Which of the themes developed in Ha Jin's short story "A Decade" do you believe would most appeal to high-school students today?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Decade is one of twelve short stories in Ha Jin's collection Under The Red Flag. The stories are set during China's Cultural Revolution. Between 1966 and 1976, China's youth rose up to purge the four 'Olds:' old culture, old habits, old ideas, and old customs. Many of the Red Guards came to consist of young people, some of them mere teenagers. Often marginalized in Chinese culture, the youth of China were now infused with a sense of identity, purpose, and importance. Basically, Mao entrusted the Red Guards with unprecedented power to terrorize young and old in the mission to purge China of all pre-Revolutionary evils.

In The Decade, Ha Jin gives us a glimpseof this frightening war on  defenseless Chinese citizens. I would like to address three themes in the story which I think would appeal to high-school students today.

1)Forbidden Sexuality

In the story, Zhu Wenli, a pretty teacher at the Dismount Fort Elementary School, is caught in a sexually compromising situation with the narrator's class teacher, Miao Jian. Mao's Cultural Revolution absolutely forbade any sexually exciting relationships; romance was quite out of the question. The reason is because the egotistical Mao could never brook any rival to his regime plans.

At the time, both homosexuality and adultery were considered deviant forms of sexuality; both were punished accordingly. Punishment  included torture, whippings, ridicule or all three. A sting at a labor camp or field was so commonplace that even the narrator tells us that she didn't bat an eyelid when Zhu Wenli was eventually sent to one.

Modern reference: Today's high school students often have to navigate the confusing waters of their burgeoning sexuality in terms of modern expressions of eroticism. In Zhu Wenli's case, an expression of sensual indulgence between two consenting adults was condemned and punished. No discussions were allowed. Today, students face the same questions about sexuality and deserve answers from informed educators.

2)Forbidden Influences/Censorship

In the story, Zhu Wenli is caught singing an Uigar folk song. When her students come upon her singing the song, Zhu is nervous. She is afraid of being informed upon and disciplined for indulging in such a bourgeois practice. However, the narrator is so charmed by the song that she secretly learns to sing it herself. During the Cultural Revolution, all non-revolutionary music was forbidden. Any non-revolutionary mementos were also anathema: to that end, pictures, furniture, Western paintings, jewelry, radios, make-up, and even colorful clothing were all deemed unpatriotic. Teams of Red Guards confiscated sentimental letters and belongings; all infractions were punished severely.

Modern Reference: Today, High School students are presented with many choices in the world of online social media. Due to the popularity of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other forms of social media, teenagers face an exciting but often dangerous world of possibly forbidden influences. Teachers, parents, and educators have to decide how best to foster their students' intellectual curiosity while protecting them from dangerous predators. In short, some censorship may be necessary. The debate stems from the question of degree of censorship, a debate that is ongoing between students and educators.

3)Forbidden Books

In the story, Zhu Wenli gets into trouble for her interpretation of Chairman Mao's writings. Again, her own students turn her in. During the Cultural Revolution, only revolutionary books were allowed.

Modern reference: Today, some school districts face challenges in allowing certain texts to be used as part of a legitimate curriculum and/or censoring others. Challenges for high school students: 1)Should any texts be forbidden? 2)Should open discussions be allowed on any politically and religiously sensitive texts or topics?

I hope this helps! Other issues you may be interested in (based on the story) might include issues of peer pressure (pressure to conform) and crowd mentality.

Further Reading:
Read the study guide:
Under the Red Flag

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