The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir
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A Washington Post Best of 2012 pick
“Delightful . . . a book that brings a corner of modern China alive.”—The Wall Street Journal
When Wenguang Huang was nine years old, his grandmother became obsessed with her own death. Fearing cremation, she extracted from her family the promise to bury her after she died. This was in Xian, a city in central China, in the 1970s, when a national ban on all traditional Chinese practices, including burials, was strictly enforced. But Huang’s grandmother was persistent, and two years later, his father built her a coffin. He also appointed his older son, Wenguang, as coffin keeper, a distinction that meant, among other things, sleeping next to the coffin at night.
Over the next fifteen years, the whole family was consumed with planning Grandma’s burial, a regular source of friction and contention, with the constant risk of being caught by the authorities. Many years after her death, the family’s memories of her coffin still loom large. Huang, now living and working in America, has come to realize how much the concern over the coffin has affected his upbringing and shaped the lives of everyone in the family. Lyrical and poignant, funny and heartrending, The Little Red Guard is the powerful tale of an ordinary family finding their way through turbulence and transition.
wrongdoing and ended up kneeling on the cold floor for three hours. My parents were proud of their methods. At a parent-teacher meeting, when my teacher praised me for scoring the highest in all subjects, Father, who had never coached me in my studies, responded, “He’s not that smart; it’s the result of good discipline.” Whether that was true or not, Father did instill in me a sense of responsibility for the family, constantly reminding me of my obligations to honor the family name.
mother was born in 1938 into a family of land-owning farmers. Her grandfather was village chief and headed a secret martial-arts society. But in 1936, his clan became involved in a dispute with another underground society and, on a summer evening, he was stabbed to death near the village entrance. The murderer was never caught. Her father, my gong-gong, was the only boy in the family. He had eight sisters who were each strong-willed and ran the household after their father’s death. In 1932,
Beijing opera magazines from the 1950s. The government regarded most Chinese and foreign books and operas published or performed before the Cultural Revolution as “poisonous weeds.” Only those about the Communist Revolution were allowed. And here they were—magazines featuring stories and colorful pictures of those banned operas on full display. I flipped through some pages and became lost in my reading, absently sitting on a small bench next to Grandma’s coffin. I realized that many of the
and found the Christian idea of the heaven that exists after death to be soothing. If Grandma accepted Christian faith, knowing that she might ascend to such a heaven, she would not be as scared of death as she was then, I thought. I stayed with a British couple in Oxford over the holiday. Both the husband and wife were teachers. They were my parents’ age and had two children. There were lively discussions of politics at the dinner table, and the parents allowed their children to express
consoled at a neighbor’s house. Grandma had not been told that Father was dead, but she was having one of her lucid moments and knew something was seriously amiss. I did not want to be the one to tell her and asked a relative to come take her so we could plan Father’s wake. She moaned and struggled as we carried her out to a flatbed tricycle and peddled through the busy streets. At the relative’s house, she grabbed at my hands like a fearful child and begged me not to leave. There is a saying in