I’ll never forget an incident from the mid-80s, when I was walking through the Columbia University campus with my late friend Roy, then working on his MBA at Columbia. We walked past a student wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and a Madam Mao button.
When Roy saw this, he told me to hold on, walked over to the fellow and shouted loudly (paraphrased): “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why would you walk around wearing a button honoring the lady who was most responsible for the Cultural Revolution? Do you have any idea how many people were tortured or killed because of her? Have you ever heard of the Gang of Four and what they did to China? Do you have a brain? Did you think before you put that button on or are you just trying to show how cool you are? Well you’re not cool, you’re an asshole.”
Roy was never one to hide how he felt, but it was certainly unusual for him to lose his temper and burst out like that. The frightened student didn’t say a word, but slinkered away as fast as he could (Roy was 6’5″).
I was surprised at Roy’s reaction because at the time I didn’t know as much as he did about the Cultural Revolution. Now I understand. Back then, China was of little interest to me; all I knew was that Mao & Co. had sent a lot of professors to the countryside and attempted to destroy all vestiges of Western culture. I had no idea how vast its scope was, how many iterations it took and how it sought to wipe out not just Western- influenced culture but all culture, aside form the culture of Mao. I didn’t really know who Madam Mao was.
I’ve caught up with history over the past few years, and being confined recently to a hospital bed for five days followed by a week at home gave me time to learn even more. I decided to immerse myself in books about China, with strong focus on the Cultural Revolution. I read three books in all.
I mentioned earlier that I read Grass Soup, the poignant diary of a “rightist” sent off to work in labor camps for his bourgeois beliefs. It puts you right there in the camp with all its inanities, funny, sad and outrageous.
Then I went on to the epic Wild Swans, which chronicles the lives of three women, the grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter, the author of the book. The most impressive part of the book is its first two hundred pages focusing on the grandmother, a concubine to one of China’s last great warlords. In harrowing detail author Jung Chang describes what Chinese women had to undergo to have their feet bound. I didn’t realize that the pain was so enormous for the woman’s entire life, nor did I realize just how lowly a woman’s lot in China was, that she existed strictly for ornamental purpose and to please the whims, however brutal, first of her husband and then of her sons.
It was in these pages that I felt transported; I could feel the grandmother’s agony as she hobbled on her tiny feet and succumbed to the cruelties of her masters (her father, her “owner” the warlord and his wife), I felt I was in her house, watching her life disintegrate. Jung paints a magical picture, a huge fresco of life in China in the early 20th Century, and unfortunately the rest of the book never quite reaches such a high level.
The tale of Jung’s mother is what interested me most, as it brought to life the maddening irrationality of the Great Leap Forward, the famine of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution. It is actually a case study of one man (Mao) going insane, and insisting that the world’s largest population follow him in his insanity, resulting in the brain-death of an entire nation. The description of life during these years is superb if completely surreal.
Fascinating, but never quite so evocative as the earlier part of the book. There is also an annoying tendency on the part of the writer to paint nearly everyone else — all the side characters — as greedy, vindictive, selfish, even hateful toward Jung’s grandmother and mother (and, to a lesser extent toward herself). The three stars emerge as pearls among the swine, and this black and white contrast is so constant that one can only wonder how authentic it really is. One other comment, on the books stylistics: As the book moves from scene to scene, Jung has the habit of describing, in minute detail, the types of flowers and leaves that are present in an obvious but awkward attempt to create ambiance. I finally started to laugh out loud, waiting for the next description of the bamboo leaves wafting in the afternoon breeze. Not a big deal, but it did detract from what is for the most part an excellent read.
It was the third book that most captured my heart, and I am glad I read it last. I came upon Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress when my former employer in Beijing mailed it to me as a farewell present after I moved to Singapore. It describes the life of two young men sent to a remote re-education camp, and how their discovery of a suitcase full of classical Western books changes their lives, and the life of the object of their love — the book’s heroine, the little Chinese seamstress. From the first page, I was enchanted; there is something so simple, so sweet and so touching about the story, its characters and its tone, I couldn’t put it down. Just like Grass Soup and Wild Swans, it drove home the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, but its wonderful story and evocative characters bring it to another level of poignancy. If you haven’t read it, go buy it now.
Reading these books answered many of my questions about China during the 1960s and 70s, and raised several new ones. I admit, I didn’t realize just what a monster Mao was until now; I had a good idea, but I didn’t know it was quite this bad. After reading these books, one can only wonder why huge portraits and tall statues of Mao loom everywhere you look in China. Mao’s crimes are on such a grandiose scale, are so audacious and psychotic as to literally defy belief. The great mystery is why he retains his aura of greatness, why he is still revered to the point of hero worship. I don’t know, maybe it’s because we all need a leader to look up to. But when you read these books you really get a feel for just how intensely Mao was worshipped, to the point that one of the world’s great cultures surrendered its critical faculties and allowed this madman, this self-obsessed megalomaniac, take them down a path that would lead to a catastrophe so immense it is still recovering now, a quarter of a century later.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.