With the collaboration of Judith Shapiro, Liang Heng has written one of the most memorable and accessible autobiographies to have emerged from China’s “lost generation,” which came of age during the chaotic decade of the Cultural Revolution (19661976). Son of the Revolution follows a basically chronological format, beginning with a chapter about Liang’s late-1950’s childhood memories of politically related tensions between his father and mother (“Chairman Mao’s Good Little Boy”) and concluding with an account of his marriage in 1980 to one of his English instructors at Hunan Teacher’s College in Changsha (“Teacher Xia, the American Expert”).
At the same time, the account of Liang’s youth and early adulthood is shaped by a topical presentation, as the more colorful of the book’s twenty-four chapter titles would suggest. “The New Long March” recounts that, in the face of school closings nationwide in 19661968, huge bands of unsupervised teenagers and even preteens would march for hundreds of miles on long treks to various historical landmarks of China’s communist revolution. A grimmer side of political fervor emerges in the chapter entitled “A Gory Climax in Changsha,” in which Liang provides eyewitness reports of gunfire and even artillery exchanges between various “revolutionary” factions, each claiming unsurpassed devotion to the infallible ideas of Mao Tse-tung. In “Eating Socialism,” Liang recalls the sloth and corruption that he saw as endemic in the manufacturing sector during a stint as a factory worker, while the chapter “We Become Peasants” portrays the hardships resulting from the Chinese government’s former policy of uprooting millions of urbanites from their homes and forcing them to settle down in the countryside.
Other chapters sketch China’s subcultures of the sports star and the street hoodlum, both of which Liang sampled and even relished at various times. Although he was somewhat unusual in the remarkable breadth of social experience that he amassed over a mere two and a half decades, almost every young Chinese person of Liang’s generational background underwent at least some of the experiences and emotional turmoil that he describes. Son of the Revolution thus functions as both autobiography and history, as Jerome Alan Cohen points out in the book’s excellent preface. A section of photographs and maps helps the reader to visualize many of the book’s key personages and geographical settings.