by Jan Wong
A sequel of sorts to her maddening, fascinating, invaluable memoir Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, this book chronicles Wong’s return to Beijing in 2008 to find the woman whom she denounced as a traitor at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This betrayal has gnawed at her over the decades, and she makes the trip despite her fears that she will either find out nothing in the face of intractable Communist bureaucracy, or that the woman was imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Bringing her family with her for support, she tracks down a lot of old friends and foes who seem happy enough to see her but aren’t exactly thrilled to talk about the bad old days, suffers through a banquet under the watchful eye of a humorless cadre, and marvels at the changes in Beijing since her college days. (This last despite the fact that Wong lived there as a reporter off and on into the 1990s and made a few visits even in the early 2000s – this shows the tremendous rate of growth the city has undergone.) Little by little, and despite some obfuscations and lies from her sources, she gets a few hints about the woman’s fate – but then it’s time to come face to face and hear her story.
In my review of Red China Blues, I called Wong “deluded,” “naïve,” “blind,” “dangerously stupid,” and “an unrepentant spoiled fool,” which seems a bit harsh now that I write it all out like that. Nevertheless, that book did seem like a personal apologia for her actions, while this one is, as she says, “tantamount to a Maoist self-criticism.” This is a much more palatable book in terms of the narration – Wong shows a little more perspective about truth and consequences here – and equally fascinating in terms of the human stories it tells from China’s tragic 1960s and 70s. Wong’s own story is heartfelt and suspenseful, but what interested me the most was the historical whitewashing she encounters. No country likes to talk about its black marks – America still celebrates Columbus and the Pilgrims as heroes, the Japanese don’t mention war crimes or the Rape of Nanking, Germany outlaws swastikas but would rather not talk about the extent of Nazism’s prevalence – but the ability of the Chinese to switch gears so drastically and with such equanimity is intriguing. As Wong writes, “It makes me wonder why, in a nation as vast as China, so few people try to come to terms with their past.” Yes, it’s painful to revisit oppression, and no one wants to admit he was the oppressor, but the apparent wholehearted enthusiasm with which the Chinese have thrown their lot in with rampant capitalism and materialism is unsettling. It’s as if the moral compass isn’t fixed; the Cultural Revolution was correct because it happened that way, and now laissez-faire capitalism is correct because it’s what’s happening. It’s troubling to think in terms of such a collectivist mindset, but it’s hard to escape it as well.