Book Review: The Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang

Posted May 1, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 9 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: The Little Red Guard by Wenguang HuangThe Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang
Published by Riverhead Books on April 26, 2012
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 262
Source: the publisher

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Father made me Grandma’s coffin keeper when I was nine, imbuing the spooky black wooden box with a mythic significance that I could barely grasp. His stories lulled me into believing that Grandma’s coffin and our dedication to Grandma’s burial would bring blessings and protection for the Huang family. Up until Father’s own death, the coffin loomed large in our house and planning for Grandma’s burial consumed our lives. In fact, Grandma’s coffin was such a powerful presence in my life that it became what may be the most important thing that has shaped my character.

During the Cultural Revolution in Chairman Mao’s Communist China–which started in 1966 and lasted through 1976–many Chinese traditions and rituals were banned. Chairman Mao claimed that these traditions and rituals were¬†bourgeois and decadent, and insisted that they were “symbol[s] of the…cruel past of the pre-Communist era.” Of the rituals that were strictly forbidden, traditional burials ranked high on the list; people in Mao’s China were to be cremated, both for practical and ideological reasons. On the practical side, land that would be used for burial sites was taking away from the land that could be used for industry, living space, and agriculture. Because of China’s increasing population, land used for agriculture was becoming more scarce, and people were getting crammed into smaller and smaller living spaces.

In 1973, when Wenguang Huang‘s grandmother turned seventy-two, she started worrying about her death. She had a strong belief in old Chinese proverbs/adages and one of these said, “When a person reaches the age of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call.” For this reason, she wanted to make sure that preparations for her burial were being made…and she wanted a traditional burial. She absolutely refused to be cremated.

But Huang’s father was a member of the Communist Party; planning and executing a proper burial brought with it many risks for Huang’s family. Not only did Huang’s father risk the normal treatment that others might receive for doing something in opposition to Mao’s policies, but as a member of the Communist Party, he risked public denunciation, losing his job (the money from which his family could not survive without), and/or worse. What were they going to do? How could a filial son such as Huang’s father refuse his mother–the same mother who sacrificed so much for him when he was a child?

The Little Red Guard chronicles the decision Huang’s father made to give his mother a traditional burial, and the fifteen years of planning and family friction this decision cost him. Wenguang Huang calls this a “family memoir,” because although he tells the story from his point of view, he writes about how the decision to give his grandmother a traditional burial affected the entire family. He describes the friction it caused between his mother and father; he writes about how his mother and grandmother battled for his father’s devotion, and how this big decision made their already shaky relationship even more precarious; and he describes how it affected him and his siblings. The consequences of his father’s decision affected almost every aspect of their lives.

The story of Huang’s family and the long-lasting preparations for his grandmother’s funeral is wonderful and filled with a wide range of emotions. It’s humorous in parts, and sad in others. The Huang family went from content to contentious to content again, over and over throughout those fifteen years. The lives of the Huang siblings–and their relationships with one another–continue to be affected by their father’s decision to this day. Aside from the Huang family dynamics, I found China’s history the most interesting part of the book. I learned a lot about the positive and negative effects Chairman Mao and Communism had on that country, and reading about it through Huang’s personal experiences was much better than reading about it in a textbook or on an impersonal website. I enjoyed the traditional Chinese stories told in The Little Red Guard, as well as the personal histories and stories that Huang told about his family. I love learning about different cultures and their traditions, and I find the Chinese traditions and ceremonies fascinating. Some aspects of traditional Chinese ceremonies are truly romantic.

The story of the Huang family is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and Wenguang Huang tells the story so well. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes reading about other cultures, to anyone who enjoys a good memoir, and to anyone who is interested in learning more about China’s traditional, political, and economic past.

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  • I saw this one the other day and it looked interesting.i think I’d like this one.

    • It’s quite good. Let me know what you think if/when you read it.

  • A fine review, Heather. With regards to the burial of the grandmother, I belive we in Ghana have a similar tradition. Most Ghanaians would not want to be cremated; a person’s grave must be seen, tended, and prayers said and libation poured in honour of the dead, and how do you do that when you are ashes? Yes, we also have land issues, but most would not have cremation as an option. There are pockets of people though, who go for cremation, but these mainly belong to some sects which are not wide-spread. The concept is basically a foreign one.

    I would love to read this book for the smililarities mentioned above and for the background on Chairman Mao and Communism. Thanks for sharing.

    • You know? I’d be really interested in learning more about Ghanaian culture, too. Are there any books you suggest that would aid in my learning? Do you have any particular favorites, whether fiction or non-fiction?

      I think you’d really enjoy The Little Red Guard.

      • For starters, I will recommend Kofi AKpabli’s ‘Tickling the Ghanaian, Encounters with Contemporary Culture’. This book is a collection of well researched, realistic everyday situations of the Ghanaian experience, giving deep insight into that unique cultural label that tags the Ghanaian wherever he goes. A reivew of it is on my blog.

        I can also get the author to mail you a copy; I’m sure this won’t be a problem to him. So, if you agree, then you could send me your address and all. Alternatively, if the book is on Amazon, then that will be the most efficient way of getting it.

        I will scout for other books and let you konw.

        • It looks like I can get Tickling the Ghanaian for my Kindle through Amazon, so I’ll be happy to purchase it. Thank you, Celestine! I’ll try to get to it soon. I love your review.

  • This does sound like an interesting read. Great review, Heather!