Friday, June 26, 2009

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

When I first began reading this book, I was turned off by the simplistic language and bare-bones structure of the narrative. Admittedly, I love authors who get a little flowery and string words together into beautiful artistic passages. No flowery details to this story whatsoever. However, this seems to serve a dual purpose. First of all, the book is evidently meant to be accessible to readers of various levels, including children. Some of the themes are adult in nature and a bit disturbing (such as torture and suicide) but I suppose nothing here would be novel to children today. It's told from a child's point of view which makes the simple language heartrending considering the content. Additionally, the simplicity of the language mirrors the increasingly stripped down existence that Ji-Li and her family are forced to live. Their lives are meant to be simple and straight forward, transformed by the Cultural Revolution in China. However, because of her family's background (her grandfather was a landlord, so her family is considered "black," as opposed to red) Ji-Li and her family are neither able to live simply nor straight forwardly at all.

I think the strength of this novel comes from Ji-Li's ability to break down why people were so devoted to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. She does not try to make excuses for people or try to explain away the many misdeeds that were carried out against innocent people. She does, however, clearly illustrate how the mob mentality infected even herself, and that oftentimes it came down to having to choose between your family or your own future. Ji-Li experiences so many barriers throughout the novel, as do her parents and her siblings. Amazingly, none of them give up hope, although Ji-Li often curses her grandfather and considers breaking away from her family. Ultimately, it is her family's strength that allowed them all to survive and eventually move to the US. Nonetheless, the many trials and tribulations they endure demonstrate that they were often maintaining their dignity by mere threads.

Red Scarf Girl is a quick, enlightening read. I did not know much about the Cultural Revolution in China before reading this memoir, but I feel considerably more knowledgeable about it now. Ji-Li includes a Glossary in the back of the book, which I found helpful for checking the meaning of certain phrases, as well as the relevance of certain people or events. Ji-Li balances a historical perspective with her own personal experiences. She describes the human toll of the Cultural Revolution in China, which ruined many people's lives, regardless of how devoted or opposed to it they were. Most tragic is the fact that these people, many of whom did fervently devote themselves to the Revolution, were mere pawns in a political game. Ji-Li writes in the Epilogue of her memoir:

It was only after Mao's death in 1976 that people woke up. We finally learned that the whole Cultural Revolution had been part of a power struggle at the highest levels of the Party. Our leader had taken advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country.

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