A review of Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng
Some years back I read with great interest an article on the influence, whether it be direct or obscure, of Rousseau and his notion of the “general will” on “Mao Ze-dong and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1966. At the time, we in the West knew very little about the Cultural Revolution or what life was like under that great movement. Yet somehow, the events that were happening inside China seemed to captivate our imagination, for they were a case of theory being put into practice. In fact, we often find connections between the teachings of the great thinkers of our heritage, and even the wisdom of the sages of other cultures, with so many revolutionary movements of our times. Perhaps this is one reason many today see no inherent differences between the democracies of the West and the Communist regimes of the East, a view clearly evident in the argument of many advocates of unilateral disarmament. Fortunately, for those of us who reject this view of the East and the West, the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn give us a glimpse of the enormity of the tyranny of Soviet Communism. It is for this reason that I welcome Liang Heng’s Son of the Revolution, a most revealing account of life under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and how Communism operates as a system of control in China.
Son of the Revolution is the autobiography of Liang Heng and his family, who were caught in the chaos and turbulence of the many revolutionary movements, political campaigns, and purges in a China under the rule of the Chinese Communists, an experience that “seems to be quite typical of the lives of millions” of the Chinese people. Liang Heng was the son of low-ranking cadres in the Chinese Communist Party. His father was a reporter and editor of the Party newspaper in his native province of Hunan and his mother, a member of the local Public Security Bureau. They both worked with deep devotion to transform China into a great socialist country and “dreamed passionately of the day when they would be deemed pure and devoted enough to be accepted into the Party” (p. 4). As for Liang Heng and his two sisters, they were good little children of the Chairman, Mao Ze-dong, who “presided over our rest and play like a benevolent god, and [Liang] believed that apples, grapes, everything had been given to us because he loved us” (p. 7).
Liang Heng was only three years old when the Chinese Communist Party initiated a campaign to test the enormous popular support it enjoyed. First, there was the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957, during which his mother was persuaded to show her loyalty to the Party by criticizing the Party. A few weeks later, her criticism redounded against her when the Hundred Flowers Movement changed into an Anti-Rightist Campaign, and she was branded a Rightist and an enemy of the Party. Without a trial and certainly without knowing what had happened, she was sent away to the countryside for labor reform. His father, who believed with his whole heart that “the Party could never make a mistake or hand down a wrong verdict” (p. 9), joined in the denunciation of his wife and later sought a divorce to save the family from ruin. But, as Liang Heng notes, “The divorce did nothing to rid us of having a Rightist in the family” (p. 15), for “the custom in such instances was that the whole family be considered as guilty as the single member who had committed the crime” (p.11). In the eyes of the Party, Liang Heng and his sisters were the children of a Rightist, and his father had a Rightist wife. As a result, he and his sisters were constantly harassed and ostracized in schools; they were forbidden to join the Young Pioneers, the Communist Youth League, and the Party. Since, moreover, “success in the political arena was a prerequisite for success in anything else” (p. 15), their exclusion from these “three stages of Revolutionary glory” (p. 15) was to forever change the life of the whole family. Gradually, Liang came to resent his mother for making his life miserable. He even began to believe that she really had done something wrong.
The tragedy in Liang Heng’s family was followed by the widespread famine after the failure of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. His family was forced to subsist on grass they gathered in the park. Hence, Liang Heng, like many of the old people and almost all the children, became afflicted with “water-swelling disease,” dropsy.
Next came the Cultural Revolution of 1966. This time, Liang Heng’s father was denounced as a Reactionary and was consigned to a “study class” run by the People’s Liberation Army, even though he continued to believe firmly that “you should always believe the Party and Chairman Mao” (p. 56). Now, Liang and his sisters became not only the children of a Rightist, but also the children of “capitalist reactionary stinking intellectuals” (p. 51). With both of their parents gone, they became orphans of the revolution. In the next few years, Liang, though still only twelve years old, became a Red Guard. His adventures included traveling to Jinggang Mountain to retrace the celebrated Long March of the Chinese Communist Party and a pilgrimage to Peking in the hope of getting a glimpse of Mao. But by then, affected by the shattering of his family and horrified by the bloodshed created by fighting Red Guard factions, he became cynical of the Cultural Revolution: “My family had sacrificed so much for the revolution, but it had given us nothing in return” (p. 148). Back in Changsha, his home town, he ended up in the streets drinking, fighting, and stealing with other orphans and outcasts of the Revolution.
The next episode of Liang Heng’s story came when his father was released from his study class, and the two of them were sent down to the countryside for prolonged reeducation in order that they might help “cut off the tail of Capitalism by bringing Revolutionary knowledge and construction to the most isolated regions of China” (p. 161). Here, Liang describes to us the extreme poverty of the peasants, such as that of Old Guo and his wife, the couple who had only one whole pair of pants between them. Liang explains that the policy of “cutting off the tail of Capitalism,” carried out dogmatically by Party officials, meant the killing of all privately owned chickens and pigs, either by oneself or by force. In so doing, the peasants were deprived of any supplementary source of income and faced certain starvation should their crops fail. Even Liang’s father, after years of devotion, found himself unable to defend the Party’s policy. With his health ruined by the hard work in the countryside, he and Liang were sent back to the city.
Back in the city, Liang Heng continued to face harassments by students “who had passed level upon level of political test” (p. 190). But by now, he had learned not to express an opinion on ideological matters. When he was seventeen, he was finally “rescued” by his ability to play basketball. Even though he flunked the political test needed to become “a professional athlete,” he ended up playing for an oil factory in Changsha where he, like his fellow workers, spent his time reading books and “eating socialism.” Life was better for Liang now, though his background continued to haunt him. His brief romances, first with the daughter of an editor of a newspaper in Guangzhou and later with the daughter of the assistant commander of the provincial military district, ended abruptly “on the political battlefield.” He was rejected by the girls’ fathers for his questionable political performance, his intellectual background, and his low factory-worker status. But things continued to look up. In 1977, China restored entrance examinations to universities. Liang entered Hunan Teachers’ College where he met and later married an American teacher. In 1981, after graduation, Liang and his wife came to the United States, where he is now a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.
Before Liang Heng left China, he tells us that he was saddened and distressed by the kind of political indoctrination millions of Chinese youth continued to receive. He had seen the danger that lies in blind obedience, and he sensed the need to regain “the ability to see the world critically when [his] father’s generation no longer has the strength to do so,” lest this lesson, “paid for with the sufferings of our fathers and mothers and of ourselves” (p. 292), will be wasted. What Liang does not mention or see is that the Chinese Communist Party demands and requires the blind obedience of the people. As Liang himself observed, the peasants remained “mules under the whip who know they must eventually obey” (p. 171). The intellectuals, perhaps disheartened by the collapse of the old order and faced with the defeat of the Kuomintang (the Nationalists), eagerly accepted socialism as the vehicle to national salvation and worked enthusiastically to transform China into a socialist country. But socialism is an ideology the Chinese poorly understood, and for this, they paid dearly. Liang says that he became confused and disturbed the more he compared the society Marx and Engel described with the one in which he lived.
Yet we should hardly be surprised that Marxism, an ideology that ends in a solution with no empirical precedent, would, when put into practice, manifest itself in reform campaigns and purges that have little to do with what that great teacher of revolution, Machiavelli, advises founders: “Bring back the goodness that gives all religious republics and monarchies their first growth and reputation.” The purges were merely tools of power struggle within the Party leadership. The Chinese Communists, of course, would make sure that their policies not be put under close scrutiny. Despite relying on the intellectuals to spread the gospel of socialism, the Party distrusted them and systematically sapped them of any strength “to see the world critically” by subjecting them to reforms and purges. The intellectuals, caught in a “frightening time of betrayals and arrests” and made helpless by the constantly changing policies, put priority on protecting themselves and avoiding political mistakes. “If they had their own opinions, they masked them in a welter of political jargons” (p. 270).
The irony of Chinese Communism is that while its success would depend on a kind of public-spiritedness and spontaneity of the people, its legitimacy ultimately would rest on a form of blind obedience based on traditional Chinese respect for authority reinforced by extensive political indoctrination under strict Party control. Life worked thus: “As Chairman Mao said, everyone had his own class position, and human relations were class relationships that could not be transcended. There was no room for a personal life outside the one assigned by the Party, and the Party’s values had to govern your private life or you would be punished” (p. 29). Yet this kind of tyranny only served to make the Chinese people turn to their private affairs, as generations of educated Chinese had done and as Liang learned to do. What makes the story of Liang Heng and his family, and that of the Chinese people so tragic is that, bound by a society in which “one is born into a certain place in a hierarchy and kept it all of one’s days” (p. 261), most of them, like Liang and his family, tried to make the best of it by working fervently to build
socialism in China but in the end found themselves betrayed by a Party leadership who saw socialism not as a goal but as a means to the end of power gratification. And it is equally tragic that of a generation of Chinese youth which was “passionately thirsty for truth,” so very, very few could go outside “their own circumscribed plots of earth” (p. 291) to analyze things for themselves. As Liang Heng himself admits, fate has been extraordinarily kind to him.