Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Little Red Guard: Review

The Little Red Guard (2012) by Wenguang Huang recounts the the author's life in Communist China from 1973 on. The story is held together by his grandmother's obsession with death and her burial. She is a product of the old ways--having had her feet bound and growing up with the rituals and superstitions of the past. Even though the Party has outlawed extravagant burials and now requires everyone to be cremated, Grandma makes Wenguang's father promise that he will not burn her up when she dies--that he will take her from the city of Xi'an, where they live now, back to her home in the Henan Province to bury her beside her husband. And she doesn't just want him to sneak her body back home; she wants the traditional funeral ceremony. 

This causes great tension between her son and his wife and also puts the entire family on pins and needles for years. Wenguang's father spends a great deal of time and money making friends and doing favors for people who will be able to help him when his mother dies--from finding a the wood and the carpenter to build the coffin to securing a truck and driver to transport Grandma to Henan to making sure that members of Grandma's family will be prepared to help get her into the right grave. Meanwhile, Wenguang's father is doing all the right things within the Party to make sure his family's fortunes will prosper while he keeps his mother's wishes secret and Wenguang and his siblings are studying to be proper little Communists who will bring glory to the Party and honor to their family.

Wenguang is very close to his Grandma and at first he sides with her and his father in the struggle to fulfill his grandmother's wishes and protect her (and the family) from Party displeasure. But as he grows older, attends college, and becomes exposed to more Western thinking, he becomes disdainful of his father's kowtowing--both to tradition and to the Communist way of life. He behaves disrespectfully at his father's funeral (who winds up preceding the grandmother in death) and it isn't until Wenguang moves to the United States and reaches middle age that he realizes how arrogant he was and how unappreciative he was of his father's struggle to be a dutiful son, and devoted husband & father all while maintaining the position that would allow him to support his family. It was quite a juggling act--and sometimes he couldn't keep all the balls in the air.

This was a touching family memoir which revealed a great deal about Chinese traditions and the struggles under Chairman Mao's rule. It was very interesting to compare Wenguang's childhood to my own growing up in the 1970s and early 80s. There was a lot--from the variety of food on the table to the freedom of thought in the classroom to the entertainment available--that I took for granted which Wenguang never experienced as a child in China. There were also a number of things that were the same--particularly the devotion to family. Growing up close to my dad's family--I knew that family always came first. His mom exemplified that and Dad (and his siblings) followed her example. A compelling story of a family trying to reconcile the old ways with the new and which tells of the failures as well as the successes. ★★★★

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