Ying Chang Compestine,
Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
Henry Holt & Company, 2007.
The interesting title for this young-adult novel about the life during China's tumultuous "Cultural Revolution" is actually a quote taken from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book:
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, a painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another."
So many books about this experience have already been written, so much so that the body of literature on the subject constitutes its own genre. In the beginning there was Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, then Jung Chang's Wild Swans, followed by Anchee Min's Red Azalea, Da Chen's Colors of the Mountain, Ji-li Jiang's Red Scarf Girl, etc. All unforgettable, well-written literary works. Although Da Chen's Colors of the Mountain has been versioned as a young-adult novel under the title China's Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution, and Chinese-Canadian Ange Zhang's experience has been chronicled in his illustrated book Red Land Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution (his famous father wrote the "Yellow River Cantata"), few books about the experience are suitable for pre-teens.
Ying Chang Competine's account, based on her family's personal experiences in Wuhan over several years, has been written for younger readers. It chronicles the story of nine-year-old Ling, who is living a relatively privileged life as the only child of two doctors. Her father has studied abroad, in San Francisco, and the whole family is keen to maintain their links with the West, learning English together by radio, dancing western dances in their small flat, and benefiting from the little kindnesses of friends overseas, who send packages of goodies by post. All this is stripped from the family over the course of the anarchy that is the Cultural Revolution. The father is taken away, and Ling has become an outcast at school, among other things.
Although the litany of outrages against Ling and her family can at times be hard to grasp, we know that in this day and age, nine-year-olds are old enough to understand these outrages, and should be told them. The author achieves this by telling the story of this young girl in a way that young people can relate to: she is afraid when people barge into her home and take their things, she just wants to fit in at school; she is afraid of the bullies; she misses her father (and her preoccupied mother). But, importantly for young readers, this is a story with a happy ending after all; father returns, the mean ones have gotten their comeuppance, and Ling has found a courage within her she never knew existed. She has even managed to save the last vestige of their former lives, the beloved photo of San's Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. This is all good for impressionable readers, who need to know that there are happy endings, so they are well armed for when it comes to their own bullies. And, it is worth noting, that these kinds of almost unbelievable atrocities against children brought about by anarchical conditions have not ended -- they have only shifted to other countries.
Compestine has written on her website (yingc.com a moving essay about why she wrote the book; her author's notes that explain more about the Cultural Revolution (the chronology of events is not true-to-life in her novel), finishing off with the statement that, for all that had happened, she misses her homeland deeply and that "... after a long slumber, China is awakening and taking its place on the world stage."
02 March 2008
Karmel Schreyer writes educational materials for Asian children and is the author of the young-adult novels, Naomi: The Strawberry Blonde of Pippu Town and A Singing Bird Will Come: Naomi in Hong Kong.