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Blind Obedience

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 of experience as a Red Guard, a peasant, and a factory worker. By the time he is twelve in 1966 Chairman Mao sets off the Cultural Revolution. In July Mao swims in the Yangtze. In August he writes, “Bombard the headquarters.” Liang Heng joins in and attacks his teachers only to find suddenly that his father, who has a brother in Taiwan, is declared a Rightist and comes under attack himself. A work team demands that the son denounce his father; his father counsels him to do so. Big “struggle meetings” parade the miscreants and end up with public torture.

This terror against bureaucrats and intellectuals occurs in an atmosphere of tremendous enthusiasm and exultation over the triumph of virtue and the worship of Chairman Mao. Little Liang Heng puts on a Red Guard armband and walks with a group on his own Long March, 240 miles cross-country to the Jinggang Mountain where Mao began his rebellion in 1928. The bands of youths making their Long Marches are fanatically devoted to the great cause of making revolution. They reach the top of the mountain in rain and snow, exhausted and ill with severe diarrhea. As thousands of Long Marchers converge upon this shrine, they have to be evacuated to save their lives. Meningitis kills many after Liang’s group have been taken out by army truck.

During 1966-1967 Liang Heng travels to Canton and to Peking with the hundreds of thousands of youths who are riding the trains free to explore their country. In Peking as a Red Guard at age thirteen he is set to guard a famous pianist who has treacherously won a prize in Moscow and is to be struggled with.

I was very proud…. I stood with my hands at my waist, guarding him fiercely…. Liu Shi-kun looked up…but I immediately barked, “Don’t move,” and he returned to his original position.

After a while, he licked his lips and half whispered, “Please give me some water. I’m thirsty.”

I didn’t know what to do. A Revolutionary shouldn’t give water to his enemy, but I couldn’t just stand there with water in the thermos only a few feet away. But what if someone saw me?…. I quickly poured a cup from the thermos…. As he drank it down I said fiercely, “You can’t tell anyone about this, or next time I won’t give you anything at all.”

On May 1, Liang Heng goes with his group to the Summer Palace. Chairman Mao has departed.

All that remained of him was the touch of his hand on the hands of a few who had been lucky enough to get close to him…. Those Chairman Mao had touched now became the focus of our fervor. Everyone surged toward them with outstretched arms in hopes of transferring the sacred touch to their own hands…shaking the hand of someone who had shaken hands with Our Great Saving Star… until sometimes handshakes were removed as much as one hundred times from the original one….

Back in Changsha in mid-1967 the Red Guard factions begin to use guns against one another. This produces civil war in the streets and violent deaths from gunfire even among comrades, since they do not know how to use firearms. By September Chairman Mao has to order the army in to stop the fighting and recover the guns. By early 1968 Liang Heng’s two older sisters have been signed up to go down to the countryside and help the peasants. At the same time his father is sent to a Mao study class under military discipline in a barracks. At age fourteen Liang is alone in his family’s house, living on a small part of his father’s salary and consorting with other boys in gangs. They learn how to fight, drink, and steal, and become friends with hoodlums in a hand-to-mouth existence. Liang has already learned never to express an opinion on ideological matters. Now he finds out how to live without a family and to fend for himself.

By the time he is fifteen in 1969 his father has been cleared and “liberated” to go to the country and be a peasant. Father and son go together. They give up their city residence cards and after a two-day journey find themselves in a production team in a remote village. The boy learns how to do farm work. The poverty amazes him. The farm couple he lives with share a single good pair of pants, worn by whichever one goes to market. They often eat the rice hulls issued by the government as pig feed. “Every time Old Guo took a pig to market, he fed it watered-down slop to bloat its belly and plugged its anus with cloth to keep it from losing precious poundage.” In this medieval village, “less than a third of the people had even been to the town,” only four miles away.

Eventually as a cadre’s son, Liang is able to go off to a middle school, three years after graduating from primary school. He gets a better food supply of rice because of his father’s status but is still the son of a Rightist, controlled and harassed by the students of peasant background. There are no books and little to study. With a gang he goes out at night to steal sweet potatoes from the fields, lying in the mud and eating them raw. But in the school storeroom he finds a cache of books that he can steal and secretly read. When he is brutally interrogated about a friend in Peking, who he later finds was in the ultraleftist May 16 group, his disillusion with the twists and turns of the revolution is complete. Kept out of upper middle school, he thinks of suicide. But his father has become an invalid and Liang Heng nurses him in the village until in early 1971 the father is permitted to move back to a town, where he busies himself writing speeches for bureaucrats.

Thus at age seventeen Liang Heng is able to go to upper middle school. He is unusually tall, 5‘11”, and makes himself a basketball star, becoming team captain after his first year. He goes in for training from 4 AM and eats enormously, growing to 6‘1”. He is sent to an athletic training school and in the fall of 1972 plays in the provincial meet. A coach selects him for a factory team but he is disqualified because he is not a worker. His father refuses to permit Liang Heng to become a worker because he feels he should go to college, but he finally consents when this seems to be the only way forward. So Liang Heng becomes a worker in a shale-oil factory and plays basketball all over Hunan until he is invited to become a professional athlete. However, he cannot pass the political test, since he has an uncle still in Taiwan and his parents have been Rightists.

As a factory worker he is amazed to find that no one works. Time is frittered away in daily rituals. Production is endlessly delayed by lack of supplies. He determines to pursue a secret reading program. His father, now forty-nine, has a stroke and must retire. By the time Chairman Mao dies in 1976, Liang Heng has spent two years as a peasant and four as a factory worker. He bestows gifts on the appropriate people to get himself nominated as a worker-peasant student to go to college from his factory, but then in 1977 national examinations are reinstituted. After two months’ cramming he passes them, the only one from his factory, and is admitted to the Hunan Teachers’ College for four years’ training to become a teacher. It is February 1978. He is twenty-three years old and when he receives this honor he gets inside an automobile for the first time. Except for actually being a soldier, he has tasted the major experiences open to his generation. He has kept in touch with his scattered family. His sisters are now married in the countryside. In the absence of family life, he has survived without the Party’s becoming his foster parent. He knows how to work hard and to give presents to his superiors so as to get through the back door. He can keep his own counsel. Most of all, he has kept the self-image of an intellectual.

The love story which forms a major attraction in Son of the Revolution begins with Liang Heng’s frustrating relations with young women. One in Canton he corresponds with and eventually goes to see, but her father suspects his Rightist background and righteously warns him off. The girl is simply terrified. Another young woman he meets on a train. Sympathizing with her domestic problems, he makes another trip to Canton and impersonates a high cadre in order to browbeat her stepbrother who is trying to force her actual brother to go in his place to the countryside. Finally on a train to Shanghai he meets a woman conductor who is trying to help another woman wrongly accused. Liang Heng responds to people of such generosity and soon is having an affair with this young woman, who proves to be the daughter of a high military commander, former head of public security in Hunan. When she finally introduces Liang Heng to her family in their posh house the father is cordiality itself but later berates his daughter fiercely for thinking of marrying below her station. He proceeds to whip her to enforce his point. The love affair dies.

At the Hunan Teachers’ College dances are occasionally held but their political propriety is questioned. The boys find it safer to dance with each other. Suddenly in the spring of 1979, “I heard that the new American teacher in the Foreign Languages Department was scheduled to perform some dances…. This was the first chance I had ever had to see one of those high-nosed, big-eyed creatures in person…. She seemed so relaxed and yet so skilled, very different from the Chinese women dancers, who controlled their bodies tightly…. This Western dance was so pleasant to watch in its immeasurable freedom!” The next fall when he has to write an English paper it is suggested he go see this American teacher to get it corrected. “I asked my best friend to go to her home with me, and he was shocked. People might suspect us of all kinds of things if we sought out a foreigner! But when I said I would go without him, he insisted on coming along, for my sake. If I were questioned, he could bear witness to the innocence of what had been said and done.”

They go and the teacher lends him books and agrees to find time to discuss literature. When he goes alone to see her again, he finds her conversation ranges over literature, education, and aesthetics.

I thought it astonishing that a girl of only twenty-five should be so well educated…. I was also deeply impressed by the fact that she never asked me about my political background…. Our friendship grew quickly,…and I began to understand that she, too, was lonely, for although the teachers and students treated her warmly,…no one dared to be her real friend…. Instinctively, I knew that if I could make her understand me, I would win her. So I shared my past with her in great detail, omitting nothing. She was so moved by my story that she wrote it all down, evening after evening…. I felt her feelings and respect growing, and at the same time my wounds seemed gradually to dry up and heal….

Judy Shapiro had been born in New York in 1953. She went to the Brearley School, and graduated from Princeton in 1975 in anthropology with a beginning in Chinese, which she continued in courses at Columbia and the China Institute in New York. In 1977 she took an MA in comparative literature at the University of Illinois and then got in a first trip to China. In 1979 she took an MA in Asian studies at Berkeley before accepting the post of teacher at Changsha. After eight years’ study of Chinese she was fascinated by the opening up of contact and the opportunity to understand the revolution. After their first long conversation she told Liang Heng that “she had learned more about China from me in one evening than in her previous six months there.” They soon felt that their whole lives had brought them together.

Fearing discovery, they told the responsible cadre that they proposed to marry. But even though marriage of Chinese and foreigners was now permitted, the college authorities counseled against it. “Remember that you are Chinese,” they said to Liang sternly. “You must love your motherland. There is a difference between insiders and outsiders.” They said they would ask his parents for their opinions. This precipitated a crisis: Liang Heng rushed with Judy to see his mother and subsequently his father lest they be persuaded to withhold their permission. The authorities continued to drag their feet. The dean took the position that since students were not allowed to marry, Liang Heng would have to drop out of college.

Finally Judy appealed directly to the top man in China, Deng Xiao-ping at the Central Committee in Peking. “It seemed incredible then—and still seems so now—but Deng, the most powerful man in the country, read Judy’s appeal. An official later told me privately that he frowned impatiently, said, ‘Of course they should be allowed to marry,’ and scrawled instructions.” Their aggressive bravado had pulled it off. Eventually they made it back to New York, where Liang Heng is now studying for a Ph.D. at Columbia while Judy Shapiro is an interpreter for the State Department, guiding delegations to and from China.

The success of Son of the Revolution hinges on the fact that while the life is that of Liang Heng, the writer is Judy Shapiro. The words are hers: he is her informant. Producing a book like this takes far more intimate and prolonged collaboration than producing a baby, and the happy couple are to be congratulated. Translation from languages as distant as Chinese or Japanese is, of course, a two-stage operation. The original writing must be thoroughly grasped but to “translate” it requires creating a new work in English. In this case the notes and recollections were in Chinese but the story was worked out and conversation dubbed in by the authors together, both of them devoted to the cause of the Chinese people but thoroughly aware of the ideological pitfalls into which their leaders had fallen and the unpleasantness of many realities in the People’s Republic that have to be faced.

Readers will draw the conclusions they prefer from the realistic touches of this first-person story. A distant nonpeasant like myself may be struck with the way people persist in their social roles. One declared aim of Mao’s revolution was to break down the special status of intellectuals, who had for so long been manufactured and coopted by imperial dynasties through their official examinations. Learning in the old days had been a tool of power, the key to indoctrination and the maintenance of orthodoxy. The notorious victimization of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution expressed Mao’s contempt for them as “parasites,” an idea that was completely out of date, whatever validity it may once have had. The real evil Mao faced was the unrestrained autocracy of the official class, the new Party bureaucrats, and the authoritarian habits of mind they displayed and inculcated in others.

Son of the Revolution’s worm’s-eye view of the meeting of intellectuals and peasants shows us what Mao was up against. Both the peasants and the intellectuals were political followers. Neither had any sanction in mind that would give them an ideological basis for disagreeing with the authorities. Liang Heng’s father had broad literary interests and “was an accomplished poet as well as an amateur composer and conductor” but his devotion to the Party enslaved his mind. The more he was kicked around, the less he attempted to make an independent judgment. His being an intellectual was combined with an utter passivity in politics. When activists unjustly accuse his wife, instead of denouncing them and defending her, he denounces and finally divorces her in order to placate them. He is eager to do to himself and to others whatever the Party asks. He goes through prolonged criticism and ideological reconditioning in order to lose his class character and achieve a proletarian view. Yet when he is finally sent down to the production team in the countryside, the father finds that he is still a literatus and teacher and that the peasants are still peasants ready to take his instruction. He blows his whistle at dawn to get the peasants to a meeting for Mao slogans. He becomes the local cadre who explains the dictates of the Party from above.

His faith in the Party is diminished only when in 1969 the Party zealots in the city become determined to “cut off the tail of capitalism” in the countryside. They demand that all private raising of pigs, chickens, or ducks be abandoned lest it preserve the evil tendencies of capitalism among the peasantry. In Liang’s production team this means a destruction of sideline income, which will bring malnutrition, maybe starvation. One bold farmer meets the cadre from outside with the statement that his ducks are being prepared for Chairman Mao and he will send them to Peking. “Whoever is crazy enough to try to kill my ducks, well, he’s the one opposing Chairman Mao!” The cadre goes off discomfited but Liang’s father dutifully persuades the farmer to kill his ducklings. Yet for the first time he does not actually defend the Party’s policy. His devotion has been used up.

Liang’s father seems to embody China’s problem. He is so persistent in being an intellectual, so subservient to authority. He cannot conceive any sanction for standing up against the dictates of the Party. But the state power, formerly superficial and unobtrusive in the village, now reaches through the Party to affect even the villager’s ducklings. How is the state power to be limited and the ducks protected?

Liang and Shapiro have only one overt message to convey and that is gently put: as he prepared to leave China for study abroad, Liang Heng “realized how deeply I loved my motherland and her people…. By experiencing disaster my generation did learn one terribly important thing—the danger that lies in blind obedience.”

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