The Little Red Guard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


The Little Red Guard
by Huang Wenguang
Riverhead Books

'At the age of nine, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma's 73rd birthday. He forbade us from calling it a 'coffin' and insisted that we refer to it as 'shou mu', which means something like longevity wood.'

That is the dramatic opening to The Little Red Guard, a moving story about author Huang Wenguang's childhood in Xian and his grandmother's obsession with having a traditional burial.

The year was 1973 and Huang's grandmother was 71. Born and raised in rural Henan province, she feared that if she were cremated, she would be unable to reunite with her husband in the afterlife and made her son promise to bury her. But it was the height of the Cultural Revolution, when such a practice was forbidden; if the family's plan had been discovered, Huang's father would probably have lost the Communist Party membership he had worked so hard to obtain.

While his grandmother was devoted to tradition, the author went the other way: after graduating in international journalism from Fudan University in Shanghai, he went to the US to study in 1990. He now lives in Chicago, where he works as a writer and translator. 'When I see the familiar skyline of Chicago from the plane, I whisper to myself , 'I'm home'.'

The book is a poignant account of his father's effort to please his grandmother and find the burial place of her husband in a village in Henan; no-one knows exactly where it is. The time and expense he devotes to this divides the family, with Huang's mother opposed.

In the 1970s, his grandmother was even willing to convert to Islam, whose believers are allowed burial - until she found they were buried in shrouds, not a coffin, and soon after death, without the complicated ceremony she wanted.

In the event, Huang's father dies in 1988, before his grandmother, and is dressed in grey trousers and a blue Mao jacket. Two male nurses take the body to the hospital morgue, to prevent the family removing it for burial.

A year later, his grandmother dies and Huang's mother has her buried not next to her husband - too far away - but outside Xian.

Huang's description of life in Xian and his grandmother's preoccupation with the past reads like life on another planet. 'Nowadays, all is transition and impermanence. In today's rapidly changing China, both the living and the dead must give way to development. Villages and cities that we claim as our ancestral homes are being transformed beyond recognition and even cemeteries that were the final resting places for our ancestors are being bulldozed. People are no longer tied to their birthplaces and, as they search for better job opportunities, many have migrated to the sprawling cities and to distant parts of the world.'

While his grandmother longed to be buried next to her husband, Huang has made his life on the other side of the world.