Monday, February 09, 2009

Review: Red Scarf Girl

by Ji-li Jiang. Harper-Collins, 1998. This true memoir of a 12 year old girl coming of age during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is breathtaking and amazing. Ji-li tells her story in simple, direct language that cuts straight to the heart. She was a happy, successful, well-loved sixth grader in 1966, respected and accomplished in school and the cherished oldest daughter in a well-off family of three children, two parents and her grandmother. All that was turned upside down when Chairman Mao started calling for drastic reforms and granting unrestrained power to the teenaged Communist Red Guards, who were charged with purifying their schools, homes and communities from any bourgeois capitalist Western influence.

Ji-li's grandfather, whom she can barely remember, was a land-owner many years ago. Because of this she and her family are classed as "landlords", and are persecuted mercilessly. The downward spiral of their places in school and community is heartbreaking to read. I lived in China for two years in the mid 80s, teaching English, and I often heard similar stories from my students. The scope and magnitude of the societal upheaval is almost incomprehensible, even when listening to first-hand accounts.

It wasn't just a few crazy leaders who persecuted the common people. It was regular neighborhood folks who had known each other all their lives. It was the fear of personal shame and the unquestioning trust in the common emotional tide that drew everyone into a cruel, ravenous insanity. The passion which which the people loved and worshiped Chairman Mao is startling and gives one pause at this time in our own political life, when so many of us are enamored of our shining new president. The extremes of what a people can embrace is stunning.

This book is written for young adults in middle and high school. The publisher has several study aids available on their website and more lesson plans, web quests, and book guides can be found online. Background information on China's history and culture, as well as on the Cultural Revolution, would help students really understand the life Ji-li was living in Shanghai in the late 1960s. Anyone interested in human social phenomena, history or in China in particular should read this book. The author, Ji-li Jiang, lives in Hawaii now and has written a couple other books for children.

Today's Nonfiction Round Up is at Charlotte's Library. If you are posting about a nonfiction children's book go ahead and add your link. And by all means, go check out what everyone else is reading!

1 comment:

Ali said...

Looks like an interesting read. I wish my kids weren't in an anti-historical reading phase right now!