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A Family, a Coffin, and Communist China

1:05 PM, May 2, 2012 • By ELLEN BORK
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Of the books I have read about China, The Corpse Walker, which I reviewed for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is one of my favorites. Written by Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker contains stories about the strange mix of people Liao met while traveling around China and serving time in jail for writing and recording a poem commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen massacre.

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Wenguang Huang, a writer and translator, is responsible for bringing Liao’s work to readers around the world, by tracking down the itinerant, sometimes fugitive, poet and working with him to edit and translate stories in the Paris Review, as well as two other books. 

Now, my friend Wenguang Huang has written a memoir recounting his childhood during China’s Cultural Revolution. The Little Red Guard, from Riverhead Books, is constructed around Wen’s grandmother’s stubborn insistence on planning a traditional funeral despite the Communist ban on them as relics of China’s feudal, Confucian past the party wished to destroy. After failing to dissuade his mother, Wen’s father, Huang Zhiyou, dutifully but stealthily acquires the materials, builds the coffin, and searches for a burial plot in the countryside.  

The enterprise dominates the Huangs’ family life, and especially little Wen’s, in whose room the coffin is stored. Relatives and friends are enlisted, officials are cultivated. It’s a risky enterprise, and the elder Wen, a Communist party member and factory functionary in Xi’an, stands to lose his position, livelihood, and possibly more. Normal family intimacies and tensions play out under the heavy presence of Communist political and social orthodoxy. 

Events including Mao’s death, Deng’s reemergence, and passing political campaigns intrude on little Wen’s childhood, which unfolds like a primer on Chinese Communist history. Wen’s teenage assertion of identity carries with it particular jeopardy, and Wen grudgingly learns to respect his father’s wisdom and experience. Wen, intoxicated by the liberalized intellectual climate of the early 1980s, writes a letter home from school in Shanghai to criticize his father’s coffin-building obsession, grandiosely citing an avant-garde play and Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses. “It doesn’t matter if you want to be a camel or a lion,” the elder Huang writes in reply, patiently ignoring his son’s disrespect and counseling him to focus on his schoolwork. “If you are not careful, the government could crush you like a bug.” Wen soon learns his father is right when the party launches an “anti-spiritual pollution” campaign, bans Nietzsche, and moves against liberal intellectuals. 

Later, the Tiananmen massacre is another rite of passage for Wen. The news from Beijing shocks Wen and his friends. “We took to the streets carrying lanterns to symbolize the darkness into which China had been plunged…Our belief system, based as it was on years of brainwashing, collapsed.  We woke up from the illusion that we could change China from within the Communist system.”

Wen must see to it that his father’s mission, and grandmother’s longtime wish, is fulfilled.  Despite its heavy subject matter—death and communism—Little Red Guard is an engaging, quick read. Ultimately, the book is a tribute to Wen’s father and an embrace of family ties and obligations.  The book has received excellent reviews, including in the Wall Street Journal.  Wen’s interview with public television station WTTW in Chicago, where he now lives, is here

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