Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Ordinary lives during the Cultural Revolution in Under The Red Flag

From The Week of May 13, 2013

Traditions are difficult to uproot. For humans are, by and large, creatures opposed to change, huddling around the fire of what's known while periodically peeking out at the darkness of the scary unknown. It's perfectly natural, then, to codify the truths we understand and impose them upon subsequent generations. From time to time, however, this chain of traditions is broken, interrupted by governments that seek to impose upon us their ethics, their ideals. They do this even while fully aware of the cognitive dissonance this creates within a public trying to marry generations of knowledge with months of political re-education. The results are understandably tragic and that is demonstrated to wonderful effect in this collection of short stories from Ha Jin.

China under the Cultural Revolution was a dangerous and merciless place. Thousands of years of Chinese history and tradition was forced to make way for a new, Maoist world, a theatre of imposed Communism that compelled all those within its grasp to not only act according to a new morality, but to meet standards of organized, centralized productivity never before seen in this country, much less in the world. Driven by a need to compete with a West awash in capitalistic competition and anchored by industrialized workforces, this new world sought to reach its hands into the lives of every-day Chinese to prod, manipulate, coerce and threaten them into contributing to the whole. No aspect of private life was exempt from government scrutiny which possessed the power to make even the brave tremble.

From lasciviousness to food-hoarding, from heroes created from happenstance to villains forged from jealousy, Under the Red Flag knits together a tapestry of rural and semi-rural, mid-century Chinese, men and women who largely endure the misfortune of being born in a chaotic time. Mr. Jin, who has won numerous awards for his literary work, steers clear of the tales of great and consequential men, choosing instead to document, with fiction, the lives of ordinary people growing up during the dawn of the modern Chinese state. In this, we come to understand the ripple effects caused by the uneven application of a new set of rules. For where some might implement them out of an earnest belief in the new China, others implement them with only personal gain in mind, using them to indulge their own biases, their own desires, their own jealousies.

It's often said that nothing great can be created without breaking a few eggs. Well, these are the broken eggs, lives distorted and set adrift by a new set of standards. For all this, though, Mr. Jin's tales are not heavy-handed. On the contrary, it's to his credit that each tale of woe and adolescence, of confusion and desperation, is enjoyable and affecting. And yet, at every turn, we see the shadow of the Cultural Revolution flickering at the edge of our vision, its caresses, its influences, subtly and drastically altering a way of life so familiar to generations prior. In this, Under the Red Flag Manages to not be in the least bit depressing. It is, instead, a testament to human adaptability, to the awareness we all possess of life's fleeting nature, and how we are, in some sense, subject to both external forces we cannot control and internal desires we cannot resist.

This is a brief and effective introduction to Mr. Jin's work. A fascinating glimpse of a world that, though it has slid into our past, will certainly rise again. For governments invariably seek to impose the moralities of the moment upon the publics they purport to serve. It is merely a question of how bold they are willing to be in the forging of that idealized future. (4/5 Stars)

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