Sun, Jun 15, 2008 - Page 14 News List

A child's view of the 'Great Leap'

Moying Li's new memoir details her experiences growing up during China's Cultural Revolution, which she says gave her a hunger for education

By David Mehegan  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BOSTON

Once upon a time in faraway China, a little girl lived with her father and grandparents in a house with a courtyard in Beijing. She was happy, playing with her schoolmates and little brother. Then hard times came. She lived through them safely, grew up, and came to the US to study. Now she lives happily with her husband in a house with a courtyard on Beacon Hill, in Boston.

That’s the story of Moying Li, 53, author of the just-published Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution. Published in the young-adult category, the book is written in a style that could appeal as readily to adult readers. It begins with China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1958 and ends in 1977, with the 26-year-old English student crossing the Luohu Bridge into Hong Kong en route to a flight that will take her to a new life in the US.

There are many accounts of the Cultural Revolution, which ravaged Chinese society from 1966 to 1976. What sets Li’s witness and memory apart is its simplicity, lack of clutter or moralizing. It is almost entirely about relationships, with little of politics or history. She does not look back in anger. “I see it in a Taoist way,” she said in an interview at her home. “The good and the bad are part of each other, somehow. Even though I and my generation went though hard times, without it I wonder if we would have gained maturity and reflection. In one sense, the experience of the Cultural Revolution has become to me a strength.”

Li’s mother, assigned to teach in another city, was often absent, so the key adults in the child’s life were her father, who was a screenwriter for an army film bureau and a book lover, and her dynamic grandmother. Both lavished warmth on the two children, and encouraged them to be students and readers. But they were not immune from the troubles around them. In the late 1950s, the family built a backyard furnace, part of a delusional national campaign to build a steel industry that would overtake the productivity of the West. That and other policies of national mismanagement led to failure and famine.

In 1966, when Li was 12, the Cultural Revolution burst over her school as it swept the country. Groups of fanatical students, called Red Guards, engaged in a witch hunt, seeking to root out perceived enemies holding back the communist revolution. Students, teachers, and administrators were denounced and attacked. In one incident, an older girl who had previously befriended Li presided over a kangaroo court where a 7-year-old child was forced to beat her father, the assistant headmaster, with a stick. After similar attacks, the headmaster hanged himself, and one of Li’s uncles likewise committed suicide. A squad of Red Guards burst into her house, destroyed her father’s record collection, and took away his books. A group of thugs threatened Li’s widowed grandmother.

Over the following years, most schools and colleges were closed, and those that remained open concentrated on the thought of party chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東). Li’s mother was confined to her school, and her father was arrested and sentenced to a prison camp. Determined that his children not miss their education, he smuggled a letter to Li from the camp, telling her where she could borrow English books, including Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Jack London, and Mark Twain. She sought out the books, read them hungrily, and shared them secretly with a few friends.

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