Last week marked the 13th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. To honor that historic date (July 1st), I read Revolution is Not a Dinner Party (Henry Holt, 2007) by Ying Chang Compestine.
Because without the Cultural Revolution–the setting of this young adult novel–would there really have been much to worry about when Britain and the PRC signed the Joint Declaration back in 1984? Maybe, but probably not.
The protagonist, Ling Chang, is a grade school student in Wuhan when things fall apart at home and at school. Her physician parents–who enjoy classical music, art, and western food–wake up one day to learn that a new tenant will occupy part of their quaint apartment. Comrade Li, a passive aggressive apparatchik, befriends Ling all while keeping close tabs on her parents.
At school, Ling’s classes become nothing more than Chairman Mao study sessions. Because Ling’s parents are educated and have professional careers–and aren’t farmers or blue collar workers–Ling is branded a capitalist roader.
Life at home and at school deteriorate, as neighbors are arrested and imprisoned for no reason other than their occupation or refusal to chant Mao’s sayings (one of which is the title of this book) and Ling is bullied by kids in her class.
Then her father is taken away.
Ling and her mother struggle to put enough food on the table, while Comrade Li indulges. Violence and further chaos break out in the hospital staff compound until after Mao’s death when his wife and her cronies are arrested a month later, marking the end of the Cultural Revolution.
While this book is marketed to young adults, it’s one of the most vivid Cultural Revolution novels I’ve read. My only issue with it has to do with the time frame: the early 1970s. I’ve ready a slew of novels set during this dark period in China and think this story would have been better set in the mid-60s. That detail aside, it’s a vivid look at China just a few decades ago.