Novels at a Revolution: China’s Cultural Revolution

China is very much in the news these days, but it can be difficult to tell how we got here. The Cultural Revolution was Mao's last hurrah and the backlash led to China's economic miracle. The reaction also led to the reforms that precipitated the Tienamen Square protests, to which President Xi Jinping's consolidation of power and renewed repression of dissidents is also a reaction. While I am explaining things, let me tell you that contrary to Chinese tradition, I am listing the family names of the authors in this post last, as we have them in the library. These books are all about life during the Cultural Revolution: not the movers and shakers, but the overwhelming majority, mostly in small cities and villages. 

Ha Jin's collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, deals with the residents of Dismount Fort and outlying areas. The characters are well-drawn, struggling with tradition and their own desires versus the directives of the Party. Whether it's following Grandma's dying wish or defending oneself from a rapist, the truth rarely has much to do with the official story. Jin shows a great deal of humanity as well as cynicism towards authority in these tales.

Youth and exuberance in the end are no match for the Party in Wei Su's The Invisible Valley. Cantonese Bei has been sent to the countryside for reeducation and is working as a cowherd when he falls in love with a nomad living outside the system. The mysteries of nature and other cultures are big themes in this frequently comic coming-of-age story.

Shaogong Han shows the triumph of language over oppression in the stylistically adventurous and critically acclaimed A Dictionary of Maqiao. Technically a collection of short stories, this is not a bad introduction to the culture and folkways of southern China. Many of these are character studies, but the author's love of language and its power are what shine through.

Short-listed for the Man Booker prize, The Boat to Redemption by Tong Su follows the misadventures of Dongliang through his adolescence. Choosing to follow his disgraced father into a group of river pirates, Dongliang develops an unrequited crush on an orphan girl who goes on to great but temporary success, leaving him behind. Hypocrisy is the usual (and very large) target of humor in this tragicomedy. 

Remember the Cultural Revolution? Know other good books about it? Tell us in the comments.

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