Was the Cultural Revolution in China the equivalent of, say, the French Revolution or the Cromwellian decade in England? Are times of moral fanaticism always short-lived, as these two were, and separated by long centuries of relative calm, characterized by the rule of the rich, with a few crumbs tossed to the poor on suitable occasions?
This is only one of the thoughts prompted by Feather in the Storm, yet another account of horrors experienced in China in the late 1960s prior to the writer's escape to a comfortable and affluent existence in the US.
Another is this: Why are there so many books about Chinese nightmares, and why are they all published in America? Is this some aspect of an on-going New Cold War, a veiled propaganda campaign waged through the corridors of literature? Books about the delights of life in the People's Republic are certainly hard to come by.
This is not to say that the tribulations visited on millions by China's Red Guards are a figment of anyone's imagination. The evidence is far too extensive, and the testimony of survivors too similar. No, it's not the phenomenon itself that's in any doubt, but rather the motives of those who flood the market with accounts of those terrible years. History has undoubtedly provided the ammunition, but who's firing the guns, and at whom?
Having got that off my chest, it's time to look at the book. It's actually rather a good one, by which I mean it's concisely written, believable, and certainly not marked by the kind of English even the best authors writing in a second language tend to come up with. But then Emily Wu has wisely engaged a professional writer and native-speaker to help her. Together they've created a very readable product.
Even so, this book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local "team leader" and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant "Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed" one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of "black" (as oppose to "red") families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).
There are many other ingredients that make up this formula. To repeat, these books certainly reflect some of the realities of what were undoubtedly dreadful times, but, as is the case with all literary creations, they represent only a selection from a far larger mass of possible material. You don't write about casual kindnesses or increased crop yields in this kind of book. The formula requires horrors, just as the formula for crime stories requires a dead body, a hidden weapon, a couple of key witnesses who only show up late in the tale, and the final unmasking of the murderer.
Echoes of George Orwell's Animal Farm are an obligatory ingredient of this Nightmares of the Cultural Revolution genre. The ordinary people are like sheep, bleating whatever they're told to bleat. The leaders are corrupt to the core, urging the populace on to new sacrifices while themselves enjoying luxuries denied to the masses. The old (like Orwell's Boxer, the carthorse) die after struggling to further the ends of the revolution without ever seeing any benefit from their labors. The vain (usually women) continue to be vain despite their uniforms, and the lustful (always men) secretly pursue their prey under the guise of doing their revolutionary duty (questioning a young female suspect in private, for instance).