A Generation Lost: China Under the Cultural Revolution by Zi-Ping Luo (1990, memoir)

This extraordinary book details the often harrowing experiences of a bright young woman coming of age in Shanghai, China during the late-1960s/early-’70s’ turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The title refers to an entire generation deprived of organized education because of the anti-intellectual beliefs that spawned the infamous Red Guards movement in its many, often absurd and chaotic forms. Schools were shut down; teachers and other educated people were targeted by young thugs run amok–with the tacit, even sometimes outright and formal approval of the ruling Communist Party.

Accordingly, much of the book revolves around how Zi-Ping Luo (and others) sought (against high odds) to educate themselves. It also tells in heartbreaking personal terms the story of her family (and various friends and associates) struggling just to survive in the violent social upheaval engulfing them.

The paranoid nature of things in China at that time is plainly demonstrated.

Zi-Peng’s family had already been unfairly branded “Rightists” (and therefore suspected enemies of the State) in the 1950’s, when a relative attempted to flee the People’s Republic. While her father and mother (both highly educated and intellectual) did nothing to support or aid this man’s scheme, they also did not report it–and so were judged guilty and disloyal.

Accordingly they were already under suspicion when Chairman Mao unleashed this latest, ultimately disastrous campaign to “cleanse” the country of foreign/’anti-revolutionary’ influences–including any but the most basic education. Anything outside the Party Line was forbidden–and since that Party Line was often vague and constantly, sometimes wildly changing without warning, it was next to impossible to stay out of trouble.

The ordeal of Zi-Peng and her family is portrayed with skill and a matter-of-fact truthfulness that can’t help but impress and move the reader. Her lack of bitterness, her drive to improve herself (and thereby do good for family and society at large) while doing all she can to protect her family, her spirit, idealism and maturity in the face of irrational conflict are all quite wonderful to experience.This memoir is, in the end, an inspirational account of life lived well despite the repressive environment she found herself in–and a final, if necessarily incomplete triumph over adversity. A very valuable book–in terms of recent history, of the forces that shaped modern China–and in  a broader, yet more personal sense, a tale of the human capacity to endure and overcome ugly circumstances without losing the finer qualities of existence (such as love and loyalty, compassion for others and a thirst for true knowledge).



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