"At the age of 10, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma."
So begins "The Little Red Guard," a gripping, lyrical memoir by Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist and writer. As the keeper of his grandmother's "shou mu," or "longevity wood," a Chinese euphemism for coffin, Huang sees through his prepubescent eyes a family saga unfolding against the backdrop of the upheavals and undulations of 20th century China.
Like Addie Bundren, the matriarch in William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," Grandma foresees her own death and expresses a wish to be buried next to her husband in their home village by the Yellow River. Having lost her husband almost half a century ago, she never remarried and raised her son all by herself.
In a society that idolizes "chaste widows," some of whom are said to chop off their own fingers for harboring prurient thoughts, Grandma is certainly a paragon of virtue and devotion. Neighbors and friends worship her; they line up to pay tribute to her early in the morning onNew Year's Day, hoping that some of her good luck and longevity might rub off on them.
Grandma's seemingly simple wish throws the family into a quandary. This is, after all, not Yoknapatawpha County, where a woman's son, as Faulkner tells us, is free to build a coffin in front of her bedroom window, in the full view of everyone. This is Mao's China, in the thick and thin of the Cultural Revolution.
The government has outlawed the traditional practice of burial, condemning it as feudalistic and superstitious. Huang's father, a member of the Communist Party with an eye on promotion, is afraid to break rules and bring trouble to himself and his family.
But he is also a filial son, willing to sacrifice anything to repay his mother, who sacrificed her own happiness to raise him. Weighing of pros and cons, to be or not to be, goes on for months. Meanwhile, the country is falling apart — culture decimated, schools closed, millions of youngsters sent to the countryside to "learn from the peasants," fractional battles raging all over, public executions of criminals displayed like drive-in movies, and the promised Communist phantasmagoria remaining just that, a fantasy.
On a chosen date, three carpenters arrive after the children are sent out to play. When the kids return, they smell fresh pine in the courtyard. Wood shavings and sawdust have all been cleared away, and there it stands, like Noah's Ark — Grandma's shou mu.
In the next decade, while Grandma lives on, her coffin and her burial plan remain a constant source of fraternity and friction in the family. On the one hand, the secret provides a cohesive force, a link with the past that still simmers underneath the veneer of Communist ideologies. On the other, the monetary cost of the funeral planning and the psychological fear of being caught puts a strain on everyone.
Having spent a good part of his life trying to fulfill his mother's dying wish, Father passes away, leaving Huang, a former Little Red Guard and now a college graduate, to be the guardian of the wooden box that has for years loomed disproportionately large in their familial microcosm.
In "The Making of Americans," Gertrude Stein writes, "We need only realize our parents, remember our grandparents and know ourselves, and our history is complete." In Huang's family memoir, remembering a grandparent is done by making choices about what to do with her body after death. Realizing parents is achieved by coming to terms with the dilemma of being caught between party shibboleths and spiritual beliefs. And knowing one's self is depicted as a coming of age, an awakening for Huang's generation of Little Red Guards, who feel betrayed by false ideologies and yet cannot fail to recognize the human spirit in a most brutal chapter of Chinese history.
Revealing, ironic and effortlessly elegant, Huang's book unpacks the paradox of China through a story about an unusual, and proverbial, Chinese box — a coffin.
Just as the hazardous journey of Addie Bundren's casket on muddy country roads maps a fantastic Faulknerian world by the Mississippi, the long march of Grandma's shou mu, floating down the river of Huang's memory and imagination, projects a kaleidoscopic vista of contemporary China and paints a tortured smile of Chinese humanity.
Yunte Huang is an award-winning author of "Charlie Chan" and a professor of English at theUniversity of California, Santa Barbara.
The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir
By Wenguang Huang, Riverhead, 272 pages $25.95
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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Wenguang Huang will be appearing at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest. Click here to see the full list of authors scheduled to attend this year's fest.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun