Son of the Revolution
by Liang Heng, by Judith Shapiro
Knopf, 301 pp., $15.00
Son of the Revolution is actually three stories in one—first, a graphic I-was-there account of what it was like to grow up during the Cultural Revolution; second, a cliffhanger love story with a happy ending; and third, a poignant analysis of how Chinese people have tried and failed, and tried again, to break out of their past. Each of these accounts is worth reading on its own.
By the time Liang Heng was born in 1954 the Chinese Communist Party had had its early success in reuniting the country, quelling inflation, beginning Soviet-style industrialization, and reorganizing the countryside. The old private plots were being combined in more efficient big fields under village production teams. To change both the land and the people, the Party had developed the technique of mass campaigns, mobilizing China’s 600 million people to attack not only flood and drought but also old evils of landlordism, capitalism, imperialism, or anything that seemed to have held China back. Many successes had been achieved. China had fought the Americans to a standstill in Korea. Mao and his colleagues, working as a team, had changed the world.
The first four words Liang Heng learns to speak are those for Papa, Mama, Grandma, and Chairman Mao. When at age three he climbs out of his crib at the boring day-care center and runs home to Grandma, he is punished for failing to be “Chairman Mao’s good little boy.” His father, a reporter on the Hunan Daily in Changsha, and his mother, a clerk in the Public Security Bureau, are both devout activists. They dream of “the day when they would be deemed pure and devoted enough to be accepted into the Party.” But they never make it, for the revolution has to be fed with victims.
During the Hundred Flowers campaign the mother is urged to voice criticisms. She finally succeeds in dutifully coming up with a mild critique of her supervisor. Suddenly in 1957 the Anti-Rightist campaign erupts. Her bureau has a quota of Rightists to find and she is made a target, denounced, disgraced, and condemned, deprived of her cadre status and salary, and sent to the countryside for reform through labor. “There was no court of appeal. My naïve and trusting mother went to work as a peasant.”
This devastating ordeal ushers Liang Heng into a world of ideological politics, oppression, and injustice. His father and mother had married through the arrangement of friends. Working hard for the revolution, they had had little time together. “Father believed in the Party with his whole heart, believed that the Party could never make a mistake.” In a vain effort to free his children from the Rightist taint, he denounces his wife and later divorces her. The mother feels horribly ashamed. When her brother protests, he is labeled a Rightist too. The son resents his mother’s having wrecked their family life. He finds himself harassed and ostracized in primary school.
The boy grows up through three stages …