Synopses & Reviews
Jan Wong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, went to China as a starry-eyed Maoist in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A true believer -- and one of only two Westerners permitted to enroll at Beijing University -- her education included wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory. In the name of the Revolution, she renounced rock and roll, hauled pig manure in the paddy fields, and turned in a fellow student who sought her help in getting to the United States. She also met and married the only American draft dodger from the Vietnam War to seek asylum in China.
Red China Blues begins as Wong's startling -- and ironic -- memoir of her rocky six-year romance with Maoism that began to sour as she became aware of the harsh realities of Chinese communism and led to her eventual repatriation to the West. Returning to China in the late eighties as a journalist, she covered both the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown and the tumultuous era of capitalist reforms under Deng Xiaoping. In a wry, absorbing, and often surreal narrative, she relates the horrors that led to her disillusionment with the "worker's paradise." And through the stories of the people -- an unhappy young woman who was sold into marriage, China's most famous dissident, a doctor who lengthens penises -- Wong creates an extraordinary portrait of the world's most populous nation. In setting out to show readers in the Western world what life is like in China, and why we should care, Wong reacquaints herself with the old friends -- and enemies -- of her radical past, and comes to terms with the legacies of her ancestral homeland.
About the Author
Jan Wong was the Beijing correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail from 1988 to 1994. She is a graduate of McGill University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is the recipient of the George Polk Award, and other honors for her reporting. Wong has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications in the United States and abroad. She lives in Toronto.
Reading Group Guide
1. Jan Wong tells us that all existing dictionaries and language textbooks were destroyed at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Why was this necessary? How effectively could a political system be shaped or controlled by such a measure?
2. When the author realises, early on, that she is not allowed the freedom to think, she says this is “only the beginning of my real awakening, a painful process that would take several years more.” Why was her awakening such a slow process?
3. If the author had grown up in China, do you think her doubts and questions would not have arisen in her student years? Or do you think her classmates went through similar “awakenings”?
4. In theory at least, the workers had better living conditions than intellectuals in China in the early 1970s. Does this strike you as any more unfair than the opposite situation?
5. Having completed the book, what are your feelings about Jan Wongs informing on Yin (the girl who wanted help getting to the West) while she was still an unquestioning Maoist?
6. Could you characterize the four sections of the book? Do they differ in tone as well as content?
7. Broadly speaking, the first half of the book avoids overviews or hindsight, but in the second half the author adopts a more knowing perspective. What effect does this have for the reader?
8. What fresh insights have you obtained from Jan Wongs analysis of the Tiananmen Square demonstration and the detailed description of the subsequent massacre?
9. The author says that the Tiananmen massacre could have been avoided: “An experienced mediator could have solved things so easily.” How different do you think life in China might have been after the demonstration if there had been no violence?
10. At the beginning of the book the author is writing largely about herself and her reactions to the political system. The last part of the book is more concerned with the stories of individuals living in post-Tiananmen Square China. What can you deduce from this? How much do you think she has changed, and how much has China changed?