The Little Red Guard:
A Family Memoir
by Wenguang Huang
Nonfiction — Memoir
Riverhead Books; April 26, 2012
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.
Author bio from the back cover: “Wenguang Huang is a Chicago-based writer and translator. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and Asia Literary Review. His is the English translator of The Corpse Walker, God is Red, and Woman from Shanghai. He grew up in northern China.”
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(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)