Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang is a memoir in which Ji-li writes about her time during the Cultural Revolution in China. The Red Scarf in the title was red because Ji-li lived in a communistic time, and that was her way of displaying that she supported the movement. Ji-li now lives in America but suffered through the rise of the communist party because of her family’s “black history,” meaning opposed to communism. She moved to the United States in 1984 with her family, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She founded the non-profit Cultural Exchange International organization, which expands cultural exchanges, something she finds very important.
Red Scarf Girl is the true story of Ji-li’s life during the Cultural Revolution, and even as only a child all the struggles she goes through, because of her anti-communistic roots. Ji-li was a great student, and a leader at her school. She fully supported the revolution, but when it was time to choose red guards at her school (official young communist upholders) Ji-li is unable to become one, because she has family members, who, in the past were opposed to the communist revolution, and this was only the beginning. Ji-li was limited from many activities in her childhood because of her “black history.” Her father was sent to prison, her family was harassed, and her house was searched. They didn’t do anything wrong, and yet, because of her history, Ji-li faced many hardships in her youth during the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution was a time where ruler named Chairman Mao took China and pointed it in a communist direction. Communism is a governmental system designed by Karl Marx, a man who wrote about a revolution of the working class. Chairman Mao wanted one of those revolutions, which he called the Cultural Revolution. A communist government aims for a classless society, where property is shared by the people. Bands of youth called the red guards (red symbolizing communism) would form and criticize people were opposing or who even were not directly supporting the communist party. The red guards pushed China deep into social turmoil.
The major theme of the book is: individuality matters in a struggling society. Ji-li wanted to be her own person throughout the whole book. She didn’t want to be limited in what she could and couldn’t do by what her deceased grandfather did. Ji-li thought about changing her name many times in the book, so that her “blackness” would be cleared away. When Ji-li came to America, she though it was the most amazing thing in the world American was a country where people could express themselves and their feelings about their leader. America had individuality written all over it, and Ji-li is a fan.
Ji-li Jiang writes clearly, and displays the events like they were happening to her then and there she remembers them so well. “Hmm…” Chang Hong considered. “Why isn’t the sun painted red? Since the title is ‘The Rooster Sings, for the East Is Turning Red,’ the sun should be red, shouldn’t it?” Her hand was almost touching the painting. Ever since Bai Shan had left self-study class that day, Chang Hong had seemed to disapprove of him. She was, after all, a Red Guard Committee member, and she suspected him of disrespect toward Chairman Mao. I gently moved her hand away. “This is an ink painting. It only uses black ink.” (202) She uses symbolism and imagery in her book, which gets the reader to think about what she has to say, because a lot of what she writes has deeper meanings, such as this quote. She is not simply talking about the painting. She is saying there can be black ink, and still a beautiful painting. Just like people, they can have black or non-communist beliefs and still be great.
I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed Ji-li’s style of writing and her story. Through her writing I learned about the Cultural Revolution, and about Chairman Mao. This book accomplished explaining what the Cultural Revolution in China was. Ji-li told her story in a way that touched the reader’s hearts. She brought her voice into the book and made you want to help other countries like China.
Red Scarf Girl made me feel sad for what Ji-li had to deal with even as a child. She was made fun of and limited to what she could do. Her father was put in prison, and her grandmother was punished because she married a landlord. The book affected me by reminding me of the great country I live in where there is total freedom. In America, there is freedom of press, speech, and religion. Ji-li had the freedom to worship Chairman Mao. “Now let’s sincerely and wholeheartedly wish long life to our great leader, great teacher, great commander, and great helmsman, Chairman Mao” (167) This quote shows what the relationship with Chairman Mao and his people was like in China during the Cultural Revolution. When I read this I felt sad for the people in China then. Even if they didn’t like Chairman Mao, he was treated like a god.
This book is original, because a specific solution to her problems in China isn’t stated until the epilogue. Things didn’t change for Ji-li until the end of the revolution. True stories don’t always have a happy ending. But I enjoyed it because of the background information I found. It was not too long, and paid great attention to detail, which I found truly interesting. I haven’t read many things like it. It wasn’t a funny story, it was informative, and made learning about the Cultural Revolution enjoyable.
I would recommend this book to someone who has either had a little bit of background knowledge of communism and what it is, or who has researched it before. If I hadn’t learned about Karl Marx and his system before I wouldn’t have understood why China was having a revolution, or why the people needed to change so many things. Communism is a complicated government system (it took a whole paragraph to explain only part of it) and I am really glad I knew about it, because that way I enjoyed the book. Ji-li had a great style of writing which clearly demonstrated many literary elements and great voice. I recommend this book, with a little bit of research done first.