chapter  2
33 Pages

“The Escape from Asia Tradition”: Cultural Revolution Expatriate Memoirs

The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” was offi cially launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966. It was intended that the Revolution would re-imbue China’s masses with revolutionary fervor, and overturn “old”, traditional, feudal or “bourgeois” ideologies, practices and power structures. It attacked the “Four Olds”: old culture, old ideas, old customs and old habits. During the ten years that followed before Mao’s death in 1976,

the Cultural Revolution escalated, causing unprecedented upheaval, political terror and violence, poverty, famine and hardship across China. Human rights were violated on a massive scale. Author Nien Cheng describes this period as a “dark penumbra which overshadows China’s present and future” (Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil, xi). In their 2005 study of Mao, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday estimate the death toll during the Cultural Revolution in the region of three million people.1 As Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald also note, this was a time when “artistic endeavor, whatever its form, was subjected to perilously exacting standards of political and cultural purity” (“Introducing Posters of the Cultural Revolution”, p. 4). Mao famously emphasized the imperative for literature-as with all aesthetic production-to have political furtherment at its core.2 Libricidethe state-sponsored destruction of unpalatable books-was also widespread during this period. Narratives memorializing, exploring and re-examining this harrowing period of history were unsurprisingly slow to appear within China, and as I later discuss, only began to appear in signifi cant numbers in the 1980s.3 The same has been true of expatriate perspectives. When Jung Chang published Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China in 1991, it received widespread critical acclaim, as well as commercial success, including winning the 1992 NCR Book Award. Much of this critical attention focussed upon the text’s novelty, as a unique personal memoir and history of China during the period after the Communist Party gained control and of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. This chapter will contextualise Jung Chang’s high-profi le work within a wider history of writing about Communist China, with specifi c emphasis upon the period of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao escalated China’s emerging communist agenda, and in so doing, I want to advance three separate arguments. Firstly, I will suggest that despite initial responses, Chang’s work is not in fact a new form of writing, but instead can be located within a long-and continuingtradition of Chinese expatriate-American and British-writing. Chang’s book did however usher in a renewed literary interest in Communist China, as can be seen in the plethora of texts which ‘write Red China’, which have appeared since 1991.4 These include writing by women from mainland China, who were born into early generation Communist families: Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1993), Hong Ying’s (1998) memoir, Daughter of the River, Meihong Xu’s Daughter of China (also 1998), Anhua Gao’s To the Edge of the Sky (2000), Aiping Mu’s Vermilion Gate (2000), Ting-xing Ye’s A Leaf in the Bitter Wind (2000), Liu Hong’s fi ctionalised Startling Moon (2001), Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters (1997), Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl (1997), Nanchu’s Red Sorrow (2001), Sun Shuyin’s Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud (2003), Guo Sheng’s Tears of the Moon (2003), Chun Yu’s poetic Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (2005), and Moying Li’s Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution (2008), as well as texts by women born outside of the mainland such as Jan Wong’s Red China Blues (1996; Wong

was born in Canada), Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress (1996; Chang is Chinese American), and Adeline Yen-Mah’s Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997; Mah was born and brought up in Hong Kong).5 These narratives provide a unique range of inside perspectives-especially of women’s experiences-on a country which has not only undergone radical political changes throughout the twentieth century, but which has also largely been closed to the West, and in this sense, I will argue that an important new sub-genre of women’s life writing is emerging. For one reason or another, it has fallen to a group of expatriate women to be spokespersons for their country’s history of the emergence of Communism.6 Finally, I will ask whether the critical reception of these recent books about Communist China may be symptomatic of a cultural resurgence of Saidean orientalism, what one might term a “neo-orientalism”.