The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir

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Overview

A Washington Post Best of 2012 pick

Three generations of a family living under one roof reflect the dramatic transformations of an entire society in this memoir of life in 20th century China

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 Xi’an, a city in central China, in the 1970s, when a national ...

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The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir

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Overview

A Washington Post Best of 2012 pick

Three generations of a family living under one roof reflect the dramatic transformations of an entire society in this memoir of life in 20th century China

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 Xi’an, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his illuminating memoir, translator and freelance writer Huang chronicles growing up in central China during the 1970s. Weaving Chinese history and culture into his recollections, Huang reveals a family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. At 72, Huang’s grandmother became obsessed with her own death. She cajoled her family into promising they would bury rather than cremate her, a troublesome prospect for the family. The Communists, who insisted on cremation, had outlawed traditional Chinese burials. “Grandma’s request presented a dilemma for Father, who felt obligated to give grandma the burial she wanted but feared for his political future.” For the next 15 years, the family strained under the burden of the personal and financial issues involved while keeping their plans from curious authorities. Huang’s story intersects with the country’s sweeping political changes. The food rationing system was relaxed; cultural life blossomed; TV replaced radio as the main form of information and entertainment; and transportation improved. Huang studied English at a foreign language school, followed by studies in London. “Years of Communist education became like the ancient artifacts,” Huang writes. Huang’s coming-of-age story eloquently describes his family coping with change and how, in a turbulent time, he made sense of the world. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Huang's grandmother wanted not to be cremated but buried, a practice banned by China's government as backward-looking. Huang's father finally built her a coffin and appointed the author (at age eight) to be its guardian. Now a Chicago-based translator, writer, and NPR commentator, Huang began reflecting on how his coffin guarding and his family's 15-year-long focus on his grandmother's death must have shaped his life. Yet another interesting way to look at China, something readers crave.
Kirkus Reviews
Writer and translator Wenguang Huang's candid memoir about growing up in the turbulent aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In 1973, Mao's ruthless political campaign sought to bring an end to all "decadent" traditional practices. But the author would remember the year for a different reason--it was a time when his 71-year-old grandmother "became obsessed with death." Afraid that she would be cremated and rendered unable to reunite with her dead husband in the afterlife, she made her son, Wenguang Huang's father, promise that he would give her a traditional burial. Her son agreed and built a coffin, knowing that if he was discovered, the Communist Party would punish him and his family for disobedience. He made the author the official "coffin keeper." For the next nine years, he dutifully slept near what the family would refer to as Grandma's "longevity wood." In the end, the coffin really did become a kind of longevity talisman because the grandmother would live to be 87. Throughout the 16 years leading up to her death, the family often became embroiled in bitter battles over how they would inter the grandmother, who demanded a traditional Chinese burial next to her husband, whose grave was far from the family home. The one family member who suffered the most was the author's father, who passed away a year before his mother. A "filial son," he had made his mother's obsession his own, to the point where it "sucked him dry until there was nothing left but his own corpse." A trenchantly observed story that depicts the clash of traditional and modern Chinese culture with a powerful combination of sensitivity and mordant irony.
The Washington Post
The memoir is a fascinating look at unhealthy family dynamics: a wife who resents her husband's blind devotion to his mother, grandchildren who begrudge their grandmother the sacrifices she forced on them, and a grandmother who blatantly favors her son and eldest grandson. But this tale isn't just about Huang's family. Vignettes of scrounging for food when rations were scarce and forcing tears at school when Mao died so no one would question Huang's allegiance to communism provide insight into the cultural landscape of China in the tumultuous 1970s.
—Sarah Halzack
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594488290
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/26/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Wenguang Huang,who grew up in northern China, is a Chicago-based writer and translator. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and the Asia Literary Review. Heis the English translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and God Is Red and Yang Xianhui’s Woman from Shanghai.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2012

    The Little Red Guard represents storytelling at its best.

    This book is full of funny yet heartwarming stories about childhood, adolescence and coming of age. The joys and pains of growing up and family described in the book are at once universal and next foreign to those of us who grew up with seemingly unlimited political freedoms. The stories provide interesting insight into growing up under communism and the author's bittersweet memories of life under Mao.

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