Saturday, September 8, 2012


Story Description:
Riverhead | May 1, 2012 | Hardcover |ISBN: 978-1-59448-829-0
Three generations of a family living under one roof reflect the dramatic transformations of an entire society in this memoir of life in 20th century China
When Wenguang Huang was nine years old, his grandmother became obsessed with her own death. Fearing cremation, she extracted from her family the promise to bury her after she died. This was in Xi'an, a city in central China, in the 1970s, when a national ban on all traditional Chinese practices, including burials, was strictly enforced. But Huang's grandmother was persistent, and two years later, his father built her a coffin. He also appointed his older son, Wenguang, as coffin keeper, a distinction that meant, among other things, sleeping next to the coffin at night.
Over the next fifteen years, the whole family was consumed with planning Grandma's burial, a regular source of friction and contention, with the constant risk of being caught by the authorities. Many years after her death, the family's memories of her coffin still loom large. Huang, now living and working in America, has come to realize how much the concern over the coffin has affected his upbringing and shaped the lives of everyone in the family. Lyrical and poignant, funny and heartrending, The Little Red Guard is the powerful tale of an ordinary family finding their way through turbulence and transition. 
My Review: 
From the age of ten, Wenguang was forced to sleep next to his Grandmother’s coffin each night.  His father forbade them from calling it a coffin but instead a “shou mu” which meant something along the lines of “longevity wood.” 
In 1973, Wenguang’s Grandma had turned seventy-two-years of age and she became entirely obsessed with dying and the fact that they would “cremate” her upon her death.  She absolutely did not want to be cremated but instead “buried.”  However, at the time, China wouldn’t allow any of its citizens to be buried in order to preserve the land for more important things.  The only way the Huang family could calm her fears and get poor old Grandma to stop talking non-stop about her death was to build her this coffin and keep it hidden in their home at great risk to themselves, they would be arrested if found with it. 
Wenguang had never given much thought before to his Grandma dying as to him at ten, she had always appeared old, with wrinkles, and brownish age spots on her face so he thought she’d live forever. 
The family was concerned that maybe Grandma was ill when she so suddenly began talking about herself dying.  Wenguang’s father asked her if she was sick but she said “no” but that: “when a person reaches the ages of 73 or 84, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call.”  Since she only had one year to reach that first threshold she wanted to be ready, and asked Wenguang’s father to start planning her funeral.  She wanted to be “buried” in her native village in Henan Province next to her husband.  The family thought that Grandma’s new obsession with death was just a phase and that she would soon “snap out of it.”  How wrong they were when Grandma continued to sleep less and less and peppered every single conversation with her growing obsession.  She regaled her grandchildren of stories about how the people of her native village viewed death, especially burials. 
Grandma’s husband had died in the 1920’s after succumbing to tuberculosis along the Northern Bank of the Yellow River.  He was one of the first to succumb to the sickness.  She said it was a “bloody death.”  Grandma was adamant that as filial son, Wenguang’s father would not disappoint her.  She said she was positive that they had kept a place for her.  She made it quite clear to her son that she would be buried in her native village with a traditional funeral, and she would: “NOT be denied her final request.” 
Over the next fifteen years, the entire family is consumed with planning and talking about Grandma’s burial much to the detriment of Wenguang.  It wasn’t until he was older that he realized just what affect this all really had on him. 
The story was well-written, interesting, funny, interspersed with the political state of China at the time.  A story and history lesson all-in-one.  Excellent read

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