Three generations of a family living under one roof reflect the dramatic transformations of an entire society in this memoir of life in 20th century China.
When Wenguang Huang was nine years old, his grandmother became obsessed with her own death. Fearing cremation, she extracted from her family the promise to bury her after she died. This was in Xi'an, a city in central China, in the 1970s, when a national ban on all traditional Chinese practices, including burials, was strictly enforced. But Huang's grandmother was persistent, and two years later, his father built her a coffin. He also appointed his older son, Wenguang, as coffin keeper, a distinction that meant, among other things, sleeping next to the coffin at night.
Over the next fifteen years, the whole family was consumed with planning Grandma's burial, a regular source of friction and contention, with the constant risk of being caught by the authorities. Many years after her death, the family's memories of her coffin still loom large. Huang, now living and working in America, has come to realize how much the concern over the coffin has affected his upbringing and shaped the lives of everyone in the family.
Lyrical and poignant, funny and heartrending, The Little Red Guard is the powerful tale of an ordinary family finding their way through turbulence and transition.
At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had
made for Grandma's seventy-third birthday. He forbade
us from calling it a "coffin" and insisted that we refer to
it as shou mu, which means something like "longevity wood." To
me, it seemed a strange name for the box in which we'd bury
Grandma, but it served a practical purpose. It was less spooky
to share my room with a "longevity wood" than with a big black
In 1973, Grandma had turned seventy-one, or seventy-two by the Chinese counting in which you are already one at birth. All of a sudden, she became obsessed with death and was scared. My sister, Wenxia, and I still remember the night when Grandma first broached the topic. Over dinner, Mother had launched into her usual tirade over household chores. She had visited a neighbor's house the night before and seen how their eldest son willingly pitched in to wash dishes after dinner. "He polished the stove squeaky clean," Mother said, ...
There are few who will fail to recognize themselves (or their teenagers) in the rebellious, know-it-all young man Huang regretfully claims to have been.... The Little Red Guard is fast-paced and engaging and will appeal to fiction and non-fiction readers alike. The book provides ample themes for discussion and would be an excellent choice as a book group selection.
(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).
Memoirist Wenguang Huang was once a member of China's communist youth organization, which, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), was known as The Little Red Guard. The group was originally formed by the Communist Party of China in 1949 as The Youth and Children of China Movement, but in 1953, it was renamed The Young Pioneers - the name the organization reverted to after the Cultural Revolution ended.
Most Chinese children become members of the Young Pioneers by the end of their grade school years; in 2002 it was estimated that over 130 million youths belonged to the organization. Those between the ages of 6 and 14 are eligible to join, after which time they may choose to advance to the Communist Youth League of China.
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