Book Review: Red Fire by Wei Yang Chao

While the American Revolution is central to the Fourth of July, America also seemed to encounter a revolutionary temperament in 1968. We weren’t alone; revolution also seemed to be in the air in Europe. Even the counterculture symbol The Beatles would record their first politically explicit song, “Revolution.” Yet you’ve got to wonder how much support there is for your revolution when John Lennon writes, “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”

Lennon’s attitude may have changed later but there’s little doubt the excesses of China’s then two-year-old Cultural Revolution were disturbing many worldwide. Although the violence eventually receded, the Cultural Revolution — in reality prompted by an internecine power struggle — wouldn’t really end until after Mao’s death in 1976.

The extent of the damage caused China is incalculable. We’ve gained insight into the Cultural Revolution’s economic, cultural and personal costs as, over the years, memoirs of those caught up in it have become almost a genre unto themselves. One of the most recent is Wei Yang Chao’s Red Fire: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Like many of its predecessors, such as Red-Color News Soldier and Red Scarf Girl, it makes for compelling — and stupefying — reading.

Chao and his family moved Beijing in 1965. When the Cultural Revolution was declared the following year, he was 13. Perhaps because of that the first several chapters of Red Fire provide as much a historical perspective as a personal one. Yet Chao would witness several significant events in the transformation of the Chinese political and social landscape that year.

Among other things, he details going to see the first big-character poster. This and other posters were huge sheets of paper with revolutionary slogans that were posted in public places. The first appeared at Peking University in late May 1966. They were a method of debate dominated by what would become the Red Guard. As “an ocean” of posters saturated the country and attacked not only ideas but individuals, the Red Guard began physically attacking those they viewed as “revisionists,” i.e., older generations. Public humiliation and beatings became common as the posters achieved a status where, Chao says, “they could end a career, if not a life.”

On August 18, 1966, a 14-year-old Chao was among the nearly one million college and high school students who crammed into Tienanmen Square for a rally called by Mao for the “Proletariat Cultural Revolution.” Red Fire reviews the rally, at which Mao endorsed the Red Guards. In so doing he essentially released millions of zealots intent on destroying what would later be called “the Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

Chao recalls tears streaming down his face and feeling ecstatic when he saw Mao after he waded into Tiananmen Square’s massive crowds. He attributes those feelings and the students’ fervor to the Chinese education system, which he says “fashioned China‚Äôs youth into die-hard revolutionaries.”

The education we received in those years left no room for us to question what we were learning. None. Your only option was to ingest what you were given and to believe everything you were told. Anything short of total credulity marked you as being against the revolutionary cause.

Violence erupted throughout the country. Chao admits joining in on the Red Guard’s chants, slogans and rituals. He also attended “struggle sessions” in which teachers and others were severely beaten, some fatally. He claims he “looked away” at the the latter and drew a line at personal violence and destruction. Yet in 1968 he would personally experience what the Red Guard was doing.

Two immutable things brought the Cultural Revolution to Chao’s front door. His father, a journalist, had attended college and graduate school in the U.S. That, of course, made him a spy. His mother came from a landowning family and landowners were one of the Red Guard’s “black five categories.” In April 1968, his parents were subjected to a public struggle session in their own home. Chao and his sister were forced to watch as their parents were beaten and humiliated. Within a year, Chao’s parents and sister were sent into the countryside for “re-education.” He, meanwhile, would be sent to do farm work in a different village, where he shared a cave residence with another man.

The personal stories allow Red Fire to portray the human effects of the Cultural Revolution. This is also true when he talks of going to historic sites he loved and seeing the destruction wrought by the Red Guards’ attack on their own history and culture. Chao’s detailing of the birth and initial development of the Red Guard movement and the Cultural Revolution, though, seems held at more of a distance. Moreover, the story largely stops after we learn of Chao and his family returning to Beijing. Thus, readers get no perspective on how they and their nation mended the wounds and how long it may have taken. Likewise, there’s no discussion of any ramifications of the Cultural Revolution on 21st century China. Despite that, this is a lucid account of a family and country caught in the throes of revolutionary fervor.

Nothing makes you grow up faster than pure misery.

Wei Yang Chao, Red Fire

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