Growing up amid China's turmoil; Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 301 pp. $15.
This book compels attention. It is essential reading for anyone seeking something more than a surface understanding of today's China, where nearly one-fourth of mankind dwells.It is the autobiography of one individual, growing up in Mao Tse-tung's home province during the Great Leap Forward (1958-59), the three years of famine that followed, and the ten-year cataclysm known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It tells what happened to the narrator, to his family, and to his friends. It is detailed and specific and rarely generalizes. In this lies the book's great strength and its credibility.
Liang Heng, the son of a reporter for the Hunan Daily, is the narrator, and Judith Shapiro, his American wife, is the co-author. The core of the book is Liang's experience during the first half of the Cultural Revolution, from the time he was 12 to the time when he was about 17. It is an extraordinary story of a man-made catastrophe and of the resilience of the human spirit under a series of shocks most people would consider too terrible to bear. It is also a story of a whole society, caught up in events that seemed to be beyond rational comprehension, prisoners of a supposedly liberating movement that turned into a nightmare of capricious, vengeful, bloodthirsty behavior. Liang's story shows the pervasiveness of the communist control system that preceded the Cultural Revolution, the ease with which individuals utterly loyal to the communist cause , as Liang's parents were, could have their own lives and those of their families ruined by a single well-meaning mistake.
''Son of the Revolution'' is written with passion, but it is not a polemical book, nor is it anti-Chinese. Nowhere in it does Liang turn his back on his cultural heritage. He does not directly criticize communism as an ideology, as a system of thought. He does describe in convincing detail how it operated as a system of control in his own family and neighborhood, and then what happened when Mao Tse-tung, the founder of the People's Republic of China, unleashed the Red Guards on that very system of control.
The Cultural Revolution is now history, and China's present leaders, who themselves suffered during it, are trying to steer the country back to normalcy and to direct it along the path of modernization and economic growth. They have opened the country to limited foreign investment and to some degree of cultural exchange. Liang Heng was a direct beneficiary in the sense that he was able to meet and marry an American teacher and eventually leave his country for graduate study in the United States.
China remains communist, and many observers ask how far its leaders can, in fact, bring about the industrial, scientific, and technological modernization they seek without taking far bolder measures than heretofore to release the creative energies of the country's intellectuals and educated youth. The leaders themselves acknowledge how difficult it is to replace the personality cult with the rule of law when so many middle-ranking cadres still have feudalistic authoritarian attitudes.
In that sense the Liang-Shapiro book is an unfinished opus. Perhaps a sequel will show, a decade or two later, what happens when the young people of Liang's generation, having experienced the exhilaration and the utter disillusionment of the Cultural Revolution, the inadequacies of their parents, and the failures of their leaders, start moving into the middle ranks of the state bureaucracies, the universities, the research institutes, the party hierarchy. Will absolute power continue to corrupt absolutely? Will all the pain and sorrow of the Cultural Revolution prove to have been of no avail - another lesson unlearned?
Or will the arrival of a new generation into the antechambers and corridors of power become a catalyst for the formation, however painfully and with whatever backslidings, of a framework that can both meet society's legitimate needs and give adequate scope to the horizonless possibilities of the individual?