Do you ever listen to the radio? How about wear baggy pants? Have you ever called someone by a nickname? We're thinking the answer is yes, yes, and yes to these questions.
Now imagine what it'd be like for the government to tell you all of that stuff is illegal. We're not just talking about getting a light slap on the wrist, either—imagine that violating these rules means risking being locked up or beaten down.
For Ji-li and her family, there's no need to imagine; in their lives, these things are all punishable offenses. Soldiers search their home, take away their stuff, and even lock her dad up. Time and again, Ji-li and her family are treated poorly and publicly humiliated all because of their wealthy social class.
Originally published in 1997 by Ji-li Jiang, Red Scarf Girl tells the story of Jiang's experiences growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. During this turbulent time in Chinese history, Chairman Mao introduces a lot of new rules about how people should live, covering things like the way people talk, dress, and behave. It isn't just about pushing new rules down people's throats, though; it's supposed to make everyone—rich or poor—equal. Mao wants to make a fairer China, where everyone is equal under communism.
To Ji-li, though, this means a lot of tough personal changes. Since her family is loaded (complete with a housekeeper and fancy clothes), they get the brunt of the punishment. According to Mao, rich people have to be taken down a peg or two. This means life as Ji-li's always known it is officially over.
Ji-li's memoir is definitely sad at times, but it's also a tale of resilience, a story about clinging to hope during hard times and sticking by those you love. And since it's an autobiography, this inspiring tale is the real deal. Boom.
It's time for a little history snack. In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published the Communist Manifesto, which laid out the principles of what we now call communism, a.k.a. what Mao is generally pushing in Red Scarf Girl. The basic idea is that capitalism is seriously flawed and built upon the exploitation of the working class, all so a tiny elite can make boatloads of profit.
So what? Isn't that how the world just works? Well, yeah—because we live in a capitalist system. (Most of us do, anyway.) But Marx's point is that the landowners and factory owners don't produce anything. They might hold the deeds or buy machines out of their company's earnings, but they're not actually doing any hard work. For guys like Marx and Mao, this was a big problem—but if the workers could overthrow the capitalists and claim the means of production for themselves, then all the workers of the world could live in peace with one another.
Okay, okay, we get that. We don't want people exploited just as much as the next guy. Part of the problem, though, is Mao is better at criticizing the existing system than building a new and improved one. There are just as many problems during the Cultural Revolution as there were before—they just look different. Want to learn about these problems? Check out Ji-li's personal account of what happened to her and her family.
What can we say? It's an imperfect world.
Chinese Cultural Revolution
Want to learn more about the Cultural Revolution? Click on through for the full scoop on this epic era.
Ji-li's Home Base
Swing by the author's website for the latest info on all her books, a bit of a bio, and a long list of awards she's won.
No more reading required—you can just watch what happened to Ji-li and her family.
Ji-li Jiang describes what it was like to grow up in China. You know you want to know more.
Here's one fan's take on what the book is all about. What would you do differently?
The Red Scarf Girl Herself
Here's author Ji-li Jiang at a book signing.
Check out this real-life poster from the Cultural Revolution.