Chen Jiang Hong’s “Mao and Me: The Little Red Guard” evokes the ambivalences of one young Chinese child’s autobiographical experiences growing up during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966 – 76), a decade-long political shake-up and the last hurrah of the Mao era.
Powerfully illustrated in full-color hand drawings, Mao and Me strives for realism both in the words and the images, without much of a shielding overlay of any childhood enchantment.
This story opens in 1966 in a large, unnamed industrial city of China’s north (the author was born in Tianjin). The narrator is a little boy living with his two sisters, their parents, and grandparents.
He describes with fondness his grandmother’s cooking, especially her noodle and jiaozi specialties. His grandmother raises chickens in the courtyard, and the family has a pet cat named Hu-Hu. Grandfather would practice tai-chi in the courtyard and argue with his friends about whose caged bird was more beautiful.
His older sister was a deaf-mute who would share her sign language learning with her little brother.
He played with his hand-me-down wooden blocks, and when he exhausted of ideas, his grandfather would exhort him: “When one has truly understood something, a single thing, then one is able to understand everything.”
Mao and Me continues with real-world aspects of life there, with its electrical shortages, the hand-me-down clothes from his sisters, and the use of a tub to share a bath.
Into this simple but joyful life comes a radio announcement of their supreme leader Chairman Mao’s announcement of a Cultural Revolution, the violent over-turning of a feudal cultural way of life, to make way for a more communist China.
Savvy to the different social changes, his grandparents destroy precious old photographs. People start reading and memorizing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, which was the only text that could be read. The youthful Red Guards visited their peaceful courtyard to burn books and destroy ancient objects.
The little boy himself starts wearing Mao’s smiling visage on a medallion around his neck. In the park, the Chairman Mao statue has been raised up with a gesture of openness and smiling beneficence.
As the political turmoil deepens, the children become hungrier and hungrier. The adults use ration coupons to get access to bare staples. And the types of food available becomes less and less. A kindly neighbor who shares candy with the children and plays music for them is taken away by the Red Guards, tortured in public, and disappears, never to be seen again.
The political dangers touch the family even more intimately, when his father is “sent down” to the forests of Heilongjiang on the Russian border.
For comfort, this little boy begins to draw. Because of the lack of paper, he draws on the floor with a pencil stub.
In 1970, he is 7 years old and starts school. The first phrase he learns is “Mao is our salvation.” His education is part of a nationwide campaign to promote a cult of personality around their “great leader.” He learns to “confess”: “Every morning in front of a portrait of Mao, with his Little Red Book held over our hearts, we had to make a self-critique, listing our good and bad actions of the previous day. We also did daily eye exercises and gymnastics. We had to train our bodies in order to be able to protect our country.” He watches movies about evil landlords and at 8 years-old, he is inducted to be a Little Red Guard. He loses his grandfather to death, and shortly thereafter, the Red Guards come and kill his grandmother’s chickens—potentially because they represent any sign of independence of the Party or reveal some sign of entrepreneurship.
This text concludes with Chairman Mao’s death in December 1976 and the return of his bedraggled father a year later, when the author was 13. His father brings him a four-set volume of sayings by Chairman Mao as a gift. His drawing talent led to his studying art in Beijing.
He concludes subtly, “For a number of years now I have lived abroad, but I return to China regularly to see my family. My parents have not moved. The city of my childhood has changed a lot, yet my apartment building has stayed the same and the tree in the courtyard is still there.”
Mao and Me, evocatively illustrated with ink, watercolors and calligraphy, shows an innocent child’s view of Mao and his service to this leader in his childhood.
Chen Jiang Hong doesn’t mince words about the suffering that many Chinese experienced in this succession of political movements over a decade, but his use of a child’s framework simplifies the horrors and losses. And, ironically, a small affection for the country’s supreme chairman seeps through the book.
“Mao and Me” by Chen Jiang Hong. New York, Enchanted Lion Books, 2008.