Martine's Reviews > Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao To Now

Red China Blues by Jan Wong
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Feb 10, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: asian, favourites, history, journalism-in-book-form, memoirs, non-fiction, social-history, north-american
Recommended for: anyone interested in China and unusual memoirs
Read in January, 1997

Memoirs about life in twentieth-century China tend to be profoundly depressing. I remember reading Wild Swans as a student and being so utterly depressed afterwards that I seriously wondered if I really wanted to go on learning Chinese and becoming a sinologist. And then I went to China and realised that no, I most certainly did not want to be a career sinologist. China and I are a bad match, but that doesn't stop me from continuing to be fascinated by the country.

Of all the memoirs of life in twentieth-century China which have been published over the past twenty years, this is my favourite, precisely because it is not depressing. Sure, Wong describes some pretty shocking stuff, but for all that, the tone of her book is remarkably light-hearted. It's an easy, thoroughly engaging and occasionally mind-boggling memoir-cum-history of China which I highly recommend to anyone who is remotely interested in China.

The first half of the book is quite unique. In it, Wong (born into a fairly wealthy Canadian Chinese family) describes her teenage love affair with Maoism, which culminates in her visit to China in 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. While shocked by the poverty she encounters, she decides to stay in China, becoming one of only two foreign students allowed to study at the newly reopened Beijing University. Eager to impress their two foreign guests, the authorities try to pamper then, only to find that Jan and her American fellow student Erica are devoted Maoists who, rather than having favours bestowed on them, want to become worker-soldier-peasant students just like their Chinese classmates. So when they're not learning Chinese by reading Mao and translations of Stalin, they shovel manure, work heavy equipment and break their backs harvesting aubergines and peanuts. While doing so, they encounter an awful lot of stuff that isn't quite right (and do some things themselves that are't completely right, either), but being young and naive and impossibly idealistic, they turn a blind eye. Wong ends up staying in China for six years, during which time her belief in Mao's brand of socialism very slowly erodes. From the reader's perspective, it takes an awful lot of time for her to realise that the Cultural Revolution is a disaster, but her misguided faith and enthusiasm do make for a very interesting read. Hers is a rare first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution from a brain-washed Westerner's point of view, and it's compelling stuff.

The second part of the book is less unique, but still fascinating. After a lengthy stint in North America, Wong returns to China in the late 1980s as a journalist, and decides to stay in Beijing when all hell breaks loose on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and nearly all other foreigners are being evacuated from the country. Her account of the Tiananmen massacre is utterly compelling and chilling. She then goes on to describe meetings with dissidents, social ills in the countryside, the effects of China's new-found capitalism, etc., all the while drawing comparisons with the China she knew in the 1970s.

I guess one of the reasons why Red China Blues strikes such a chord with me is because in a way, Jan Wong's relationship with China mirrors my own. Like Wong, I went from infatuation with China to an acute dislike of the country. Needless to say, my own story isn't nearly as spectacular or dramatic as hers, but still, I recognise the feelings she describes.

Which is not to say that you have to be a disillusioned sinologist to appreciate this book. There's plenty to enjoy for non-sinologists. I have never read any of Jan Wong's columns in the Globe and Mail, but judging from this book, she is an excellent journalist. She is well-informed, has a good eye for odd and telling details and comes up with some very astute observations on China's past, present and future. Furthermore, she is honest and self-deprecating and gets good quotes from the locals because they trust her more than they do non-Chinese-looking-and-speaking journalists. It's easy to criticise Wong for being so terribly naive in the 1970s, but I for one found her portrayal of a genuinely deluded Maoist quite fascinating, not to mention frequently entertaining. As I said, it's a remarkably light-hearted book given the subject matter -- a nice change from all the serious, soul-crushing memoirs which have been published about life in China over the past twenty years. Very highly recommended to those who like well-written accounts of unusual lives and even more unusual historical developments.
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Mister Jones Good review! Red Star Blues was a good read, one of the better books I've read about China--simply because it doesn't fall too much off the mark about the current atmosphere there now--despite glowing exposes about China's economic boom, even though there have been "cosmetic improvements."

I lived and taught in China for five and a half years, married a Chinese, but I'd be a liar if I said I totally loved China; I cringed at times when I hear the word itself.

Still, oddly enough I have a morbid fascination with the country, its people, and its politics, and I think Jan Wong give a strong unique pespective to why she does.

I'm just glad I don't live and work there anymore.

Martine I completely know what you mean. I went from wanting to be Chinese, live in China and have a Chinese husband to hating China with all the hatred I had in me. Now that I no longer have anything to do with the country, I don't particularly care either way. I don't hate China any more; I've just come to the conclusion it's not a good place for me. I know I could never live there. Taiwan, possibly (I enjoyed the two years I spent there); the People's Republic, not in a million years. It's just not my country.

And yet... Despite my anti-Chinese sentiments, I continue to be fascinated by China. I will always have periods when I'll watch heaps of Chinese films, listen to heaps of Chinese music and read heaps of literature about China. I guess the country did take hold of me, just like it did of Jan Wong. It's weird that way.

I guess 'morbid fascination' is the right way to describe it. :-)

Stephanie Vogel Excellent review! I was going to write one but you stated everything I wanted to say, well done!

Stephanie Vogel Excellent review! I was going to write one but you stated everything I wanted to say, well done!

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