What is The Little Red Guard about?
This story centres on my grandmother and her coffin. In fact, it is a story about my father, who spent the better part of his life trying to fulfil his mother's last wish of having a traditional burial.
What made you tell this story?
In 1988, my father died of lung cancer at the age of 58. At his funeral, I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the family after the party secretary's eulogy. I was young and arrogant. I found it hard to deliver a talk without feeling disdainful for what I considered the trivial life my father had led, and without offending the Communist Party which he had faithfully served. I struggled with the speech, hoping the bitterness would evaporate and inspiration would hit me. Nothing came to my mind. In the end, I shocked everyone by simply going up to the podium. I bowed and walked away. The incident stuck in my memory. As I grew older, the guilt intensified. The mellowness that comes with middle age changed my views about my father and enabled me to appreciate what he did for the family. In 2009 I decided to write about it as a way to make up for what I had failed to do at my father's funeral.
As a child you were appointed 'coffin keeper'. What did this involve?
At the age of 10, I slept next to a coffin. It was scary because for the first time, I was brought face to face with death. As the eldest son and the coffin keeper, I was supposed to play a critical role in my grandma's funeral. My father involved me in every aspect of the clandestine funeral planning, even though I was only a child. Unfortunately, my father died before my grandma. It became my responsibility to fulfil grandma's wish. At the moment, the task is not yet completed: my grandma was buried but we have not been able to move her back to her native village, as she had hoped. With modernisation going on, the old family cemeteries have been bulldozed.What does the coffin symbolise? I see the coffin as a metaphor for China. In the old days, coffins were perceived as an ominous symbol and were associated with backward feudalistic practices, which the Communist Party was attempting to eradicate. Nowadays, coffin or guan cai, which puns with the phrase 'promotions and fortune', is seen as an auspicious symbol. In a society where communism has lost hold and the pursuit of money has become a religion, people buy miniature coffins as gifts. People hold extravagant funerals and buy elaborately decorated coffins for the deceased to show off their wealth.
What was your grandmother like?
In many ways, she fitted the stereotypical image of a traditional woman. She was born into a wealthy land-owning family, had bound feet and remained a faithful widow after her husband died when she was 27. However, she also defied tradition by single-handedly raising her son. Single mothers were unheard of in those days. When famine and flooding hit her hometown, she took my father and begged all the way to Xian, where she worked as a maid. She showed no interest in Mao's revolution and refused to renounce her employer during the Cultural Revolution.
And your mother?
She was a modern woman, who was an active participant in Mao's revolution. She left me with my grandma one month after she gave birth to me and returned to work. My mother married twice after my father's death. She was an independent woman and sacrificed tremendously for our family. Both women are crucial characters in my story. Through their life stories and their conflicts, I want to present a realistic picture of Chinese women.
The story is set in Xian in the 1970s. What was the city like then?
I was born and lived in Xian for 18 years. Xian is an ancient city. [But] during the Mao era, the city was the target of the party's purge of old traditions and customs to make way for the new communist society. Red Guards and revolutionary rebels blew up many ancient buildings and smashed and burned whatever was deemed to be representative of China's feudalistic past. Things have changed. The terracotta warriors are now a powerful draw card in the global tourism game. The city experienced a rebirth - there is a rush to 'restore the past' which, ironically, is erasing much of what is left of the city's history. Many old buildings have been bulldozed to make way for new skyscrapers.
You now live in America. How has your time in the US shaped the memoir?
I have lived in America for 20 years. I left China in 1990 for two reasons. It was right after the Tiananmen crackdown and as a former participant, I found the political situation repressive. The deaths of my father and grandma also triggered a crisis. When I was admitted to a university in the US, it was an opportunity to start a new life on a new continent. When I first arrived, I tried to sever my ties with the past and get assimilated. [But] I wrestled with the questions of how to reconcile my Chinese heritage with my new American identity. That struggle has helped shaped the book.
Has the book helped resolve some of the issues with your father?
In March, after I received the first batch of galleys of my memoir, I travelled back to China and visited my parents' grave outside Xian. Like a child with a good report card, I was eager to show it to my parents [and burn it by their grave], hoping they would be proud of me. I also wanted to tell my father that I had finally made up for what I didn't do at his funeral. At the cemetery, our driver gave me a cigarette lighter, and the only thing that burned was the cover. I saw the lighter fluid was running out, so I decided to give up. As I lifted the book to put it on the tombstone, a gust of wind blew, and within seconds, the book was in ashes.