Ji-li Jiang’s 1998 book Red Scarf Girl depicts her experiences at the height of the Cultural Revolution under the rule of Chairman Mao (Mao Zedong or Mao Tse-tung). Ji-li belonged to an affluent family. She went to the best schools and afforded luxuries in China. She considered herself lucky to have a wealthy family. Childish and idealistic, Ji-li believed that her life was great and her family was perfect. She was an outstanding student. Teachers and other people around her held her with high regard. She was the golden girl with a strong faith in the Communist Credo. This faith made her a good candidate for political office or related professions. However, Ji-li’s life and family’s status changed because of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The Revolution was a drastic move to change China, supposedly to support progress and development.
During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Ji-li Jiang’s family’s status in the community changed. The Revolution compelled the people to change their perspectives on the social structure and social classes of China. Many people also changed their behaviors to address new needs and in accordance to the requirements of the Revolution. How did Ji-li handle her family’s status?
Ji Li Jiang’s Family’s Status in the Community
Before the Cultural Revolution, Ji-li and her family were red, which meant obedience and loyalty to the Communist ideals of Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao was the head of the Central Committee and the leader of Ji-li’s beloved China. Being labeled red meant good social standing. The red status guaranteed better socio-political relations, especially with other reds and influential and powerful people in China. Ji-li’s family’s red status in the community made life easier. The community readily supported the family. The family also had considerable influence on their neighbors. They lived the Chinese dream life.
However, their lives suddenly changed in 1966 when Chairman Mao declared the start of the Cultural Revolution. This proletarian revolution changed everything and turned black to red, and red to black. Ji-li and her family’s status changed along with the status of most people in China. The old ways and thinking became negative and undesirable under the principles of the Cultural Revolution. Black was the label given to people who were intellectual or excelled in the arts, sciences and other fields that were in Chairman Mao’s “black” list. Ji-li and her family’s loyalty to Chairman Mao and the hostile Red Guards did not help them save their status and future life.
Chairman Mao ordered people to abandon the old culture that was greatly influenced by the West. He believed that such a culture with Western characteristics was responsible for poverty in China. The Cultural Revolution was designed for China to rise from the “ashes.” To do so, people were ordered to abandon the Four Olds (old culture, old ideas, old customs, and old habits).
Even though Ji-li and her family had been loyal to the Communist Party, the family’s history still got in the way. Ji-li’s grandfather was a landlord and her family was wealthy. These characteristics made Ji-li and her family suspects of anti-communism. Being wealthy and landed was perceived as related to western culture. This made Ji-li and her family black or opponents of the Communist Party.
Ji-li suffered the consequences of being a descendant of a black man, her grandfather. The black family status meant losing important things in life, such as freedom, wealth, social status, and social relations. Blacks were ridiculed and oppressed by those they used to call friends. Blacks were systematically punished by society. Ji-li and her siblings were called black whelps by the new reds. A black whelp in those days was a child in any of the five categories of black people. It was an insult to the child and her family. School became a struggle for Ji-li. Her classmates scorned her incessantly and treated her like dirt. The merciless Red Guards also raided Ji-li’s family’s house and property.
How Ji-li Handled Her Family’s Status
Ji-li was an educable black child who could still become red if she denied everything she had to do with the black Jiang family and testified against her family. In this way, she could gain freedom from social suffering. However, denying her family would not completely free her. Ji-li’s status would just be somewhere between red and neutral. Neutral people were considered weak and treated with disdain.
Ji-li was just 12 years old, but she needed to choose between her family and her beloved country, including her future career and social life. She suffered in this Chinese Reign of Terror. At one point in her life, she thought of having her name changed. Ji-li thought it would separate her from her family and help her status in Chinese society. Nevertheless, she remained loyal to her family. This did not mean that she opposed Chairman Mao. She was also loyal to Chairman Mao. Ji-li kept her loyalty to her family and Chairman Mao.
Ji-li did not shun her parents and their social status. She did not do what the other children in her community did to their parents and families. Her cousin Shan-shan changed his beliefs because of the Cultural Revolution. Ji-li saw him walk past his mother even when his mother had fallen down on the street.
Ji-li handled her family’s status and situation well. She kept courage and strength that only a few children possessed. However, she was not the strongest. She was not strong enough to completely let go of her desire to become red. Her attempt to change her name showed weakness. Her neutrality also showed weakness. She lacked decisiveness because she chose to remain loyal to her family and the Communist Party. This weakness was a result of Ji-li’s young age.
On Changing Family Status
Loyalty is felt. It does not necessarily have physical manifestations. The labels red or black in the Cultural Revolution were not the most significant. People’s actions in response to these labels were what really mattered. Family status was not much of an issue except for the dangers of the black label. Ji-li Jiang and her family suffered in the Cultural Revolution because people’s behaviors worsened.
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- Gao, M. (2008). The battle for China’s past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. The China Quarterly, 195, 691-718.
- Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
- Jiang, Ji-li. Ji-li’s Books – Red Scarf Girl.
- Jiang, Ji-li. (1998). Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Harper Collins Children’s Books.
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- U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (1967). The Chinese Cultural Revolution.