At the age of 71 Wenguang Huang's grandmother began obsessing over the question of her funeral. She wanted a grand send-off, in a coffin, and a burial in the countryside of her childhood. To a Westerner none of this may seem problematic. But in Mao's China, where Huang's family lived, elaborate funerals and burial in a coffin were against the law. Thus began a battle between Maoist and Confucian values that would engulf the entire Huang family for years. Recently I spoke with Huang about his childhood and his new memoir The Little Red Guard in which he recalls – with bittersweet humor – a childhood spent sleeping next to a contraband coffin. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Q. Your grandmother started thinking of death at the age of 71. One of the saddest ironies is that your dad – who sacrificed everything to make her hopes about her funeral come true – actually died first. What did your family lose as a result of your dad's focus on this strange mission?
My father’s whole attention was directed toward the question of my grandmother's coffin. A lot of times he really did not have too much time for us. And we were always worrying about saving money [for funeral preparations]. My brother needed help with his studies at school and we never really paid too much attention to that. I wanted to play the violin. And my father always said, "No, we have to save for Grandmother's funeral." And my sister would want to go to see a movie. But my dad was very frugal and would say, "Oh, we have to save for Grandmother's funeral." And he focused so much on the coffin that in a way he neglected my mother.
Q. Yet much later, as an adult, you realized that this obsession of her father's shaped your life in many positive ways as well.
I didn’t realize how much difference the coffin had made in my life until several years ago as I was getting older. I started to realize, no [normal] family was obsessed with a coffin for so long! But during the preparation for the funeral [my father] taught me a lot about Chinese culture. I learned a lot about who are family was, where they came from, how you have to be humble. This group of teachings were totally contrary to what I was learning in school where they were teaching us the Cultural Revolution. They were teaching us, "Be loyal to your friends." Dad always said, "At home you rely on your parents." The way that he educated me, always through this obsession with the coffin, really shaped me a lot. Now each time I do things I can feel his invisible hand. I got lots of good things out of it.
Q. What drove your father? What motivated him?
The Chinese tradition of fealty. Also, he was an orphan and my grandmother totally devoted her life to him. She never got remarried. She was only in her 20s when my grandfather died. She sacrificed herself for the sake of my father. He never got out of this shadow of feeling that he was so indebted to his mother. Everything that he did was to try pay back. It was the traditional, Confucian belief that the son has to pay back what the mother has done for him.
Q. What would you want your dad to know about who you are today?
One of the regrets that I have is that when I was young he always felt like I was trying to be different from him. I tried to be very rebellious. I felt like I was much better educated than he was and I was more I was very arrogant. I want my dad to know the older I get the more I behave like him. He and his teachings shaped many of the decisions that I’m making now and more and more I feel like I’m kind of very proud of dad now. In the old days, I had this strong desire to be different from my dad. I felt like he had this sad life. [He spent his life] working in a factory and planning for his mother’s funeral. I really kind of looked down on him in a way. Now as I get older I wish that he could see that I’m more and more like him now and that I really cherish the things that he did. He was very nice to people, always wanting to help people.
Q. Your grandmother was also a huge figure in your life. If you could talk to her now, what would you want her to know?
I would like her to understand that I am doing a lot for the family. In the old days my grandmother always saw me as somebody who never cared family. I was going out and doing stuff. [Then] when I went back to China I visited her family. I started to know more about our family history and to recognize who I am and to accept who I am and where I come from. When she told us her family stories we always rolled our eyes. We never accepted what she said. When I started to go back I really started to appreciate her devotion and what she did for the family. I think that I’m following her example in a way. I’m starting to be more devoted to my family and to my siblings.
It’s a fusion. If I used percentage points I’d say 60 percent Chinese, 40 percent American. For the first 10 years I was here I was so Americanized. But then in the past 10 years the past started to come back more and more. And the way I act and the way I think is more and more Chinese. The Confucian thinking in me is still very strong. Even the Maoist thinking is still there. I think it’s true with every Chinese. We’ve been taught Communism for years and years. The Communist education seems to have pointed us in the opposite direction. But still, the way we think about things, our childhood memories for example, the movies, the way we look at things, I have to say that the Mao era has a big influence on us.
Q. In China today, are there still people who share your grandmother’s mindset about funerals?
[Today's Chinese] tend to play up the funeral. There are these very huge funerals and people want to be buried in a certain way. It’s part of the new economic power of wealth. Funerals are becoming more and more of a way to show off their wealth. [But they] no longer do the coffin thing. [Because the countryside is being developed so extensively] my grandmother’s [remains] has already been relocated twice and probably will have to be moved again.
Q. In some ways your story is so uniquely Chinese. But on another level – especially when it comes to your feelings about your father – it seems so universal.
I thought that maybe sometime I could write a book about my father. But for years and years I was wondering, "If I tell this story to a Western audience, will they be able to understand?" But I’ve been here for 20 years now. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that many things, many of the feelings are universal. For example, how we deal with our parents. When we’re young we may have a tense relationship with our parents but as we get older we start to understand them more. This story might have happened to happen in China. And sleeping with the coffin would not be very common in the US here. But there is that common theme as to how we deal with our parents. I tried out an excerpt in the Paris Review and I got a lot of e-mail from readers saying, “That reminds me of my childhood.” That encouraged me.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.