One day when Da Chen was about six, he stood outside his house in the small southern Chinese village of Yellow Stone to watch a parade. Suddenly, “a kid from next door, for no obvious reason, smacked me right on the face and kicked me when I fell.” When Chen struck back, the local Communist Party secretary soon stormed into the house, “shook his fist at my tiny mom,” then slapped her. “I spent the rest of the day watching her hold a wet towel to her face, where the humiliating imprint of his hand remained.”
Chen’s real offense was that, as he laments, “I was born with a political defect that no one could fix”—he was the youngest member of a family of landlords, one of the “Five Black Categories” excoriated in Mao Zedong’s China. This was 1968, at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the parade was a march of young Red Guards. At once a centrally directed regime of disorder and a paroxysm of sans-culotte control, the Cultural Revolution had sent Red Guards roaring through the cities and into the countryside of China, shuttering schools while hunting down rightists and “feudal remnants,” “snakes and monsters,” and “people in authority taking the capitalist road.”
As a “Black family,” the Chens endured terrific cruelties: Chen’s father was hung by his thumbs and repeatedly hauled off to labor camps, his brothers and sisters were sent to toil in the fields, his grandfather was beaten and harassed to an early grave. The dreadful litany of wrongs joins Chen’s memoir to a stream of Cultural Revolution remembrances that began with the “scar literature” of the late ’70s and has continued with an overflow of ’80s and ’90s tell-alls—including those by a parade of former Red Guards, a very short list of which might include Gao Yuan’s Born Red, Zhai Zhenhua’s Red Flower of China, Ma Bo’s Blood Red Sunset, and Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters. But Chen’s memoir is marked by its belatedness in a more significant way: A four-year-old in 1966, he was born too late to rebel.
Indeed, Chen brings a child’s-eye view to the youth revolution. In third grade, the problem of a rain-soaked homework assignment somehow spirals into a confrontation with a young, ultraleftist teacher. The standoff builds—with a kind of third-grade logic—toward a climax both absurd and seemingly inexorable:
“You have been saying antirevolutionary and anti-Communist things to your classmates, haven’t you?”
“No, I haven’t.” He was trying to paint me as a counterrevolutionary, just as they had done to Yu Xuang, a fifth-grader whom they had locked in the commune jail for further investigation. . . .
“Shut up! You have no right to defend yourself, only the chance to confess and repent. . . . ”
A condemned man at the age of nine! Confession tomorrow! The thoughts played over and over in my mind.
In contrast to the frontline confessionals of the ex-Red Guards, Chen’s prepubescent perspective, with its necessary innocence and childish incomprehension of political terror, offers an unusual view of the Revolution as a catastrophe from afar. And his exile from radical respectability offers memorable glimpses of less well-traveled ground: Kicked out of school, he joins a gang of mild hooligans. Stealing away at night, they meet for sugarcane-field gambling sessions and drink-till-you-pass-out chugfests. Crashing a county movie house, the group ignores the film’s plot (“run-of-the-mill Cultural Revolution stuff”) in favor of meditations on the CP heroine—”gorgeous goddess of curvy contours.”
Still, Chen’s child’s-eye view also necessarily produces a narrative lacking some of the drama that has marked the genre—the heartbreak of disillusionment and the regret born of betrayal. Perhaps the most harrowing scene from Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, among the best of the recent wave of memoirs, involves Min’s wrenching public denunciation of her beloved teacher, Autumn Leaves. And Chen’s memoir cannot comprehend the erotics of true faith: Min’s disenchantment only comes after burning belief (“We were sure that we were making red dots on the world’s map. We were fighting for the final peace of the planet. Not for a day did I not feel heroic. I was the opera”).
Indeed, Colors of the Mountain arrives at the end of a decade in which the Chinese—if not Westerners—moved through both Cultural Revolution nostalgia and fatigue. On the one hand, the ’90s saw bad-boy “punk” writer Wang Shuo impudently limning the excitement of the Revolution—no school, yeah!—in his semiautobiographical novel and film In the Heat of the Sun. Meanwhile, the flood of memoirs was joined by several collections of oral histories, like Chihua Wen’s The Red Mirror, which includes, alongside many others, the moving story of Siaoyu’s final, chance meeting with her prisoner mother in a public bathhouse (Mom quietly rubbed her back and shoulders; the two exchanged no words). The sheer accumulation of memories—and, perhaps, the paradoxical urge to forget—led some to complain, as one writer put it not so long ago in The South China Morning Post, “One more story about the Cultural Revolution and I’ll gag.”
After all, many millions were killed, tortured, crippled, or scarred. In that light, Chen’s hardships have a kind of terrible ordinariness. And after Mao dies and “everything was upside down again,” with college suddenly “the rage,” Chen’s struggle to rocket out of Yellow Stone via entrance exams takes on a kind of (understandably) fanatical quality of its own, ridden, as he candidly notes, by revenge fantasies. Indeed, Chen emerges as a kind of state socialist Horatio Alger, succeeding at everything—calligraphy, flute playing, Ping-Pong—he is permitted to pursue.
Ultimately, his suffering produces some nostalgia of its own. When the government reinstitutes almost Confucian-style national exams, Chen raves: “The government made sure that 30 percent of the test-takers fainted upon seeing the questions. Another 40 percent puked at their own ignorance. The remaining 29 percent would climb the cliff, but only 1 percent, their hands bleeding, would make it to the top. It was equality.” So relentless is Chen’s will to excel, that, with the comforting knowledge of his eventual triumph (he later came to the U.S., earned a law degree from Columbia, and worked on Wall Street), it’s hard to suppress the feeling that the Cultural Revolution may have done him—and us—a backhanded favor: throwing him in, if temporarily, with society’s outcasts.