On June 4, 1989, having heard that the Tiananmen demonstrations had been lethally crushed, Kang Zhengguo, a professor of literature at a university in Shaanxi province, pinned a piece of paper to his chest displaying the words “AIM YOUR GUNS HERE.” Then he joined with his students who were marching to protest the killings that had taken place in Beijing the night before. This open defiance of the Party and its most senior leaders was typical of Kang. “I am incapable of saying what people want to hear,” he writes in his unique and sensitively written account of what it was like to grow up in Communist China from its beginnings in 1949 when he was five. “In fact I regard it as my personal mission to speak the opposite…. Opposition is the motive force in the search for truth.”
Kang now teaches Chinese language and literature at Yale. Others have written memoirs of suffering under the Communists but he is one of the few who have neither uttered nor implied the words “I love China.” Nor has he, as Princeton’s Perry Link says in his introduction, been affected by the tendencies evident in so many other accounts, among them “self-censorship, supplicatory attitude, bizarre modernism, or other deflections of vision.”
Indeed, Kang’s entire life recalls what I had always taken to be one of the saddest works in Chinese literature, Bai Hua’s play Unrequited Love. Beginning in 1981, Bai Hua, an army writer, came under years of sustained attack, led by Deng Xiaoping, for writing about a Chinese intellectual, recently returned from the United States, who criticizes the Chinese leadership for violently clearing Tiananmen Square in April 1976. Demonstrators there, mourning the death of Zhou Enlai in January of that year, had condemned the still all-powerful Gang of Four and, by implication, Mao himself. On the run, Bai Hua’s character confesses that his life has been one of “unrequited love, of one-sided affection.” His daughter says, “Father, you love your country…. But Father, does your country love you?”
Kang’s plight is darker. One of his lifelong wishes, he writes, was to “leave China for a land—any land—where I would be free of the Communist Party, its personnel cadres, and the Security Bureau.” This is not surprising. Even as a teenager, Kang was warned that he was, in his words, a maverick, that he was “behaving badly.” “‘Behaving,'” he points out, in one of his observations of the details of Communist control, “meant putting on a deliberate show of allegiance to the authorities. When the teachers and school leadership evaluated your ‘behavior,’ they were referring to your politics, and you had to play the game right if you wanted a rating of ‘well behaved.'”
Kang’s bad behavior was made worse by the fact that he came from a “Bad Class Background,” with a devout Buddhist grandfather and university-educated parents. His father was a drunk, a habit acquired while trying to avoid antagonizing the authorities, and his mother was severe and obsessive.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.