Zeal of the spider woman

April 4, 1997

Former Chinese Red Guard Rae Yang's memoir is a tale of idealism, love and lies under Mao. Tim Cornwell reports

The Cultural Revolution, insists Chinese scholar Rae Yang, was not a time when "all of a sudden, the Chinese went mad". But at moments in her memoir, Spider Eaters, it is clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. There is the time when the 16-year-old Yang, and a cohort of youthful Red Guards, were on a 40-hour train ride south to spread the word of Chairman Mao in a provincial city.

"After a while," she writes, "we all got a bit bored. So we decided to make a revolution on the train. The idea was to inquire into the family background and class status of all passengers in sleeping cars and make those, who were not workers, poor and lower middle-class peasants, and soldiers, give up their beds ... so in less than an hour, we purified the sleeping cars."

Funny, but, like almost every story in Rae Yang's book, with a terrifying and twisted result. At the next stop, they discover their fellow Red Guards have revolutionised other carriages. "Class enemies", old men and women escaping Beijing, are being beaten off the train. She watches a woman with white hair, blood pouring from her head, being thrashed by a girl about her age. While she pities her, "rationally I believed that violence was both inevitable and necessary to a great revolution".

The first seven months of the Cultural Revolution, from May to December of 1966, Rae Yang writes, caused her "unspeakable pain and shame". As a teenaged zealot inspired by Mao, she denounced teachers at her school, and personally joined in the vicious beating of a classmate branded a counter-revolutionary.

The cry of the young woman, screaming her name "each time one of us hit her", soaked in blood and covered with wounds, haunted Rae Yang for years. Her own family was torn apart, her education derailed. "So I would say that those seven months were the most terrible in my life," she writes. "Yet they were also the most wonderful. I had never felt so good about myself before, nor have I ever since."

Rae Yang's introspective, occasionally awkward, but gripping account of coming of age in China in the late 1960s is published in the United States next month and in Britain in June. An assistant professor of East Asian studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and a specialist in Chinese classical literature of the 17th century, she wrote it partly as a hobby, partly to correct what she sees as a simplistic view of the Cultural Revolution.

What her generation lost was obvious. "What we gained is difficult to say," she says, "but it was kind of an inner strength, an experience. That's a very different point of view."

The message of the book is in its opening quote from theChinese writer Lu Xun - that people know what is edible and what is poisonous only from those who have tried it, who ought to be remembered as heroes. "Since someone ate crabs, others must have eaten spiders as well. However, they were not tasty. So afterwards, people stopped eating them. These people also deserve our heartfelt gratitude." In the Cultural Revolution, therefore, her generation were the spider eaters.

Rae Yang was the elder daughter of two "revolutionary cadres". Her father was in the Chinese intelligence service and she spent her early childhood in Geneva. (When she arrived in the United States to study more than 15 years ago, CIA agents quizzedher professors.) Her parents were committed communists who sent her to full-time kindergarten at an early age. After going to top-ranking schools, she joined the guards, along with most of her contemporaries, in the first place by simply tying a red scarf round her arm. In June 1968, she volunteered to go to a pig farm in the Great Northern Wilderness, in part to correct her thinking about excrement. She would not return to Beijing for four years.

The book is cleverly structured around her relationships with two women. Her grandmother, Nainai, a beloved childhood dream, dies diabetic and delusioned in the windowless storeroom of the house her wealthy family once owned. Her devoted nanny, "Aunty", serves as her anchor, loyal even when she steals from her, though eventually forbidden to work for her family.

It runs from her intense childish jealousy of her younger brother to her first love, a fellow worker on a Chinese pig farm. "Red Guards had no sex", is the title of one chapter, because sex was known to be bourgeois, dirty, ugly and extremely dangerous. "Revolutionaries had nothing to do with it. When revolutionaries fell in love, they loved with their hearts. They didn't even touch hands."

It is the complicated and compelling story of a young woman whose eyes slowly and painfully open to the truth. Like many young Chinese, she joined Mao's revolution believing it could lead to a better society, and clean away bureaucracy and corruption. "It was Mao who sent us to the countryside to learn from the peasants," she said. "What we learned were the lies that the party told. I'm not sure that is what he intended."

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