Spider Eaters: A Memoir / Edition 1

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Earlier this century the Chinese writer Lu Xun said that some of our ancestors must have bravely attempted to eat crabs so that we would learn they were edible. Trials with spiders were not so enjoyable. Our ancestors suffered their bitter taste and spared us their poison. Rae Yang, a daughter of privilege, became a spider eater at age fifteen, when she enthusiastically joined the Red Guards in Beijing. By seventeen, she volunteered to work on a pig farm and thus began to live at the bottom of Chinese society. With stunning honesty and a lively, sly humor, the complex and likable Yang incorporates the legends, folklore, and local customs of China to evoke the political and moral crises that the revolution brought upon her over three decades, from 1950 to 1980. Unique to memoirists of this genre, Yang expresses often-overlooked psychological nuances and, with admirable candor, charts her own path as both victim and victimizer. Through this gifted author's compelling meditation, readers will, with Yang, grapple with the human scale of national conflicts - and the painful lessons learned by spider eaters.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Yang, assistant professor of East Asian studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., spent her early years in Switzerland as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, and returned to Beijing in the mid-1950s. Although her father's background was upper-class, her parents were committed Communist Party members and educated Yang to become a Maoist revolutionary. This engrossing memoir deals with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, when Yang became a Red Guard who denounced adults she considered counterrevolutionaries. With other fanatic teens, she traveled the country spreading propaganda, raiding homes and inflicting beatings on anyone suspected of political disloyalty; one of these beatings led to the death of the victim. The author also describes friends and relatives who influenced her, vividly invoking her upper-class grandmother, who shared a rich heritage of folktales with Yang. After spending several years as a farm laborer, Yang began to question the revolution and made her way back to Beijing and eventually to the United States. Photos. (Apr.) FYI: The title refers to those driven to eat anything they can find, especially during hard times such as the famine, or Three-Year Natural Calamity, of 1959-1962.
Library Journal
Currently an assistant professor of East Asian studies at Dickinson College, Yang was born in 1950 to parents who were cadres in the Chinese Communist party. She spent her preschool years in Switzerland and elementary school years in China during a famine. Yang attended one of the most prestigious middle schools in Beijing, became a Red Guard, and worked on a pig farm and out in the fields with the peasants. In her memoir, she explores the question of whether she was ever loved and whether she was worthy of love from her parents, nanny, aunt, and grandmother. She describes how women were regarded as jiashu (disposable dependents) by the so-called egalitarian Communist party and how she acted out her revenge on those who imposed hierarchy and formality. For historians and scholars, Yang's book offers a depth of detail on coming of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution that is unrivaled among other recent memoirs (see especially Anchee Min's Red Azalea, LJ 12/93). Highly recommended for all libraries.Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Oak Park, Ill.
Kate Gilbert
"Rae Yang's Spider Eaters is a memoir of youthful passions recollected in cold blood by a very precise and adult writer. Yang's intentions are, from the first, public and political: she wishes to be, for us, a "Spider Eater,"...that refers to those unknown ancestral heroes who, having tried eating something poisonous (in her case, the Cultural Revolution), have left us a record of their actions as a warning....No political novel I have ever read...has made me so clearly understand the seductive nature of the political as this woman's honest indictment of her girl's life in China." -- The Women's Review of Books
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520215986
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/10/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 318
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Rae Yang is Professor of East Asian Studies at Dickinson College.

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Read an Excerpt

Spider Eaters

A Memoir
By Rae Yang

The University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-21598-2

Chapter One

Spider Eaters is at once a moving personal story, a fascinating family history, and a unique chronicle of political upheaval told by a Chinese woman who came of age during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution. With stunning honesty and a lively, sly humor, Rae Yang records her life from her early years as the daughter of Chinese diplomats in Switzerland, to her girlhood at an elite middle school in Beijing, to her adolescent experience as a Red Guard and later as a laborer on a pig farm in the remote northeast. She tells of her eventual disillusionment with the Maoist revolution, how doubts, anger, remorse, and despair drove her almost to suicide, and how she struggled to make sense of conflicting events that often blurred the line between victim and victimizer, hero and coward, communist and counterrevolutionary. Moving gracefully between past and present, dream and reality, the author artfully conveys the vast complexity of life in China as well as the richness, confusion, and magic of her own inner life and struggle. Much of the power of the narrative derives from Yang's multi-generational, cross-class perspective. She invokes the legends, folklore, and local customs that surrounded her and brings to life the many people who were instrumental in her life: her nanny, a poor woman of great kindness and inner strength;her father, a disillusioned old cadre; her beloved grandmother, who died as a result of the political persecution she suffered. Spanning the years from 1950 to 1980, Rae Yang's candidly told story is unique and yet typical of the the sixties generation in China. It is one of the most immediate and engaging narratives of life in post-1949 China.


Excerpted from Spider Eaters by Rae Yang Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Fifteenth Anniversary Edition
Author's Note

1. A Strange Gift from the Pig Farm
2. Old Monkey Monster
3· Nainai's Story Turned into a Nightmare
4· Nainai Failed Her Ancestors
5· Why Did Father Join the Revolution?
6. Second Uncle Was a Paper Tiger
7. The Chinese CIA
8. When Famine Hit
9· A Vicious Girl
10. Aunty's Name Was Chastity
11. Beijing 101 Middle School
12. The Hero in My Dreams
13· At the Center of the Storm
14· Red Guards Had No Sex
15· Semi-transparent Nights
16. "The Hero, Once Departed, Will Never Come Back"
In a Village, Think, Feel, and Be a Peasant
18. "The Tree May Wish to Stand Still, but the Wind Will Not Subside"
19. Death of a Hero: Nainai's Last Story
20. Remorse
2!. Friends and Others
22. My First Love, a Big Mistake?
23. What Have I Lost? What Have I Gained?
24. Epilogue

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2003

    Spider Eaters is a fascinating memoir

    Spider Eaters is a fascinating memoir of Rae Yang and her life during the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution in China. Rae Yang was born in 1950. Her parents were communist intellectuals, Chinese diplomats, and had impeccable revolutionary credentials. As a child she lived in Switzerland where her father worked as a diplomat before moving back to Beijing, China. It is in Beijing that Rae would transform from a diplomat¿s daughter into a Red Guard. She creates a hero, an almost god-like figure, who she later transforms into Chairman Mao. As a youth, Rae¿s imagination allows her to be manipulated and consequently becomes a lost soul. As a means of finding her identity she naively commits to Chairman Mao¿s movement. As a result, Rae travels throughout the country spreading revolutionary enthusiasm. Throughout her travels, Rae witnesses first hand the differences between the peasants in the countryside and the city dwellers. She experiences for herself the class struggle in China. In the countryside life seemed to be much more troubling. There were times when she would work and not bathe for months at a time. She encountered lice, hunger, cold weather, life without electricity, and boredom. In the city life had much more to offer a young girl. There was always something she could do, such as go to an opera, or read a book. However, instead she resided in the Great Northern Wilderness where she volunteered to work at a pig farm. While the two places were much different from each other, both areas had one thing in common. This commonality was the fact that the inhabitants of were experiencing Communism at it¿s height in China. Residents from the countryside and city were both on pins and needles in fear of being accused of speaking or thinking against the Party. If a person is accused, they risked defamation, imprisonment, being tortured or even killed. In this sense, Rae depicts herself as an agent as well as a victim of the Cultural Revolution. She describes the first months of the revolution as the most dreadful and also the most wonderful of her life. She felt empowered by the movement as she and other revolutionaries attacked their teachers, political leaders, parents, and all others who were considered Rightist, Traditionalist, or Counter-revolutionaries. However, Rae experiences moments of shame and embarrassment as well. While she and her companions beat a male counter-revolutionary, he pulls down his pants and displays his erect penis. This is truly insulting her and the other women in the movement. During this time Rae struggles to make sense of conflicting events that feeds her inner life through her dreams and imagination. Rae is burdened by the role of women in Party and the revolution. Women are expected to rid themselves of tradition means and adopt revolutionary ideas, such as cutting their hair and wearing men¿s clothing. In addition, women worked side by side with men on the farm and in the fields. Slogans, such as ¿women holding up half the heavens¿ were actually to no avail. At one point Rae describes how women were regarded as ¿jiashu¿, or disposable, by the Communist party. While there was supposed to be no gender differentiation between the sexes and prevailing equality, there was no real liberation for women. It is when Rae is working on the pig farm that she becomes aware of inconsistency within the revolution and Chairman Mao¿s movement. She was on the farm for five years working endless hours as a hard laborer. While political and military leaders uttered Mao¿s slogans, they were also corrupting the movement. It is the experiences on the farm that lead to her gradual recognition that the movement was a ¿waste¿. As Rae began to question the revolution and makes her way back to Beijing, she comes to the realization that is exemplified best only in her words: The officials at all levels abuse their power. The corrupt ones as well as those

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