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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A contradictory review of Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’

A contradictory review of Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’ in Vol. 7 No 2 (2013) of

Wolfgang B. Sperlich

In Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’ the Cultural Revolution and its main protagonist, Mao Tse-tung, are variously labelled as ‘authoritarian, paranoid, unjust, dark, malevolent, manipulative, brain-washing, torturous, totalitarian, abysmal, senseless, cruel, iron-fisted, fanatical, violent, masculine, dogmatic, indoctrinating, frenzied, extreme, frantic, suffocating, tyrannical, autocratic, inhuman, feudalistic, cowardly, oppressive, evil and abusive’ and at the same the reader is invited to consider Sun’s statement that ‘by serving as a witness and providing a personal testimony to the inherent “evils” in contemporary China, these writers are welcomed as guests in the West because they don’t critically examine the oppressive and hegemonic nature of the new world order’.

So is this a classical case for Mao Tse-tung’s (1937) famous essay ‘On Contradiction’? Maoism is after all not quite dead yet, as indeed China’s new leader Xi Jinping has reiterated recently (15 July 2013). Hence what is Sun’s purpose in writing this article? Since the question of the ‘audience’ is the famous sine qua non of Critical Literacy, one can only guess that the editors of the eponymous journal determined that Sun speaks to the Critical Literacy audience. Does Sun’s opinion piece go towards a reconciliation of sorts, hoping against hope that such an article will be acceptable to the academic establishment in Beijing? Are any of the readers of Critical Literacy sympathetic towards Maoism, in theory or praxis? Or even the Cultural Revolution? Let us assume a small possibility, hence my review.

If we employ Mao’s ‘two world-view’ metaphor, can we also employ Sun’s above adjectives to describe the current American regime? President Obama personally signs off drone attacks causing quite a bit of collateral damage (30 May 2012), and as Sun points out:

Actually, serious human rights problems also exist in contemporary American society, especially after the 9/11, such as racial discrimination toward the Muslims, surveillance of people’s private phone conversations, abusive treatment of prisoners of war in the internment camp in Cuba, subjecting immigrants to high levels of governmental scrutiny by creating detention centers for the undocumented immigrants and denying them medical
assistance …, as well as censorship on certain politically sensitive publications.

We could add Chomsky’s (2003) list of US war crimes as well as Loewenstein’s recent (2013) book on Profits of Doom in which he notes that the US has the largest prison population (per capita) in the world and largely made up of the US’s minority communities. Detractors will claim that these ‘crimes’ do not add up to the ‘genocidal atrocities’ committed by Mao, hence the US can still claim the high moral ground. Is there a neutral observer who can quote the relevant statistics of death and destruction in China and the USA? Shall we live by the maxim of the ‘lesser evil’ and employ Orwellian newspeak and rejoice with Sun that the ‘narratives culminate in their escape from China to the West, from political oppression to the ultimate freedom’. Is this ‘ultimate freedom’ the best we can hope for? Is it just a pragmatic stance that says that ‘(American-style) democracy isn’t perfect but is the best we have’?

What exactly then does Sun mean when she implores US teachers to use these texts ‘critically’ so that the students can ‘call into question the capitalist system on which this country is built …. express their frustrations and disappointments about stagnant social upward mobility …. indignant about unfair wealth distribution and bourgeoisie (sic, my emphasis) exploitation caused by blatant loopholes in the American political system’? Isn’t that what a young Mao did with respect to China and the rest of the world by studying Marx and Lenin (and who knew the word ‘bourgeoisie and how to use it)’ ? Or is there a sub-text like: in the USA students should be allowed to study Marx and thereby realise that he was all wrong and that it engenders people like Mao to become homicidal maniacs? Of course historians always tell us that Mao didn’t have capitalism in China at the time, and instead was dealing with a feudalist system, namely a serf-like system endemic in Russia, hence there was nothing to learn from Marx as he was much more advanced in tackling the question of ‘das Kapital’, only to get it horribly wrong, or did he? All in all there are so many contradictions that we cannot possibly allow Sun to call for a sort of academic freedom that Mao called ‘let a thousand schools of thought blossom’. While Sun bravely quotes the likes of Freire and Zinn, she does so in the jester’s knowledge that there isn’t a chance in hell that anyone in power in the US will pay any attention to them -  other than laugh about them. Is it therefore just some kind of nice academic posturing or is there a real sense of Sun’s concluding remark of ‘for teachers, critically examining the representations of the Cultural Revolution in young adult literature with students is probably a good start to embark on the journey of reading for social justice and a better world’?

Notwithstanding Sun, the only ‘revolutions’ that can be contemplated in the USA at present are those of the banking kind that ‘revolutionize’ the ease with which the tax payers have to fund the ‘profits of doom’ – to use Loewenstein’s metaphor. A young Mao today will have the greatest difficulties in writing ‘On Contradiction in the USA’ simply because the contradictions have multiplied from the binary model into a nasty bog of neo-feudal, post-modernist, pre-virtual, sexist, neo-fascist and fundamentalist religious proportions that leaves the socialist analyst perplexed to the degree of catatonic verbiage – the present author included. On the other hand, as Chomsky explains for linguistics and language in general, we are born with the binary brain and we can only solve binary problems. As such the baffling, binary question will remain: will the East prevail over the West, as Mao once predicted? If so, what would Sun’s and Critical Literacy’s position be in this new world order? It hardly bears thinking about.


Mao Tse-tung. 1937. On Contradiction. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. Foreign
            Languages Press, Peking.

Chomsky, N. 2003. Hegemony or survival. America’s quest for global dominance.
            Metropolitan Books.

Loewenstein, A. 2013. Profits of doom. Melbourne University Publishing.

Newsmax (15 May 2012). White House: Drone Attacks, ‘Kill List’ Necessary to

South China Morning Post (15 July 2013). Xi Jinping turns to Mao Zedong's thoughts

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