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Thirty Years in a Red House:   A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China
 
by Zhu Xiao Di 
Thirty Years in a Red House: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China.
"There was something seriously wrong with Communism. I wasn't sure if the theory was wrong, or if we had been damaged by malpractice." – Zhu Xiao Di
Emigrants from China have been producing intimate looks of the tumultuous events in their country for several years now. All that I have encountered make worthwhile contributions to the record of modern history.
For example, Jung Chang's Wild Swans:   Three Daughters of China (1991) covers the entire twentieth century by telling the stories of three generations of women in the author's family.
Katherine book cover Anchee Min's Katherine (1996) presents a much more focused but fictionalized - and, in the end, logically flawed - story. Both inspire a distinct and unambiguous antipathy for China's government and social system.
 
In contrast, Thirty Years in a Red House grapples repeatedly with the fact that despite their shortcomings, the government and system were inspired by the highest ideals. The author still has trouble with the notion that Communism itself is unworkable: If only Mao and his inner circle had not made such horribly wrong decisions over a period of many decades, if only mid-level officials had not been corruptible, and if only the masses had not gamely participated in their own victimization, the noble experiment might actually have worked. Millions of earnest souls tried exceptionally hard to make it work.
 
Judging from the quality of the prose and the depth of insight, it is evident that an enormous amount of effort and passion went into the creation of this account. Zhu tells us he wants "to set the record straight" regarding Western misrepresentation of the Communists. I'm not sure, however, that China's government wants defenders like this. Today, at the fiftieth anniversary of Mao's proclamation of the People's Republic, relations with the West are just about as fragile as they've ever been; and balanced, earnest explorations like this book may offer the best bridge either side is likely to see.
 
Clearly, Zhu is still very proud of the role his family played in defeating the Nationalists and paving the way for Mao's new government. The "red house" of the title is his own household:   Even during his family's obligatory persecution during the Cultural Revolution, he reports, their tormentors admired their thoroughly Communist credentials.
 
Such irony abounds. Again and again, as his story draws to its conclusion, Zhu recalls his father's youthful goal of creating an egalitarian society and compares it with the highly stratified arrangement that has evolved instead. Abuse of power for personal gain had always been a problem in China. But over time, personal connections became essential for accomplishing anything. If you needed competent medical care, if you wanted to put your children into a decent school, and particularly if you aspired to travel abroad – special relationships with influential friends were a must.
 
The overdue death of Mao, the eventual downfall of the government "radicals," and the inevitable opening to positive Western influences ought to have renewed China's long march to its hoped-for destiny. Instead, Zhu mournfully admits that it was still entirely possible for anyone to "become a victim overnight."
 
When Zhu finally departed for graduate studies in the West, it was with the hope of finding "a medicine for China's disease." Even then his mission was essentially the same as his parents'. But while he was abroad, the supposedly tolerant Deng Xiaoping ordered the Tiananmen massacre, with active participation by former comrades of Zhu's own father (who died very shortly thereafter). On subsequent trips back home, Zhu has found signs of progress that are ambivalent at best.
 
Perhaps if more citizens were like that father, who is portrayed as a paragon of exceptional probity, the revolution might indeed have produced the intended utopia. On the other hand, if everyone were that wise and selfless, perhaps any system would work.

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