Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China

Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China

by Kang Zhengguo

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“A mesmerizing read.... A literary work of high distinction.” —William Grimes, New York Times

This “gripping and poignant memoir” (New York Times Book Review) draws us into the intersections of everyday life and Communist power from the first days of “Liberation” in 1949 through the post-Mao era. The


“A mesmerizing read.... A literary work of high distinction.” —William Grimes, New York Times

This “gripping and poignant memoir” (New York Times Book Review) draws us into the intersections of everyday life and Communist power from the first days of “Liberation” in 1949 through the post-Mao era. The son of a professional family, Kang Zhengguo is a free spirit, drawn to literature. In Mao’s China, these innocuous circumstances expose him at age twenty to a fierce struggle session, expulsion from university, and a four-year term of hard labor. So begins his long stay in the prison-camp system. He finally escapes the Chinese gulag by forfeiting his identity: at age twenty-eight he is adopted by an aging bachelor in a peasant village, which enables him to start a new life.

Editorial Reviews

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Bookish, languid, and thoughtful, Kang was raised in a family that personified everything the Communists sought to destroy. In his sobering memoir, set against the backdrop of an extraordinary time in Chinese history, he takes readers on a tour of a society so twisted that, provided one is viewing it from afar, it can be difficult to separate the tragic from the farcical.

Mao and his henchmen targeted intellectuals and the elderly, many of whom were physically as well as mentally abused. Kang's grandfather, a docile Buddhist, was beaten, and Kang was forced to write endless "confessions" which were added to a file designed to cripple his future. Describing his arrest (for such subversive acts as reading Western literature and dating a fellow student), a stint in a labor camp, his bizarre adoption at 28 by a middle-aged peasant, marriage, escape to America, and an ill-fated return to China, Kang infuses his story with a heartbreaking sense of humor at the sad futility of life under an authoritarian regime that would waste time and energy in order to stifle creativity and a work ethic. Kang's Confessions is both a cautionary tale and a delicate, poetic elegy for a deeply loved, lost country. (Fall 2007 Selection)
William Grimes
Dreamy, lazy, romantic, stubborn and impulsive, Mr. Kang spelled trouble from the start. He was not a dissident in the normal sense, but a determined individualist and a goof-off, seemingly intent on working against his own best interests, which is what makes Memoirs such a mesmerizing read.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The author of this absorbing memoir was a misfit in the most misfit-intolerant place on earth. Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, Kang kept secret diaries, disdained the political sloganeering at his university and was sent away for requesting the suspect novel Doctor Zhivago—crimes that landed him a three-year prison term and resettlement in a peasant commune where the work was almost as backbreaking as in the camps. His story is a lively, intricate account of communism's panoptic police state, suffocating bureaucracy (residency permits and ration cards made moving, working and eating impossibly complex) and rabid witch hunts for imaginary class villains, all of which only exacerbated traditional obsessions with obtaining food, housing and a spouse. But official denunciations of Kang's bad attitude weren't entirely wrong. "I treasured laziness," he writes. "I admired the work habits of carnivorous animals like lions... free to loll around all day once they had finished capturing their prey." Such profoundly unproletarian sentiments put him at odds not only with the Party but with his despairing parents and disgruntled villagers who felt he was shirking in the fields. Kang's rugged individualism takes his story beyond the usual narrative of persecution and hardship, making it an incisive, personal critique of a deeply conformist society. Photos. (June)

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Kirkus Reviews
One man's protracted struggle for intellectual freedom and simple dignity from the beginning of Mao's regime to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Kang, who now teaches Chinese language and literature at Yale, was born just before the end of World War II and recalls the arrival of victorious Communist troops in his home city of Xi'an. Because the new regime classified his grandfather as a landlord, the family's fortunes began a slow but certain decline. A curious youth, Kang read books in his grandfather's library and even, without permission, traded and sold some to acquire new ones. He went off to the local university, where he quickly got into trouble. He was doing the unthinkable: thinking and reading and writing. He was soon expelled and condemned to working in a local brickyard with other undesirables. Shortly after he ordered a copy of Doctor Zhivago from Moscow, he was arrested and banished to the countryside, where he was first imprisoned, then placed in a rural labor camp. In 1971, he was sent to live in obscurity in a peasant village; there, he married a local woman, had children and appeared to have vanished into an almost medieval life. When he again began to study and to learn English, his wife was at first flabbergasted by his intellectual interests. The post-Mao thaw enabled him to clear his record and to return to the university after a 15-year absence, but the authorities considered his master's thesis politically incorrect and denied him his degree. In 1994, he was able to leave China with his family and begin a new life teaching in the United States. A return visit in 2000 occasioned another arrest, from which he barely escaped. A haunting,frightening and ultimately inspiring story, told in sturdy, unadorned prose.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Kang Zhengguo is senior lector of Chinese at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Susan Wilf teaches at George School in Pennsylvania and was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Grant for Confessions.

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