The Little Red Guard
By Wenguang Huang
(Riverhead Hardcover, Hardcover, 9781594488290, 272pp.)
Publication Date: April 26, 2012
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A Washington Post Best of 2012 pick
Three generations of a family living under one roof reflect the dramatic transformations of an entire society in this memoir of life in 20th century China
When Wenguang Huang was nine years old, his grandmother became obsessed with her own death. Fearing cremation, she extracted from her family the promise to bury her after she died. This was in Xi’an, a city in central China, in the 1970s, when a national ban on all traditional Chinese practices, including burials, was strictly enforced. But Huang’s grandmother was persistent, and two years later, his father built her a coffin. He also appointed his older son, Wenguang, as coffin keeper, a distinction that meant, among other things, sleeping next to the coffin at night.
Over the next fifteen years, the whole family was consumed with planning Grandma’s burial, a regular source of friction and contention, with the constant risk of being caught by the authorities. Many years after her death, the family’s memories of her coffin still loom large. Huang, now living and working in America, has come to realize how much the concern over the coffin has affected his upbringing and shaped the lives of everyone in the family. Lyrical and poignant, funny and heartrending, The Little Red Guard is the powerful tale of an ordinary family finding their way through turbulence and transition.
Wenguang Huang, who grew up in northern China, is a Chicago-based writer and translator. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and the Asia Literary Review. Heis the English translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and God Is Red and Yang Xianhui’s Woman from Shanghai.
“The Little Red Guard is a remarkable memoir. Wenguang Huang gave it an ingenious dramatic structure, which reveals the tensions and emotional struggles within his family. At the psychological level, the story has universal resonance that is beyond history and culture. Huang tells it with extraordinary candor, acuity, and the cruel irony of life. As a result, the story is full of gravity, absurdity, and grief.”—Ha Jin, author of Waiting
“The Little Red Guard—his first book—establishes Wenguang Huang as a master storyteller. Vividly engaging and often surprising, this memoir of coming of age in an ordinary Chinese family amid the social and political wreckage of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is uncommonly wise and deeply moving.” —Philip Gourevitch, author of The Ballad of Abu Ghraib and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
“With brilliant humanistic insights, Wenguang Huang reveals how the terrors of youth, both large and small, imprint our lives with psychic markers and force us, eventually, to confront the irrational foundation on which strong character can be found.”—Patrick Tyler, author of A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China
“Just as he has done in his translated works, Wenguang has transformed the intimate stories of a Chinese family into a gripping book that will appeal to readers of all cultures.” —Liao Yiwu, author of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up
“Delightful… a book that brings a corner of modern China alive—a book filled with humor, family squabbles and ordinary life in a large city in a one-party state... [with] echoes of J.D. Salinger.”—Wall Street Journal
“A gripping, lyrical memoir…revealing, ironic and effortlessly elegant.”—Chicago Tribune
“A riveting, well-crafted story…at times comic and at times heartbreaking... [with] plenty of fresh and unforgettable revelations.”—Oprah.com (pick of the week)
“Perfect, moving.”—The Daily Beast
“Illuminating… Huang’s coming-of-age story eloquently describes his family coping with change and how, in a turbulent time, he made sense of the world.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A memoir centered on a coffin? Yes, and it works.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“A trenchantly observed story that depicts the clash of traditional and modern Chinese culture with a powerful combination of sensitivity and mordant irony.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Another interesting way to look at China, something readers crave.”—Library Journal