This is the true story of Li Cunxin, the sixth of seven sons from a rural family in north-east China.
It was the 1960s. China was under Chairman Mao’s rule.
The Li family, like many, was very poor.
There was never enough food. Every night, Cunxin’s mother would pray that none of her sons would starve to death.
The boys squeezed in a tiny room. Cunxin hated his brothers’ feet in his face. They also had to walk for hours to get to school, even in winter.
Were there happy days? Yes. When Cunxin’s father gave him a homemade kite, he tied ‘paper wishes’ to it and they flew it up into the sky.
After that, Cunxin’s father would sit with him and tell him stories. His favourite was the one about a frog living in the deep well. That story didn’t end well. The frog never jumped high enough to escape the dark well. It never got to see the world above. Though it kept trying . . .
This post is longer than my usual book features, but please stay. Take your time reading it. I'm fairly certain you'll learn something new from the book below (as I have). Something about a time not too long ago, yet felt so distant. Something about a country we all know but don't know so well. Something about similarities and differences in childhood.
The author-illustrator, Chen Jiang Hong, grew up in the north of China in the mid 60s. This book is about his childhood.
His childhood of staying with his grandparents while his parents went out to work. (He has two elder sisters.)
His childhood of wearing clothes that were hand-me-downs or three sizes too big, of watching Grandfather play Tai Chi at the park, of peeking at Grandmother while she prepared dumplings in the kitchen, of raising chicks as pets, of learning sign language from his eldest sister who is a deaf-mute, of learning to draw on the floor, of building blocks (his only toy).
All pretty normal.
Then the Cultural Revolution was proclaimed.
And Chen's childhood also consisted of reading only Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, of reading praises of the chairman, of replacing the living room painting with the chairman's portrait, of wearing a necklace with a large medallion of Mao every day as he was too young to join the Little Red Guard* like his sisters could, of food rations, of not enough candy. (*Little Red Guards were formed by students in a paramilitary social movement, like little soldiers mobilized by Chairman Mao.)
There were rare times of true, private joy, too. A neighbour, Mrs. Liu, often gave Chen "Great Rabbit" milk candies. She had many books which hadn't been discovered and burned by the Red Guards, and a phonograph on which she played music.
Unfortunately, those rare times didn't last. Mrs. Liu was dragged onto the streets one day and made to confess to be a rebel. She was shamed and taken away.
Major changes occurred in the country. Major changes occurred at home. Father was sent away to the forest on the Russian border for "re-education." Grandfather's health declined.
Grandfather, who wasn't in good health, would tell me, "You are the staff of my old age but now that you are big, you need to go to school. You cannot always be at my side." I was eager to go to school, but I still would have preferred to hold Grandfather's hand forever.
Chen entered school at seven years old. Grandfather accompanied him on his first day. Now his childhood included arranging his desk neatly, reading, writing in notebooks with green squares, using the abacus, self-critique (where he stood in front of the class listing the good and bad things he'd done the previous day), daily eye exercises and gymnastics so they could protect their country in future.
Somewhat different from my own childhood (and probably yours).
Then there were the games and activities: stone, paper, scissors, marbles, Johnny on a Pony, catching movies as a class.
The poignant moments in this book came in the forms of a lifelong search and loss.
In his childhood, there were occasions on which the children saw strangers on the local bus, strangers who wore perfume.
Our discovery of perfume is forever engraved in my sister's memory. As an adult, I have brought her perfume from Paris many times, hoping that one would allow her to rediscover the exotic smell from our childhood, but none has been right. Even today she continues to hope that one day we will find the right perfume.
A year after he'd entered school, Chen became a Little Red Guard. He wore a red armband with great pride and ran home to tell his family. Only, Grandfather was very ill.
The next day, Mama took him to the hospital in a rickshaw and returned with only his clothes and a bottle of milk (given to the sick).
Oh dear, how shall I continue this feature?
Take a moment, my lovelies. It took Chen a long while to figure out that his world hadn't collapsed, and for Grandmother to smile again.
He grew. His later childhood included a period when university classes were cancelled due to a daring student's protest against Beijing University. When the protest was over, students returned to school and would sometimes work in the fields or train alongside soldiers.
Chen, who was good at drawing, became the editor-in-chief of the propaganda wall that was set up in the school courtyard.
Totally different from our childhoods, yes?
But not all of it. Chen grew up just like us, learning to ride bicycles, falling, scraping his knees, and picking himself up. He was thirteen when Chairman Mao died and his father returned home.
In the inner jacket flap goes: "While wanting his readers to know what life was like then, Chen also hopes that you will discover the similarities that exist between your own life and his. For despite all of the differences between us, there are always feelings and experiences that we share in common."
Chen and I are both Asians, yet what different times and places we were born in. Such different social-cultures. Yet again, how similar our attachments to our grandparents, how eager we both were to start school, how we both obeyed our teachers and governments. We played (almost) the same games and learned (almost) the same lessons about ourselves in childhood. And oh yes, my God, I remember the Great Rabbit milk candies. I loved them more than chocolates and probably even ice creams.
If you're still reading this, and if you're a frequent visitor to this blog, you would've realized I'm straying from my usual feature pattern. (I usually leave the ending with questions so readers are hopefully curious enough to go check out the books.) For this one, I've done a thorough review because I think you might still be hooked enough to check this book out.
I have, in my thorough narrative-review, only told you half the story. The other half, with its contribution of emotions, of understanding the setting/the atmosphere, the cultural revolution, and more, comes in the artwork. (And if you understand Mandarin, goodness, even better! There are characters in the illustrations that will add to your reading value. But even if you don't, it's still all right. You'll learn enough.)
I hope you'll pick up a copy! (I'm grateful doing research for my freelance writing jobs is taking me places. Last week, I was in the Age of Dinosaurs; the week before, I was "in" Japan. And now, "in" China. I have borrowed another book which I hope to finish in time to feature next week (if not, the one after).
I hope you like this week's post. Have a good week ahead and I'll catch up with you soon!
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Hey, I'm Claudine. Welcome!
Want to know what children's stories can inspire & lead to?
by Kate Hanney
Really enjoyed the honest voice of this narrator ~ a teenager let down by his mother and the foster care system, and almost-picked up through his involvement with a gang.