“When I was a little boy, I lived in an old courtyard in Beijing, China, between the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower and the river…” So begins Guo Yue and Clare Farrow’s “Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing”.
The boy, Leap Forward (Yuejin), is the much-beloved child of a musician father and an educated mother, but his father passed on when the boy was only five. He keeps silkworms and crickets. He spends his days with his best friend, Little-Little (Xiao-Xiao). They are both children of musicians, and their housing in this same hutong reveals the government hand in clustering those with like backgrounds into neighborhoods.
The two friends have interesting philosophical discussions, such as whether birds choose which notes to sing, with Xiao-Xiao musing: “They just sing the music that’s in them. That’s all they can do. It’s as simple as that.” They talk about the Russians sending people to the moon. They talk about their near-constant hunger.
They make and fly kites as friendly competitors. As an aside, he recalls how people would write messages on the tails of their kites before Chairman Mao, before self-expression meant potentially severe political and personal danger. He continues: “My mother remembers flying them in the winter with her Russian friends, when she was a little girl. They all wore fur coats, so they didn’t feel the cold.”
One day, his friend sets a clever trap and captures a beautiful yellow bird, which Leap Forward takes as his own. He gets his sister’s boyfriend (Clear Waves) to build him a cage for her. In school, he brags about her to his friends and is asked whether he’ll teach her the patriotic political songs they have all memorized. His teacher chides him for writing with his left hand, so he’s forced to use his clumsy right one.
Among his classmates, he’s a bit of a dreamer. He has a crush on a beautiful girl named Blue (Lan). Lan’s family lives in the journalist compound. “I had never been inside a writers’ compound before, and had imagined the walls to be covered with newspapers—the black print still wet, rubbing off on my finders—the sound of a hundred tapping typewriters filling the air.”
Leap Forward and Lan’s romance and friendship grow even as the politics of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution heat up. Leap Forward’s mother wistfully remembers her friendships with her foreign Russian friend but knows that the xenophobic turn in her nation’s politics will disallow any sign of that former friendship.
Leap Forward, named ironically after the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 – 63) that resulted in mass starvation, starts learning some core truths of his life and times through his pet bird, who has never sung one note while in captivity. His philosophical friend Little-Little asks him: “Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?”
Artist Helen Cann’s lovely, patterned images bring Leap Forward’s experiences to charming life: a boy standing with his father, who is holding an erhu; a tender mother looking in her son’s face; boyhood friends mingling on a busy street; children playing in a traditional schoolyard (from an aerial view), and childhood friends walking on a street teeming with Red Guards posting political tracts. Black-and-white photos of the author and his friends are included in the Afterword.
Little Leap Forward offers a touching boy’s view of the Cultural Revolution as the backdrop for his growing-up years.
Guo Yue and Clare Farrow are married and have two children. They live in London. Illustrator Helen Cann lives in Hove.
“Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing”, by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow. Illustrated by Helen Cann. Cambridge: Barefoot Books, 2008.