had good reason have such confidence in herself. One fateful spring day, she gets an invitation to audition as a dancer at the Central Liberation Army Arts Academy. She rushes home to tell her parents, grandmother, and younger siblings of her chance. She expects them to be thrilled, but instead, her father tells her not to audition. “..the political background investigations at these academies are very severe,” he tells her “…our family will not be able to pass these investigations.” Ji-Li is confused and heartbroken by the unexpected refusal.
But this is only the beginning in a long line of rebuffs as a result of Ji-Li’s hitherto unimportant ancestry. “Our Beloved” Chairman Mao, had decided that China must be revitalized, and that was to be accomplished by getting rid of “Four Olds:” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Unfortunately, Ji-Li’s grandfather, who died long before she was born, was a landlord, now considered one of the “black classes.” Because of this seemingly innocent family history, the Jiang family will live the next few years enduring daily accusations of being “capitalist, reactionary monsters,” and will be under the constant fear of arrest.
At first, this terror was hard to fully convey to me, the reader. As an American, free speech is my most precious national treasure, and honestly, as a Republican, I’m quite used to distrusting the government. Of course, I knew Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communists were in the wrong, and how could Ji-Li, such a bright-eyed girl, not see it?
Under the Cultural Revolution, it seemed like almost any success that didn’t come from the Party was assumed to be ill-gotten by exploiting the working masses. But instead, Ji-Li revered Chairman Mao as heartily as the cruelest Red Guard—after all, isn’t her own red scarf a Party symbol? Through all of the abuse the regime brought upon her, she considered the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” as its instigators termed it, as ultimately necessary to better her country, to save it from “revisionism and capitalism.” To me, all the party policies enacted under this revolution seem clearly ridiculous (“This is called the Good Fortune Photo Studio. Doesn’t that mean to make a lot of money?…that’s exploitation.”).
I’m not the only one who wondered at her credulity. Ji-Li writes in the epilogue that many of her American friends have had the same reaction. Her explanation is simple: “…We were all brainwashed. To us Chairman Mao was God. He controlled everything we read, everything we heard, and everything we learned at school. We believed everything he said.” I was also a little taken aback at her praising Chairman Mao for defeating the Americans in Korea.
But, eventually, through Ji-Li’s concise, yet involving writing, I came to forget that this was Communist China. Instead, it was just another modern country, and I found myself worshiping the Red Guards as a standard all schoolchildren should measure up to. I chanted communist propaganda along with Ji-Li and the rest of her class. I became just as horrified as Ji-Li when she found that all her enthusiasm for a New China was useless in the face of her bad class status. I was downcast when so many promising opportunities for advancement were denied her because of her background. I was hurt when her own classmates begin denouncing her as a class enemy with a rightist father. I felt sick when Red Guards ransacked the Jiang’s apartment, and when her father was sent to prison. Every day I expected Ji-Li to give in to the pressure almost every superior was pouring on her, and for her to finally denounce her own family as capitalist pigs.
In fact, I realized, it even seemed logical for her to do so. In the words of an official: “You are different from your parents. You were born and raised in New China. You are a child of Chairman Mao. You can choose your own destiny: You can make a clean break with your parents and follow Chairman Mao, and have a bright future; or you can follow your parents and then…you will not come to a good end.” All the success Ji-Li ever wanted could be hers if only she broke with her family. It wouldn’t be so hard. After all, Chairman Mao wanted her to.
But something stops Ji-Li each time she resolves to go to the Red Guards to make such a declaration. In the last chapter of the book, she finally comes to realize why: nothing will ever replace her family. No political affinity can replicate the familial bonds. It is this conclusion that made me fully see Ji-Li as not so different from me, communist indoctrination aside. When a soldier calls her mother a “despicable thing,” Ji-Li just barely suppresses the urge to shout: “She’s not a thing, she’s a human being!” If that’s not an American sentiment, I don’t know what is. Ji-Li’s utter loyalty to her family, in spite of all their supposed faults, proves her to be human as well.
One of the conclusions Ji-Li draws from her own story is equally American, perhaps resulting from her eventual emigration to this country: “Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country. This is a as true now as it was then.” The outward corruption in Chairman Mao’s China is readily apparent (false accusations stemming from fabricated evidence, personal quarrels brought to the public sphere). But where does this moral destitution come from?
Since Red Scarf Girl is not meant to be an examination of every Chinese culture, but is simply an account of the trials endured by a faulty attempt at culture change, and there no in depth discussion of an power higher than Chairman Mao. There are rare supplications to “Allah,” such as when Ji-Li uses a primitive fortune telling method (and is told that some good and some bad will happen; one cannot but wonder if this type of ceremony would be classified as a “Four Old”). But for the most part, Ji-Li appears to muddle through entirely on her own. But this is hardly surprising, since any sort of religion was doubtless not encouraged in the state schools.
However understandable, since Ji-Li’s only desire is for earthly success, and since it is continually denied her (even up into college, as she reveals in the epilogue), it makes for rather bleak reading. But still, Red Scarf Girl has reminded me of one thing: however easy it is to stereotype people on the other side of the world, one mustn’t forget that they are people, human beings “muddling through” like the rest of us. They are not robots traveling their appointed circuit. They have thoughts, and feelings, and no matter how the world turns, their family is just as important to them as it is to me. There are other people in the world. I often forget that.