In 1989, students in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marched for democracy and an end to government corruption. They held Tiananmen Square and the world’s attention for many weeks before martial law was declared and the demonstrations were ended in bloodshed. In the midst of that push for social change, three men from Hunan Province made their way to Beijing and the heart of the protests and threw 30 paint-filled eggs at the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong. Their act of self-expression in prior times would have cost them their lives. However, in the cases of Lu Decheng, a bus mechanic; Yu Zhijian, a teacher; and Yu Dongyue, an arts editor with the Liuyang Daily, this act would exact a high price.

Denise Chong’s “Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship” follows Lu Decheng and his two friends as they live ordinary lives. They are caught up in the euphoria of the political movement and imagine that their defacing of Mao’s portrait would spark a rebellion against autocracy.

Rather, to their surprise, the demonstrating students at Tiananmen Square not only put them under citizens’ arrest but confiscated all their possessions and disavowed any connections. The students were struggling to keep the movement “pure” of hooliganism and want to show their actions as within the purview of citizen actions in the country. They explain, “Tiananmen Square is the important flag of the national student movement and if we fail here then we will fail in the whole country.”

In a controlled state and a surveillance society, the Chinese police and Public Security Bureau are quick to quash any signs of outright defiance, even symbolic acts.

Lu Decheng was born into a worker family and raised mostly by his grandparents. He had a difficult relationship with his father, Lu Renqing, who married the cold-hearted Meilan after Lu’s mother’s death in her 20s.

Even as a youth, Lu was rebellious. He dropped out of school young (just after finishing middle school and a year of apprenticeship), had an affair with Wang Qiuping and a young son who died shortly after his birth, and then found work at the Liuyang Long-Distance Bus Company. During his tumultuous youth, he had run-ins with those trying to enforce the later-marriage and one-child-policy laws of the PRC. He had a feud with a colleague at work, whom he tried to poison with pesticide in his colleague’s thermos.

After the arrest of the three, they are charged with “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, counter-revolutionary sabotage, writing reactionary slogans, and destruction of state property.” In short order, they are found guilty of political crimes through China’s court system and sentenced to between over a dozen years to life in prison.

From there, their lives unravel to mental illness, divorce, and more run-ins with the pervasive bureaucracy. Lu uses his time in incarceration to read and to try to better understand the social and political problems of his society; he tries to maintain a sense of personal dignity in the midst of his struggles. Even in prison, he hears of the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and takes heart.

Egg on Mao reveals some of the social rifts between the different groups in China—peasants, workers, students, and intellectuals. It also highlights the patterns of family strife and competition so often described in ancient Chinese literature.

Chong’s descriptions of Lu’s jailers’ strategies to try to get him to recant his political stance and demonstrate his new thinking are intriguing—and show a side of China’s entrenched prison system that is less harsh (in small ways) than those described during the Cultural Revolution.

Egg on Mao is told in flashbacks and snippets, much like collage prose. Chong evokes how this “egg on Mao” incident occurred without attributing grandiose concepts to the three men. She shows well the way power moves in the People’s Republic of China and the invisible lines that are crossed at citizens’ peril.

Lu Decheng now lives in Canada with his second wife and young son. He was released after almost nine years in prison and was contacted by a network supporting dissidents. With their help, he was resettled abroad. Author of The Concubine’s Children and “The Girl in the Picture”, Denise Chong is a writer living in Ottawa, Canada.

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