Books: 'The Lily Theatre', 'Mao's Children in the New China'by Denise Chen (reviewer)News Weekly
, October 21, 2000
China's younger generation reflects
THE LILY THEATRE
by Lulu Wang
Translated by Hester Velmans
Rec. price: $19.95
MAO'S CHILDREN IN THE NEW CHINA
compiled by Yarong Jiang and David Ashley
Reviewed by Denise Chen
English biographical and fictional works relating to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China is becoming more common as first and second generation migrants settle into their new homes in the West. Having mastered their adopted home tongue, they are more able to express their accounts succinctly in the new language.
Jung Chang and Amy Tan, author of Wild Swans
and The Joy Luck Club
wrote from England and America respectively.
Lulu Wang, however, published The Lily Theatre
from Holland in Dutch. She was careful to retain the colourful Beijing colloquial expressions and idioms into her semi-autobiographical story, which Hester Velmans also successfully translated into the English version under review. The Lily Theatre
is a narrative of Lian Shui (based on Lulu Wang's experience), and her friend Kim, trying to maintain their childhood friendship in Beijing from 1972 to 1974. They were both about 11-years-old at the beginning and this is the story of Lian Shui coming of age a time of political upheavals in China.
Lian was from a traditional first caste family of educated parents while Kim was a third caste peasant. This social demarcation was firmly upheld despite the Cultural Revolution. The two years covered in this narrative were about Lian and Kim's heartfelt struggle for social acceptance.
Politically, the ideals cannot be more different. The peasant class was exalted while the educated were condemned to labour camps.
Lian's father, a doctor, was exiled to the far-off province of the Gansu desert. Her mother, a history lecturer at the University of Beijing, was sent to a camp to be "re-educated". Lian, and many other children were hence left in state-run "orphanages" called Youth Accommodation Centres. Lian was left with a psychosomatic skin condition and the most pessimistic view of world history.
If it were not for the care and wisdom of the educated professors and wise monks in the labour camps, Lian would not have learnt to cope with events of the time.
Readers would find Wang's description of what the peasants thought about the "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Village Movement" both humorous and ironical. In reality, the peasants have their own social hierarchy. And, despite the Communist rhetoric, the Party did not help poor people like Kim and her family at all.
Schooling was interrupted many times. Reading material was censored. Ignorant children were encouraged, then coerced, into denouncing their teachers and each other, with the most vulgar language they could possibly put together. Lian was not impressed. Kim played tough and pretended she couldn't care less.
Yarong Jiang and David Ashley's Mao's Children in the New China
, on the other hand, is a collection of candid interviews with former Red Guards from Shanghai. They were born in the late 1940s early 1950s. These teenagers, collectively called the "Third Generation", graduated from secondary school in 1966, 1967 and 1968.
In the 1970s, the time of Lulu Wang's story, such youths were sent to participate in the "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Village Movement".
While Ms Wang described how ill-prepared the city dwellers were for peasant life, some of the Third Generation genuinely believed they learnt to understand farming and even contributed to improving agricultural methods.
Most, like the Children of the Sixties in the West, seem to believe that the social change they were supporting would produce a better society.
Many were, therefore, surprised when The Gang of Four was arrested. And many are disillusioned by the heartless society capitalism creates today.