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Dying in Dignity Is the Last Human Right

July 9, 2012

On Reading Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard

The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir
Wenguang Huang
April 26, 2012
Hardcover: 262 pages

As I was reading Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard, I became increasingly disconcerted. I asked myself: Have I plagiarized Huang’s life? Or, is Huang’s family memoir in fact a novel with my family’s history blended into it?

Huang takes us forty years back with his memoir, which tells the fascinating true story of life under Mao Zedong’s communist regime. It is about growing up amid the tumultuous struggle between China’s past and present. Not only does this book revive the past, it also heightens the reader’s understanding of and interest in China’s complex history and politics in the twentieth century.  

In 1974, Huang, age ten and the eldest boy of the family, was given the responsibility of guarding his grandmother’s coffin. At night, he even had to sleep next to it. Since the 1949 communist takeover of China, the government had banned the practice of traditional burial. However, Huang’s grandmother insisted on being properly buried after her death; the family grudgingly began to find a way to secretly hold a traditional funeral and burial in order to appease Grandmother, who was becoming increasingly obsessed with her own death. Preparations would take 15 years, during which the family was racked with turmoil and was under constant fear of being found out by the authorities. Punishments were harsh for adhering to traditional rituals—especially those for weddings and funerals—which were considered part of “the decadent and cruel past of the pre-communist era.”

My life has run a close parallel to Huang’s, and amazingly our journeys even overlapped for six years on Fudan University’s campus. Huang was born in 1964 in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in northwestern China. I was born a year later in Chengdu, the capital of the neighboring Sichuan Province in the southwest. He grew up in a seven-member, three-generation family where his father was a Communist Party member and in a management position of a work unit. So did I, under the exact same circumstances. As the eldest son, Huang received the most favors but it was also on him that the family pinned its highest expectations. I was also spoiled by my parents, and especially by my maternal grandmother, for being the youngest son in the family. I was also pressured, especially by my disciplinarian father, to bring glory home. The warmth that both of us remember from our childhood was from our grandmothers, who treated us as their respective “feet warmers” in the harsh Chinese winter. The coffin in Huang’s family for Grandmother reminds me of a black coffin that my parents had prepared for my own grandmother who died in 1984. But she was cremated and did not have a traditional burial due to the same concerns that Huang’s father had.

Both Huang and I graduated from high school with distinction and went far from home to attend Fudan University in Shanghai, where Huang arrived one year after I did. His major was English in the Foreign Language Department; mine was international politics, in what was also called “the Second Foreign Language Department” because of the rigorous English training students had to go through. He and I both lived in the No. 7 Dormitory Building, along with other male students of these two departments. We were both wrapped up in the intellectual reawakening on campus in the post-Mao years, and were enlightened by the same Western cultural icons: Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, and others. We both relied on the Voice of America to improve our English and get information. We were excited by George Orwell’s 1984 in the same way. Our college lives were interrupted by the deaths of our fathers caused by the same disease: lung cancer. Both of us later gave the same kind of support to our widowed mothers for their new marriages in defiance of our siblings.

Straying from the same cautious advice of our fathers, both of us were actively involved in the 1989 Students Movement and were ultimately reprimanded and punished. (The penalty was more severe for me, a young teacher then, than for Huang, still a student.) We were rescued in the same way later: American professors we befriended on campus helped us come to study in American graduate schools. In 1990, with only $60 in his pocket, Huang came to the United States. After working odd jobs in restaurants, he eventually established his professional life focusing on the art of the English language. One year later, with $100, I started my new life in Philadelphia. We are now once again connected—by his book and this review.

In comparing our chronologies, I have pretty much sketched the storyline of the book. If the parallels and even intersections in our lives give me some authority to interpret and comment on Huang’s book, then my familiarity with the contents of the book also makes me a harder-to-excite reader. But I have to say that the author has succeeded in gripping the reader with his skillful weaving of many ordinary people and events into an extraordinary narrative, which is full of surprises, satire and a sense of the absurd. Most important of all, the author, in addition to having a sense of humor, handles tragedies with balance and detachment.  It is not easy to write an authentic story that is as interesting to read as fiction. But Huang accomplished just that.  

Three questions have guided my reading of the book: What has been recollected? What has been missed in the delineation of one generation of Chinese? What has been rediscovered by the author in the book?

In Huang’s recollections, Grandmother’s black coffin looms large, a constant reminder of death, uncertainty and fear. In Chinese traditional culture (a hybrid of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism), coffin has multiple functions: it is a destination for the living body, a container for the corpse, and a vehicle for transitioning in the samsara, the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Since traditional Chinese believe in samsara, ancestral blessings, the final reunion in the next world, and the spiritual connection between the deceased and the living, preparing the coffin for a person still alive would familiarize this person with her future “home,” lessen her fear of death, and strengthen the generational bond in the family. At numerous times, Father in the book spoke of a well-prepared traditional burial as a way of showing one’s filial piety and gratitude to parents.

But the sad story in Huang’s book is that the coffin turned into a source of family discord and dread for both the old and the young. In a China of scarcity, the making and storing of a coffin became a financial burden and daily nuisance; strife became inevitable. The regime’s anti-traditional ideology and its brutal way of smashing traditions struck terror among the people, especially those in the city, whose livelihood and careers depended on political correctness. As 1973 approached, when Grandmother would turn 73—considered a big hurdle in longevity in traditional belief—her body turned feeble and she became more anxious. And the increasing frequency of earthquakes that shook China during the 1970s certainly reminded Grandmother of her own mortality. But I believe that her anxiety stemmed not from the fear of death but from her increasing doubt about her son’s ability to give her a decent traditional burial: his wife, her daughter-in-law, was hostile to her wish, and the increasing political pressure to implement a uniform policy of cremation was making it more unlikely that her wish would be honored by a son loyal to the Communist Party. 

If we say that in traditional China, the presence of a coffin in the house makes death less dreadful, then, in communist China, it encroaches upon the life and shrouds it in morbidity. The Chinese Communist Revolution introduced atheism and materialism, disrupted tradition, and deprived people of soul, faith, and spiritual consolation, especially in the face of death. One can find a vivid example of the irony and hypocrisy of Chinese communist rule against traditions at the center of Tiananmen Square: after communist leader Mao Zedong denied the people the choice to rest in peace in accordance with tradition, he gave himself the privilege of being embalmed and preserved in a crystal coffin—to be on display and worshipped.

In the book, Grandmother was never returned to her home village to be buried with her husband. In my family, my grandmother was cremated, never laid down in her prepared coffin. With coffins and burials, hundreds of thousands of Chinese families tried to preserve traditions and resist the Party’s control, but the destructive force of communism was too overwhelming for the Chinese “coffin keepers.”

In Huang’s book, the coffin, funeral and death constitute a leitmotif. Imbued with tradition, Grandmother anticipated the burial in coffin as a passage to her reunion with her husband and abhorred the idea of being burned in fire after death. In accordance with its class theory, communist propaganda depicted the traditional funeral as a death ritual that sacrificed the poor (especially children) for their continued service to the rich even in the afterworld. Huang's Kafkaesque description of Mao’s funeral and mourning reveals his ambivalence about the traditional funeral: on the one hand, he would like to have the same kind of arrangement for Grandmother; on the other hand, he, as a young boy, he felt an uneasiness about the pompous ceremony orchestrated by insincere adults. A granduncle’s funeral further alienated the young boy. After watching the play, The Peking Man, in college, a famous play written in 1940 which portrays a once-prominent family’s inability to adapt to social changes, Huang realized the absurdity of an obsession with death which resulted from inner emptiness. He developed new doubts about preserving the burial rite and started his rebellion against Chinese traditional culture. This rebellion may partially explain the author’s absence from Grandmother’s funeral and his underperformance at his father’s funeral. But the excavation of Qingshi Huangdi’s[1] tomb with terra cotta warriors in the 1970s in Xi’an adds a new explanation to the disappearance of China’s tradition: the commercialization of antiquities exposes China’s heritage to fast erosion. It does not really reconnect the Chinese people with their past spiritually. That the Huang family’s ancestral burial ground in Henan was itself buried under development projects further testifies to the crippling force of market-Leninism against China’s past.

One can view the coffin in the book as a political allegory. That is, China has been living under the Thanatos Syndrome (as in Walker Percy’s novel of the same name): in a paradox, in which the desire for death persists because living can be a prolonged suffering, and, at the same time, the fear of death is just as strong because under the communist regime atheism and materialism have deprived the Chinese people of their last refuge. Like the scientists in Percy’s novel, the communist regime uses a toxic substance—in this case, ideology—to keep the people from exhibiting “deviant behavior” (such as sticking to “feudalistic old traditions” and pursuing “evil Western bourgeois lifestyle”) and to enforce conformity. This control has made it possible for the regime to commit party-sanctioned crimes under the label of “class struggle”.  

And as the book makes clear, in addition to the fundamental human right of living a life based on one’s free will, the ordinary Chinese people have been denied the last human right: dying in dignity.

In Mao’s China as depicted by Huang, life was characterized by material scarcity and deprivation, and was full of fear, frustration, anxiety, bitterness, suspicion, betrayal, absurdity, cynicism, and petty corruption. The author later realized that missing in that life were individuality, independence, creativity, ambition, and truth about the human condition within and outside China. Through his experiences in the United Kingdom and witnessing his mother’s inner awakening after Father’s death, the author also became aware of the absence of intimacy, tenderness, and love in the family. Huang states in the book: “I longed for freedom without the constraint of a regimented life. I felt ready to make my own choices in life, acting on my own, not according to what my family or the government demanded.”

The material deprivation endured by the Chinese people has been redressed more or less during the past three decades of economic miracle. But, as the author writes, “Breaking an entire country away from long-held traditions practically overnight is a complicated business, and nowhere was this more apparent to me than in the contradictions embodied by my father. I grew up amid such contradictions, a fusion of ideologies and faiths.” The deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual deprivations may take longer to be compensated. The author’s generation (which includes me) is currently operating and running China, and is stepping into the governing positions. But this is a traumatized generation; even the few successors did not have a well-rounded moral and spiritual education. After tracing his family history in the entire twentieth century and traveling to his ancestral home, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Huang is lucky enough to be able to rediscover the meaning of love, tenderness, intimacy, individuality, integrity, soul, reincarnation, and religion (both Buddhism and Christianity). The book ends with a hopeful note: the author has finally reconnected spiritually with his parents and grandparents, with Chinese traditions, and with the soul of Chinese culture. At the same time, he has been rejected by the current Chinese regime. It is sad to read the last words in the book: “Each time I conclude my overseas travels and see the familiar skyline of Chicago from the plane, I whisper to myself, ‘I am home.’” As a sojourner myself, I know now I am more Chinese than when I was in China, but I feel I am home in New York. More than three decades after Mao’s death, physical exile from China is still the prerequisite for, or consequence of, the inner awakening of a Chinese in that country. The champions of critical, creative, and reflective thinking still do not feel welcome in China. This may remind us that the black coffin is still hanging heavily over China, and is preventing this nation from returning to its spiritual and cultural home.     

It is easy for me to reconnect with the author. But I wanted to know whether the message of this book can transcend cultural barriers and generation gaps. So I asked my daughter, a native-born American and a budding teenage writer, to read the book and give me her thoughts. Julia writes:

Though I am an avid reader who usually prefers novels to nonfiction, Wenguang Huang’s memoir, The Little Red Guard, is one of the more compelling books I’ve read this year. In his writing, Huang skillfully brings his past to life with vividness. I give kudos to his skills at combining storytelling with the informational elements of this book. Quite honestly, I’ve never been too interested in politics, especially politics during Mao’s regime. However, after reading this book, I feel that I have a better understanding of the flawed communist system and the true extent of its impact on the lives of the ordinary people.

The Little Red Guard illuminates the hypocrisy of the Chinese government under Mao, as well as the problems that arise from conformity and oppression. These topics will definitely pique the interest of American teenagers today: not only will they gain a better understanding of a society and culture completely unfamiliar to them, they will also better appreciate the universal themes of liberty and discovery. I particularly recommend The Little Red Guard as an optional read for a high school history class. A few weeks ago, my classmates and I finished reading a book about the communist regime of North Korea, which sparked a lot of interesting conversations, both during and outside our world history class. I’m sure that this book will have the same effect, if not more so.

One reason why I enjoyed this book so much is that there are so many little details and elements that remind me of the stories my parents told me about their own childhood. The conflict Huang had with his parents (he is politically outspoken and they are not) remind me of the relationship my dad had with his parents. Both Huang and my dad went to the same university in China, Fudan.

After reading The Little Red Guard, readers will come to understand the true meaning of freedom as a universal need, rather than a privilege. Whether it is enslavement, political oppression, or social inequality, the strength and spirit of human nature will always lead the way to liberty.

T. W. Adorno, the German philosopher, and his associates argued in The Authoritarian Personality, “If fear and destructiveness are the major emotional sources of fascism, eros belongs mainly to democracy.” Love should pervade life in a normal society where people can enjoy a democratic way of life; it should also dominate the inevitable process of death. This may be the most important message Julia and I found in the book.


Xia Ming[2] is a Professor of Political Science at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. His written works include The Dual Developmental State: Development Strategy and Institutional Arrangements for China’s Transition; Toward a Network Mode of Governance: The Provincial People’s Congresses in China; and Political Venus: From Nothing under My Name to Chinese Democracy (in Chinese). He is a co-producer of HBO documentary China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (2009). He is currently writing a book on China’s criminal underworld.


[1] Editor’s note: Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) was the first emperor to unify China, and ruled from 246 BC until his death in 210 BC. 
[2] Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge the contribution from my daughter, Julia Xia.

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