In Red Scarf Girl Ji-li Jiang recounts her experience of living through Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a young girl. When the story begins, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party have already been in power for nearly two decades. But because their government, like all socialist and communist movements, did not pay attention to economic and anthropologic realities, things were not going as well as the communists hoped. In response they do what all socialist and communist movements have done to distract the people from their incompetence, they find a scapegoat.
Mao Zedong lunched the Cultural Revolution to purge China of all people and elements holding China back from becoming a communist paradise. But as you can imagine, it is impossible in a population of hundreds of millions to know who is loyal and who is not. So instead of seeking individual guilt and instead of treating individuals as if they have any inherent dignity whatsoever (both of which are bourgeois ideas after all), the communists assigned all their subjects to various groups, based on their family’s history, and reduced the identity of every individual to their group membership.
Completely stripping a whole group of people of their rights and dignity and allowing others to harm and rob them without punishment leads to predictably horrible consequences. Ji-li, an ardent young communist, is initially shocked and disgusted to find out that her grandfather had been a landowner. It is no consolation to her that he was a good man and a self-made man. According to party doctrine, all landlords are bad, as are their children and their grandchildren. Ji-li watches as her family and others around them are publicly humiliated, robbed, imprisoned, and sent to labor plantations in the countryside. She herself, a gifted student, is denied opportunities to advance and participate in normal school activities. She is denounced by other students and goes from a life of comfort to severe want and poverty. In the midst of all this hardship she is given a choice: she can publicly denounce her family, break ties with her imprisoned father and her grandmother and mother and be restored to favored group status, which would lead to her social acceptance and all the rights and privileges of a party member, or she can remain loyal to her family and suffer with them and continue to face unknown danger and loss.
I obviously won’t spoil the ending, but this memoir gives a fantastic picture not only of the disfunction and injustice, the pain and wickedness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but how people responded to it. Nearly all folded under pressure at some point or another and many actively corroborated, eager for an excuse to settle old scores or advance their own agenda. But some stood fast. Some resisted.
We live in a individualistic culture that has not only redefined what a family is, but has transformed its function. As David Brooks recently wrote, the family was once “seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation”, but is now seen “as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” Red Scarf Girl shows that we need not reject the traditional view of family, we need not reduce our family members to means to further our own personal ends. Instead, the family is a resilient institution capable of withstanding social and economic forces bent on destroying it and of empowering individuals to stand against oppression.