“Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard” by Fan Shen, ISBN 0-8032-4308-1 (2004), came to me highly recommended. But it sat on the shelf unread for a long time.
I had already read historical accounts of China’s 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, such as “The World Turned Upside Down” by Yang Jisheng (2016) and fictionalized accounts, such as Liu Cixin’s SF story “The Three-Body Problem” (2006) where the driver for the plot was the trauma experienced by the main character when she witnessed four teenage female Red Guards beat her physics professor father to death for the crime of teaching the reactionary Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I was not ready for more of the same.
Eventually, I took “Gang of One” off the shelf and started reading – and found I could hardly lay the book down. It is a well-written, fascinating, apparently bluntly honest, at times very sad, at other times amusing, ultimately deeply moving account of one boy’s progression into manhood during a time of immense social upheaval. Highly recommended!
Fan Shen was brought up in a well-ordered military compound in Beijing by his solidly revolutionary parents. He was 12 years old in 1966 when Chairman Mao triggered the Cultural Revolution. First there was the massive book-burning, which he greatly enjoyed, and then the public humiliation of the military commander of the compound, in which he participated. That was followed by the home invasion of a prominent surgeon’s household – at which point Fan Shen began to have his doubts.
Schools were closed; any small group of students could set up their own Red Guard unit and get an empty classroom assigned as their headquarters. Fan and his friends took advantage of this, as did many others, and the Red Guards rapidly degenerated into warring teenage gangs. In the adult world, there was a lot of score-settling. Even Fan’s soldier father who had fought beside Mao in the Revolution was sent to a labor camp. The husband of Fan’s favorite aunt, manager of a torpedo factory, was executed by Red Guards, and Fan’s mother turned away her desperate sister out of fear of being associated with the stigma.
In 1968 when Fan was 14, Mao decided to send the Red Guards off to the country to labor with and learn from revolutionary peasants. Fan was one of the “Beijing kids” sent on the long journey to a remote village in far-western China. Over the next 4 years, the kids learned that when the growing season was good, revolutionary peasants did not work too hard; and when the season was poor, they starved.
Fan devoted himself to escaping from the village – a very difficult proposition. Even in those pre-computer days, China seemed to have very effective systems for tracking every one of its hundreds of millions of people. Ultimately, he learned how to play the system with its currency of personal contacts, Peking ducks, and cartons of expensive cigarettes. He managed to get transferred to an aircraft engine factory in the western city of Xi’an in 1972 when he was 18. However, the factory was cursed – plagued by suicides.
Fan decided that education was his way out of the factory, and focused his efforts in non-working hours to learning all that he had missed out on while the schools had been closed. Unfortunately, an individual who helped Fan with his education fell afoul of the authorities through his writings. Fan was arrested and interrogated along with his friend. The friend was executed, but Fan was rescued by a friend using her contacts with individuals in authority.
After Mao died in 1976, the situation in China started to change. The universities had been re-opened earlier, but only for reliable worker-peasant-soldier types – the blots on Fan’s personal and family records excluded him. Now China re-instituted a merit-based system for university admittance. After 6 years in the factory, an immense amount of private study, and careful stroking of the bureaucracy, Fan was able to pass the entrance exams and go to university in 1978.
Now 24 years old, he rebelled against the political indoctrination sessions and became quite close to a female American visiting professor – issues which attracted the very unwelcome attention of the secret police. Fan found a way to turn his situation around by becoming the secret police’s very voluble but totally useless informer.
When he graduated in 1982 at 28, he was sufficiently skilled in manipulating the Communist bureaucracy to avoid the dreaded fate of being sent to Tibet; instead, he was assigned as an instructor to a college only an hour by train from Beijing. He had succeeded! Only to find that he was trapped in a place where the tainted water caused residents to lose their teeth and suffer from brittle bones. Even for someone as expert as Fan at backscratching and kowtowing to authority, it took him 2 years and many desperate acts to get a scholarship for advanced study at a US university, permission from his college to accept the scholarship, approval from the local authorities, issuance of a passport, issuance of an exit visa, and – ultimately – to find the money for the plane fare. He was 30 years old in 1984 when he flew to San Francisco.
The flight attendant offered him a bottle of water. “Tears came to my eyes, but this time I did not try to choke them back as I always did. Through my blurred vision, I looked at the crystal water in my hand and thought of the bittersweet victory that I had won. … I had finally done it; I had beaten the Great Leader and I did not have to pretend to be a revolutionary anymore”.
China has changed in the nearly 4 decades since then. We too have changed over that time, and Fan Shen’s trials with an arbitrary intrusive corrupt political system may seem more relevant to us today.