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Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Despair and disillusionment, after the revolution


By YISHANE LEE
SPIDER EATERS, by Rae Yang. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, 296 pp. w/ 10 pp. photos, $16.95 (paper).

In her memoir "Spider Eaters," Rae Yang writes about how she wasted years of her life in China's northern countryside during the Cultural Revolution. She was an educated youth who, in full revolutionary spirit, volunteered to go live among the peasantry, to learn firsthand about class struggle.

In the next breath, however, she admits the anger has dissipated and that she feels lucky to have gone. "I don't mean that I have much use for the skills I learned on the farm: castrating piglets, building a good kang or a fire wall, winnowing grain with a wooden spade, cutting soybeans with a small sickle. . . . But knowing that I did all these and did them well somehow gives me a safe feeling at the bottom of my heart."

Yang's point? She had been a peasant and a worker; she labored for a living. Suddenly, tenure evaluations at the U.S. college she now teaches at seem trivial.

Yang was a child of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution who became disillusioned with the Communist Party. In a simple and direct voice, she relates the tale of a harsh life lived for hollow principles. The drama is real and the tone, though sometimes as strident as a "big-character poster" denouncing enemies, is sincere. Here is a woman who spent a lifetime struggling with her identity, one closely tied to that of a country undergoing epochal changes.

Born in 1950, one year after the revolution that gave birth to a Red China, Yang was the great-granddaughter of a Manchu aristocrat during the Qing Dynasty, China's last dynasty. As the communist tide swelled, Yang's father, seeking to sever his ties to his upper-class background, joined the Communist Party in the 1940s. He changed his name from one that meant "blazing prosperity" to the more egalitarian "at the mountains." Yang's mother, a college graduate, was also effusive about the new China.

People believed that communism offered the perfect selfless society, bringing every Chinese -- be they intellectuals like the Yangs or a member of the vast peasantry -- freedom, equality and happiness.

The Yangs were assigned to work in the Chinese consulate in Switzerland when their eldest daughter was only a year old. The busy parents raised Rae with the help of Aunty, an older woman not related to them, who years later is let go as a bourgeois accouterment. Yang's earliest memories, then, are of a fairly glamorous expatriate lifestyle.

After they returned to Beijing in 1956, her parents moved in with Nainai, Yang's paternal grandmother, and continued to work for the government. But the first cracks in communism's facade were beginning to appear.

The Anti-Rightist Campaign suddenly punished those who criticized leaders, a practice encouraged in the past. The Great Leap Forward coincided with famine; the government blamed natural disasters and the Russians. No one thought to question it.

At school Yang heard only about the glory of the new nation. Programs like "Recalling Bitterness Big Meetings" were meant to infuse the children of elite party members with righteous thoughts and a sense of nationalism. Still, the 11-year-old Yang began to have doubts. She realized she daydreamed about being rich and not a peasant or worker.

During a drive to "expose the third layer of thoughts" (not unlike Catholicism's confession of sins) she panicked--and lied about what she was really thinking. In turmoil, she waited for her teacher to find out, for didn't exalted teachers know everything? But she was never caught. At this point, Yang's conviction began to slip.

Nevertheless, like thousands of her peers, Yang became swept up in becoming a Red Guard. Traveling to China's south to liberate other cities, drunk on newfound power, she did her part in denouncing others, though she knew she sometimes did so out of personal grievances.

Conflict gnawed at her, as she agonized over doubts even as she appeared to be a model Red Guard. Conversations with and letters to her parents were filled only with revolutionary fervor; it was too dangerous to express anything but support for Mao and his policies.

Yang developed a severe case of insomnia from her turmoil. She thought that doing even more for the party would save her, so she volunteered to move to the Great Northern Wilderness as part of a campaign that encouraged educated youths to live with the peasantry. At age 17, amid much fanfare for these "revolutionary acts," she gave up school and left Beijing. Here her real education begins.

At a village called Cold Spring, Yang felt an even stronger sense of dedication; this was leavened by equally great misgivings. Italics signify her thoughts at the time, illustrating the constant battle she felt.

"I went on working, as fast as I could. All this while a big voice cried out from the bottom of my heart: How I wish I could drop to the ground this very instant! Drop like a sack of wheat! Stay there for ever and ever! Never get up again! Physical labor had indeed purified my mind. It drove all my thoughts away except this one. But this thought is wrong! I mustn't indulge in it! It's bad for the morale."

She learned that peasants were not wrapped up in class struggles as she had been taught; rather, they were kindhearted people engulfed by a revolution that meant little except in terms of getting food on the table. Local village leaders were corrupt. One refused to let a badly injured young worker use his government vehicle to reach the faroff hospital; so much for selflessly helping one another.

After five years, Yang one day realized with a shock that she had become a common peasant. Her parents, facing a similar erosion in their beliefs, managed to retrieve her from Cold Spring by pretending her mother had died. Yang never returned, but for the next few years she was an illegal resident in her own country without her "hukou" (residency seal) in hand.

She found that the fantasy of an egalitarian society had been ruptured by backdoor or "guanxi" deals. This was the so-called "enlightened China" that she had helped to create.

Yang sometimes relies too heavily on proverbs and cliched phrases, but one senses that this is how she lived: by the sayings she was taught and blindly followed, like "As long as the wheelbarrow does not fall apart, push it" and "Kill a chicken to warn monkeys."

Quotation marks appear as well around other phrases, coined by the Communist Party. For example, she and other youths in the countryside are "professional revolutionary experts." It makes the bitter irony she feels even more palpable.

"Spider Eaters" ends with Yang securing passage to the United States to study.

The omission of details once she is abroad seems deliberate, in order to focus on China and her lifelong struggle to understand it. As Yang unblinkingly reviews her life, one can't help but get the sense that hers is not a unique narrative.

It's not surprising, then, that besides recounting the hardship-filled stories of Nainai and Aunty in separate chapters (Nainai's in particular seems worthy of an entire book), she devotes much space in her memoir to what happened to dozens of other educated cadre children who gave their lives, in blind, naive trust, to the Communist Party. Yang admits she was lucky.

Even though she realizes the folly of her government, Yang still feels guilty at having abandoned her country. Her work marks an attempt to reach China's youth today, to prevent history from tragically repeating itself.



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