“Life is stranger than fiction.” Reading this unassuming-looking middle-grade book from 1999 really displays the truth of that statement. The Hunger Games, Divergent–none of these modern popular dystopian works come even close to the impact of Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl. As Ji-li takes us through her life during the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, the fabric of Chinese society crumbles day by day. Heartbreak and destruction are constant, as homes are ransacked, the elderly are beaten in the streets, and children are coerced into denouncing their parents, all in the name of a poisonous left-wing ideology.
The parallels to the political issues the modern world faces are undeniable and scary. The struggle sessions, where the ideologically possessed pile insults and accusations on supposed counterrevolutionaries, are just a few ticks up from a Twitter mob. Readers watch on as poor Ji-li struggles to come to terms with her grandfather’s class status as a landlord, whom she never even met. Yet his status has left a black mark on her family background, meaning that Ji-li has unrenounceable privilege which haunts her at every turn. Does any of this sound eerily familiar?
This is not a book with lush descriptions; it reads as a bit older, though not dated, and the verbiage is very straightforward. Though the language used is pretty plain, I remember reading this book as a kid and not really getting it. Why was Ji-li being pressured to write ugly lies about her teachers and post them around the school? Why were the grown-ups always holding whispered meetings in the bathroom? If you read this book when you were younger, please give it another go, since I suspect hefty chunks of it will fly over the heads of the target audience. Read as an adult, the message of Ji-li’s memoir is impossible to miss: this is what happens when a government endorses equity and social justice, then elects extreme measures to achieve those impossible goals.