BOOK REVIEW: China’s Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution

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“Da Chen was born in China in 1962. The grandson of a landlord, he found that he and his family were outcasts in Communist China. Da was an excellent student until a teacher told him that because of his family’s ‘crimes’, he could never be more than a poor farmer…

Family History

China’s Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution or Da Chen’s autobiography (at least of his childhood and adolescence) brings us right down to the grassroots level of how the Chinese folks were living out Mao’s reformist policies. As the Das are from the feudal class, his family life turned topsy-turvy overnight when the labour class took on leadership roles.

His father, a learned acupuncturist, was sent to a concentration camp for hard labour while his mother, two sisters and elder brother (another bright scholar) were summoned to till lands that were once their inheritance.

If you come from a well-to-do family with maids to wait on you and are accustomed to a life of luxury, wouldn’t it be a horrible nightmare if your maid suddenly becomes the head of the village?

What’s worse, Da is actually an intelligent lad but because of his family background, he is given a tough time at school. Just to keep his place in the class, he has to work extra hard, tutor the weaker students and also do everything in his power to NOT attract attention to himself. That’s pretty hard when your scores keep coming up top ahead of everyone else!

Bad Company

Before you dismiss “China’s Sonas a story about a geek, you’ll be fascinated to learn that Da soon becomes a little gangster. I mean…after getting picked on by teachers and jeered by (even spat on) your classmates and schoolmates, there’s just so much a teenage boy can take.

He befriends a group of young gamblers who run a healthy “business” cheating and tricking less capable gamblers of their money. When Da’s quick thinking helps the leader of the pack, he is accepted into their company and soon, books become less attractive to him compared to winning money and friends.

Da and his friends’ exploits will give you a lot to laugh about and also tug at your heartstrings when you read how genuine and unconditional their friendship is.

China’s Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976 and I recall watching it in action through Leslie Cheung’s “Farewell My Concubine (1993)” where books were burned and art and music were considered crimes.

(The movie is based on a book by Lilian Lee, Farewell My Concubine: Novel, A)

I also recall a glimpse of this terrible tragedy in the erotic film “The Red Violin (Special Edition), with beautiful music…

A New Beginning…

Of course, Da’s father and mother worry about this change in him but the turning point comes when Chairman Mao dies.

The Communist Party posts a decree announcing that the national level university entry examinations are now open to EVERY eligible candidate, regardless of class.

This is a golden opportunity for Da and also his older brother. Da’s father advises both brothers to work hard – Da feels ashamed of having wasted his time away and vows to help his farmer brother catch up on his schoolwork.

After a year of idling away, Da finds his lessons, especially English, unsurprisingly difficult. Yet, he puts his nose to the grind and plods on. As he banks on his Chinese and Math to see him through, he realize that he may fail to catch up in the short time available.

Fortunately, he finds a “secret weapon” when his father, the acupuncturist, finds favour in one of the guards and is allowed to practise his trade secretly. His father heals one of the key characters in their village and this person lends a hand to Da…

I should stop here before I give the rest of the story away. This is one interesting YA novel to read!

While reading it, I felt like I was reading a Chinese version of “Animal Farm” by George Orwell

I hope that Da would write another novel or better, someone would pick up this book and turn it into a movie…

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