Two of my friends have memoirs coming out this spring (the other being Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction), which is a sort of interesting phenomenon. I don’t typically read a lot of memoirs, but when it’s someone you know? . . . That’s extra intriguing. I don’t know either Gideon or Wen all that well, yet I know them well enough to know that I really like them and am curious to find out more about their lives, both in the events that shaped them and the way they write and share their take on these events.
So this week, I took a couple nights to get sucked into Wen Huang’s The Little Red Guard, which opens
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 coffin.
It’s through this lens of Wen’s Grandma’s impending death, and all the complications this causes his family, that he provides a picture of what it was like coming-of-age during the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square incident. The basic conflict—as described on the back of the book—is that Grandma insists on being buried next to her dead husband at a time when all burials are outlawed, thus putting Wen’s father (a devout member of the Party) into a really tricky space where he has negotiate his belief in Communism and Mao with his filial duties and love for his mother.
The whole book is really interesting, in part because it adds all new dimensions to my understanding of what makes Wen, Wen, but also because I don’t know all that much about Chinese life during this period. At least not a in a way that is personal, thoughtful, touching, and sincere. (All qualities Wen has as a person are also evident in his writing.)
I don’t want to write a formal review (right now), but I do want to say that this memoir is a wonderful portrait of a family caught in all the various changes that swept through China in the latter half of the twentieth century. All the shifting values, belief systems, etc.—it’s all very fascinating to read about, especially told in such a remarkably earnest fashion.
It’s worth noting that in addition to authoring this book, Wen has translated two books: The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu and Women from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang. Through all of these books—and his writings for Publishing Perspectives—Wen is doing a lot to bring Chinese perspectives to English readers, and for this alone he deserves to be applauded.
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