Son of the Revolution

by Liang Heng, Judith Shapiro

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Son of the Revolution excels in illustrating how pervasively the Leninist party-state can intrude into the daily lives of ordinary citizens, particularly when a carefully orchestrated personality cult is added to the picture. Even the most fundamental Chinese social unit, the family, could often not withstand the intense political pressures leveled against it during the antirightist campaign of 19571958 and the Cultural Revolution. After the harsh and arbitrary label of “anti-Party rightist” was stuck on Liang’s mother, Yan Zhide, the outlook for the entire Liang family came under a cloud: Her husband, Liang Shan, saw his chances for winning a coveted Party membership go down dramatically, while his son and daughters found the prospects for joining youth organizations such as the Young Pioneers and the Communist Youth League similarly bleak. Although most of Yan’s children could not bring themselves to break off contacts once and for all with their mother, they all went along with Liang Shan’s decision in 1960 to divorce her and thereby keep the taint of “rightist” from the family name.

Yet the taunts from classmates about having a rightist mother continued unchanged after the divorce, and by 1966, Liang Shan found that his turn had arrived to become an object of unjust political denunciation. Government authorities sent him away to a reeducation camp for professionals and intellectuals of a supposedly heterodox bent, while scattering his children among various rural areas far from their native Changsha. A happy and tight-knit family as late as 1956, the Liangs thus found themselves coerced into scattering far and wide throughout Hunan province within a dozen years.

While these politically orchestrated dislocations may have been harsh and unjust, the blame for them rarely went as high as the top of the pyramidal Party structure or as wide as to include the entire one-party system itself. As Liang points out, Mao’s lieutenants might have been blamed for the policies that failed, but Mao himself seemed somehow above reproach to the ordinary citizen after several years of indoctrination by the propaganda apparatus. Liang surmises that his generation learned the perils of embracing unexamined beliefs the hard way and that they would never again view any political leader or system with such gullibility and uncritical trust. Yet, on a sobering concluding note, he tempers this optimism with a disquieting observation on how politically naive the generation born after the start of the Cultural Revolution seemed to be by comparison. The same sort of mind-numbing Leninist and Maoist dogmas with which he had been inculcated as a youth continued to be taught as incontrovertible truths during the post-Mao era.

Liang presents many of the unsavory aspects of his past with admirable candor, as can be observed in the chapter in which he admits to having gone through a period of indulgence in stealing, fighting, drunkenness, and general dissipation. At the same time, most readers of this book would agree with the author’s assessment that he behaved with integrity for the most part. One detects a note of self-glorification, however, in his detailed portrayal of how he pressed a large donation on a reluctant woman in need, as well as in his repeated complaints of never having been properly recognized for his individual worth. For example, after he fell in love with Gao Weijun, he made the hyberbolic claim that her affection for him finally proved that “to somebody in this world who I was mattered more than where I came from.” During Liang’s subsequent relationship with Shapiro, he similarly avers that “for the first time in my life, I felt I was being accepted for who I really was.” While these statements are legitimate expressions of emotional intensity, they betray the limitations in Liang’s ability to analyze human relationships with a high level of self-awareness.

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