I read this book earlier this year, just before the Lunar New Year, and wasn’t sure I’d be as captivated by another Cultural Revolution memoir as I’ve been in the past. You know when you’ve read so much about one topic that you can’t possibly think there’s anything more one can write about it?
Well, Huang Wenguang’s memoir, The Little Red Guard (Riverhead, 2013) proves that that thinking is short-sighted.
My friend Christine sent me this book last year and it’d been on my to read list for months. I don’t know why I hadn’t picked it up before this winter, but it was nice to read just before the Chinese New Year.
Huang Wenguang structures his story around his grandmother’s impending death–which takes a decade and a half from the time she asks her family to build a coffin for her until the day she actually dies–and all that happens to his family in Xi’an during those years. I really enjoyed the structure and found the subject to be less depressing than I first imagined.
Young Huang sleeps in the same room as his grandmother’s coffin while she sleeps soundly in her bed. For years his grandmother insisted on a burial back in the ancestral village in Henan, but the Chinese government had put a ban on burials and made a law in which people had to be cremated. This went against traditional Chinese customs, many of which were outlawed during the Mao years. But grandma insisted and Huang’s dad–ever the faithful son–perfected the plans that would bring his mother–in her coffin–back to Henan after she died.
But she kept trucking on and lived much longer than even she expected. Huang writes about the hardship his family faced during the Cultural Revolution, which he admits wasn’t as bad as some faced, but also the toll his grandmother’s coffin and burial plans took on the family, especially on his parents’ marriage.
Huang only touches up this at the very end of his memoir, but he moves to Illinois and settles in Chicago, where he still lives today and feels more at home than in China. Although his memoir detailed his childhood in China, I still wished he had written a little more about his early years in Chicago.
That’s material for another book.