I thought I knew the story of Wenguang Huang, who will be the commencement speaker at the University of Illinois Springfield May 12. After all, I’ve known Wen for 21 years, first as my student at UIS and later as a dear family friend. He met my extended family, picked apples in my husband’s orchard and even flew from Chicago to Boston for my son’s wedding.
I was wrong.
Sure, I knew he had grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution, was involved in student protests at the time of Tiananmen and had embraced democracy after a short time in the United States. Not until I read his just-published and captivating memoir did I realize the extent of his journey.
Most of all, I did not know he had been the keeper of his grandmother’s coffin, a fact that stands at the center of The Little Red Guard.
In the book, Wen details his life in Maoist China and his family’s conflict over clinging to the old Confucian ways or embracing communism. Nothing represents this divide more than his grandmother’s wish to be buried in her home village and the government’s mandate for cremation, her worst fear. Wen’s father risks his standing in the party, the family’s finances and his wife’s anger to honor, as a filial son, his mother’s demand he have a coffin ready for her eventual departure.
Caught in the middle is the young Wen, who dutifully spouts the communist doctrine at school but sleeps next to his grandmother’s secret coffin for years. Outwardly he is on the path to party membership. At home he is the favored first grandson and loyally laps up his grandmother’s love.
“As a ‘Little Red Guard,’ I was supposed to defend and fight for Chairman Mao’s revolution, not to guard Grandma’s coffin,” he writes. “Each time I looked at the Little Red Guard scarf around my neck, I felt a pang of guilt. I was even hit with a fleeting thought of reporting it to my teacher. Then, the idea of seeing Father being paraded publicly deterred me. Besides, Grandma would die of a broken heart and nobody would take care of me.”
Despite distancing himself from his homeland, Wen can’t shake free of his home. After years of suppressing the tension among his father, mother and grandmother, symbolized by the empty coffin in the room, Wen allows his memories to break free in this coming-of-awareness memoir. It reads like a novel as he journeys through the changes in his country and himself.
He paints vivid portraits of his mother coping with three generations in a two-room house, his father’s loyalty to hard work and communist ideals and his grandmother’s tiny bound feet. His three siblings get little attention until late in the book, but then this is Wenguang Huang’s story. His story is one I am now, and others soon will be, happy to know.
Mary Bohlen taught thousands of students, including Wenguang Huang, at SSU/UIS before retiring in August. She is now a freelance writer and editor.
About Wenguang Huang
Wenguang Huang, a 1991 graduate of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois Springfield, will be the featured speaker at the UIS commencement Saturday, May 12, at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. His book, The Little Red Guard, was published April 26 by Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (U.S.A.) Inc.
Huang lives in Chicago and has written for such publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune and the Asia Literary Review. He also is the English translator of The Corpse Walker and God is Red by Lian Yiwu and Woman from Shanghai by Yang Xianhui.