Poignant tales of the Cultural Revolution

Apologies Forthcoming by Xujun Eberlein

Reviewed by Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - First, let us pause and lament all of the vast, untapped talent that tragically goes to waste every hour of every day around the globe. And make that a long, deep and profound pause because the waste, as any observant traveler knows, is truly colossal.

Once you are finished contemplating this immense desert of aspiration and aptitude, however, remember to give some small thanks to those who manage to spot and bring to light at least a modicum of what otherwise would have been lost - and I am not referring to drawn-out cultural carnivals such as American Idol or any of its many offshoots outside the United States.

Rather, in this instance, I offer plaudits to obscure Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books for its publication of Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not About Mao, a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein about coming of age during China's Cultural Revolution. In this book, written in English, a tragic era that the current Chinese leadership would like people to forget is stirred to vivid life by an author who was there at the time and bears insightful witness through her fiction.

Mao Zedong's desperate and incoherent scheme to recapture his dictatorial hold on China, which was slipping away in the aftermath of the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, serves as a fascinating backdrop for these subtle stories of patriotism, love, hope and loss. Most of these eight tales have been previously published in US literary journals such as AGNI, Night Train and Cottonwood. The same collection, winner of the little-known Tartt Fiction Award, has been published in the US by Livingston Press.
The book's 34-page opening story, "Men Don't Apologize", follows the travails of a "cold-eyed princess" born into privilege as the daughter of the head of an important Communist Party political institute. Ou Hong's father has been recognized for his excellent work in the Great Hall of the People by none other than Chairman Mao himself. But, as the Cultural Revolution begins in 1966, Mao's earlier blessing does nothing to prevent him from being ousted as a "capitalist roader" by a rival at the institute, after which his home is raided by the Red Guards.

Sixteen years later, Ou Hong, now a university graduate, finds herself languishing in a dead-end job at a bus factory that becomes a window into her childhood past. The factory is chosen as the subject of a report by a popular television host who happens to be the son of the man responsible for her father's downfall. Meanwhile, it turns out that Ou Hong's boss at the factory was one of the middle-school Red Guards who raided her father's house, taking away all of his favorite books.

The two men become rivals for Ou Hong's affection, which in a climactic scene brings them together in her father's house, where the past clashes irreconcilably with the present.

"Look what you did to our country!" the father shouts at the former Red Guard, Liu Huagu. "You destroyed everything, you Red Guards. History will never forgive you."

But Liu returns fire: "So who taught us to destroy the Old World? Who taught us to hate the class enemies? Who taught us to be worthy successors of the revolutionary cause? You, you old cadres! The Party!"

No apologies are forthcoming in this superbly written story.

A recurrent character type in Eberlein's stories is the "insert" - a young person from the city who has been sent to the countryside to learn the ways of an idealized peasantry. In one particularly poignant story of this kind, "The Randomness of Love", an idealistic young woman works faithfully for four years in a remote village, reluctant to return to her urban home even after Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in October of 1976.

Once the universities reopen after an 11-year hiatus and it is clear that a new age has dawned, however, she returns to the city to study. But she cannot shake her disappointment and disillusionment, at one point saying of her sister, five years her junior:

"She laughed more than I did. She had never gone to the countryside or held the belief that I had so painfully lost. I envy her, not burdened by a black hole in her heart."

Even back in the city, she is drawn to Old Brother, an older insert whom she had befriended during her rural exile, and she soon becomes the lone, single female member of his tea-drinking, cigarette-smoking gang of married male friends. Inevitably, a liaison develops with one of these men, and she winds up giving up the virginity she had once treasured as much as her communist idealism.

In "Feathers", a teenage girl dies from wounds suffered at school in clashes between opposing factions of Red Guards. Her mother and younger sister then conspire for years to hide her death from her adoring grandmother, at one point even persuading another young woman to stand in as an impersonator.

These are intelligent, well-crafted stories that offer no happy endings. In the collection's bleakest tale, "Disciple of the Masses", a wide-eyed insert is beaten senseless by the very peasants she is trying to help.

Eberlein does, however, offer hope for the lost generation of the Cultural Revolution. In the book's final story, "Second Encounters", Wei Dong, a software programmer whose career is on the rise, waits confidently for a job interview in an office in Technology Square, a 1.1-million-square-foot life sciences complex located on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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But when George, his interviewer, turns out to be a former Red Guard rival of long ago in their native Sichuan province, Wei Dong's confidence is erased by bad memories and alarm. As the Maotai (Chinese liquor) flows at a Sichuan restaurant in Boston's Chinatown, however, two teenage cultural warriors of 33 years ago become friends.

"This is a time, and that was another," George says.

Eberlein, herself a Sichuan native who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, migrated to the US in 1988 and later earned a PhD in civil engineering from MIT. First and foremost, however, she is writer with an important story to tell.

Thankfully, a few people are listening. Many more should join the club.

Laudable in its own right, Eberlein's collection is also a reminder of all the great stories that could and should be written in China today. Unfortunately, exile continues to be the home of China's most honest and moving narratives.

Apologies Forthcoming: Stories not about Mao by Xujun Eberlein. Blacksmith Books, March 2009. SBN: 978-988-17742-8-6. Price US$11.95, 204 pages.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.