Reading Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro's Son of the Revolution

Introduction to The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976

The period of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (approximately 1966-76) was the most extreme in modern Chinese history. Though its underlying causes were political, it had profound cultural and economic consequences. Chairman Mao began the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to regain power after criticisms emerged about the ruling of China. His goal was to return to the ideals of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Liu Shaoqi and other "revisionists" had advocated relying on an urban intellectual elite to lead national development, and they favored using bonuses as incentives to increase production. Mao Zedong, however, emphasized that workers and peasants were the true revolutionary forces, and he sought to increase production through political idealism (including propaganda and "re-education"). He closed the schools and called upon all youth to take up the cause of revolution as "Red Guards." They were to fight against those who were "taking the "capitalist road." With the support of the Red Guards and the army, Mao had Liu Shaoqi removed from power by the end of 1968; revolutionary committees were established at all levels to replace the centralized bureaucracy associated with Liu. Party cadres were sent to the countryside to learn respect for physical labor and "correct" political thinking. The Red Guards attempted to eliminate the "Four Olds": old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. They traveled around the country destroying religious icons and ancient art works, changing names of streets and parks, forcing women to avoid "bourgeois" clothing and long hair, and violently attacking counterrevolutionaries and foreigners. The Red Guards purged one faction after another, often with no apparent consistency, and fought with one another. Thus, it was dangerous to speak and write, because what was proper one day might be considered counter-revolutionary the next day.

About Liang Heng and the Story of Son of the Revolution

Liang Heng was born in 1954 in Changsha, a large city in Central China. His parents were intellectuals — his father a reporter on a major provincial newspaper, his mother a ranking cadre in the local police. Liang Heng’s portrait of life during the Cultural Revolution highlights the effect of its turbulent political campaigns on China’s social fabric. His story traces the break up of his own family during this time, his experience of being sent down to the countryside for "re-education," his membership in the Red Guards at age 12, and his job at a local factory. By pulling some strings a few years later, he was afforded the opportunity to apply for a college education. In addition to depicting the strengths, limitations, and realities of procuring a university education during the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, Liang Heng narrates a second story, namely the budding romance between him and Judith Shapiro, a teacher in the Foreign Languages Department at Hunan University.

Discussion Questions

  1. Mao’s call to "Bombard the Headquarters" re-fueled political activism during the Cultural Revolution. Who came under attack and for what reasons?
  2. Why did the author believe that the Cultural Revolution was a wonderful thing for China?
  3. What motivations drew students together to launch and participate in "revolution"? What were some of the activities in which they engaged? Why did Liang Heng’s father criticize his actions?
  4. How did the shifting political winds of the period come to impact on Liang Heng and his family? Of what were they accused? How did their lives change as a result?
  5. Given that parents were deeply involved in working to build Socialism, how was family life consequently affected? Did this change over time?
  6. The Communists instituted a system under which everyone was required to register their place of residence (hu kou). This system segregated urban from rural residents and entitled urban dwellers to certain subsidies, such as food coupons. Consider how this affected Liang Heng’s family situation?
  7. How did personal names and public spaces adopt the language of revolution? Give examples.
    (Refer also to the teaching unit on Chinese Names).
  8. How did the campaign to criticize the "Four Olds" attempt to dismantle traditional society and values? How do the characters of the father and Liang Fang represent the struggle between the traditional past and the revolutionary present?
  9. Liang Heng describes the chance to see Chairman Mao as causing a feeling of "ecstasy." Why do you think he uses this word? Can you think of anyone else in history or in your personal experience who inspires similar feelings?
  10. In 1968 according to Mao’s directives, lower and high school graduates were to "go up to the mountains and down to the villages" in order to live, work, and learn from the peasants. How did the party promote and justify this rustication program to the Urban Youth? What were the various reasons urban youth excitedly signed up for this campaign? How did this affect urban families?
  11. One might consider the contrast that exits between the children of the reform era and those who were teenagers active in the Cultural Revolution. Do you think the youth of today can conceive of the sacrifices made during the Mao years when all of ones actions and words had political consequences?

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