Reading this book is like reading the literary equivalent of the Jaws music. Our hearts are beating, our palms are sweaty—we just know something bad is about to happen. Okay, so things aren't quite that melodramatic—Ji-li is subtler than that—but the feeling is no less true. Check out how she describes going to bed after reading the incriminating letter: href="
I tiptoed back to bed. My heart pounded inside my chest. Although the letter was merely reporting facts to a superior, it was a complaint about the Rebels at the theater. (16.8)
We can practically hear her heart racing. Ji-li has a wonderful way of making us feel the suspense she lives through in the book. We're never sure what's about to happen, but we know the stakes are high and things can go seriously south at any moment.
Red Scarf Girl is written by Ji-li, about Ji-li, and that makes it an autobiography. In case we didn't catch it, she tells us as much, too: href="http:>
This book tells of my experiences between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I have presented my family as it was, but in order to protect the privacy of friends and neighbors mentioned in the story, I have changed their names and some details of their stories. (E.6)
Notice how she's explaining where the story came from? It's not something she made up to sell oodles of copies—this is all how it went down with her family. It's a totally true story. That said, with its simple language and tween leady lady, it isn't just an autobiography; it's young adult lit, too.
You might say the title—Red Scarf Girl—tells us all we need to know about Ji-li. For starters, she has a red scarf that helps define her (head on over to "Symbols" for more on this). Early on, Ji-li explains why she wears the red scarf around:
With my red scarf, the emblem of the Young Pioneers, tied around my neck, and my heart bursting with joy, I achieved and grew every day until that fateful year, 1966. (P.5)
The red scarf shows the pride Ji-li feels about being part of the revolution and her desire to honor her ancestors who fought before her. Her sense of self leans on the scarf and what it represents to her—Ji-li defines herself by her participation in the Communist Party (via the Young Pioneers) and allegiance to revolution. Or, she does when the book opens. Before too long, Ji-li finds she's confused about the political messages Mao is preaching—she wants to support them and be part of the revolution, but she also knows some of his ideas aren't exactly fair.
The title hints at the fact that Ji-li starts out as a girl who is proud to wear her red scarf, but she changes over the course of the book. By the end, Ji-li isn't as much of a red scarf girl as when the book starts.
In the end, Ji-li beats up everyone who ever made fun of her class status, frees her dad from jail, and starts a new revolution of her own. Right? We wish. In reality, not everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end. It's thirty years on, and Ji-li and her family have since moved away from China, but they never got the years (or reputation) back that they lost from the Cultural Revolution. As Ji-li explains:
Thirty years have passed since I was the little girl with the red scarf who believed she would always succeed at everything. I grew up and moved to the United States, but still, whatever I did, wherever I went, vivid memories of my childhood kept coming back to me. After thinking so much about that time, I wanted to do something for the little girl I had been, and for all the children who lost their childhoods as I did. This book is the result. (E.4)
In some ways, the book is Ji-li's answer to the revolution. It's her way of standing up for what she knows is right. With it, she hopes to bring more discussion and friendship between the U.S. and China. It's also a really poetic way to end. Her book becomes her swan song, or final goodbye to the life she once loved and lost.
The year? 1966. The place? China. Savvy historians out there will realize just how important that date is. Ji-li tells us that it's the "year the Cultural Revolution started" (P.7). This changes everything for Ji-li and her family. They are treated harshly because of their family history and live in terror as a result. Ji-li shows us personal side of a big political change in China, helping readers understand how the Cultural Revolution changed life on a personal level for people. href="http:>
Red Scarf Girl is an autobiography written from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old. Ji-li is open with us, and her writing style is easy to understand; she also uses enough detail to make us understand what life is like for her in China in the 1960s. So while she's writing from a difference place and time—which you might not know much about—it all goes down pretty easily once you start reading. Yay.
When we're reading Red Scarf Girl, we feel like we're right there with Ji-li. (Not that we'd want to go through what she did.) We can almost see the propaganda wall or her school littered with da-zi-bao. Why? Because Ji-li uses a descriptive and vivid writing style to explain everything.
You don't have to look further than the first page to see what we mean. She says:
Chairman Mao, our beloved leader, smiled down at us from his place above the blackboard. The sounds and smells of the tantalizing May afternoon drifted in through the window. The sweet breeze carried the scent of new leaves and tender young grass and rippled the paper slogan below Chairman Mao's picture: STUDY HARD AND ADVANCE EVERY DAY. (1.1)
Let's do a recap:
Reading the book is like going through a sensory checklist, and Ji-li hits them all. She offers such vivid details about what's going down so readers get to experience life along with her, blasting back to China in the 1960s.
For Ji-li, her red scarf isn't just a fashion accessory, it's a symbol of her cultural heritage and past. Check out how she describes it:
We were proud of our precious red scarves, which, like the national flag, were dyed red with the blood of our revolutionary martyrs. We had often been sorry that we were too young to have fought with Chairman Mao against the Japanese invaders, who tried to conquer China. (2.44)
The red scarf isn't just a symbol for Ji-li, it's a symbol for pretty much everyone. She thinks of the scarf as her connection to brave soldiers who fought for the cause before she was even born. It's a way of showing off her patriotism and support for Mao, like waving an American flag, only around her neck. In glorifying the fight for communism in this way, Mao subtly keeps people on his side, invested in a tale of glory instead of questioning his methods and new rules.
Ji-li's red scarf is her connection to stuff that happened way back when, before she was even born. She's proud of her heritage and wears that red scarf with pride. After all, it shows off to everybody just how revolutionary she is.
We can't help but think of something else here, though: Red reminds us of blood and violence, while scarves remind us of, um, things around necks. Under Mao's rule, people are silenced and subjected to violence. So what seems like a symbol for revolutionary awesomeness might also be seen as a symbol for just how hard life under Mao could be, too.
It's not long into the Revolution before we learn about the four olds. The first thing we hear is that everybody has to get rid of them—stat. Luckily these aren't four year olds, right? Phew. Instead the four olds are customs and traditions of the olden days. Ji-li tells us:
Every day since then on the radio we heard about the need to end the evil and pernicious influences of the 'Four Olds': old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Chairman Mao told us we would never succeed at building a strong socialist country until we destroyed the "Four Olds" and established the "Four News." (2.7)
It's only natural that part of the Cultural Revolution is to change the way people think about stuff. At the top of the list? Anything that could be labeled a four old. Some of these make a lot of sense. For instance, getting rid of someone's high social class status fits right in with communism's aim of treating everyone as equals. But then there are four olds like wearing loose pants—we're not sure how that shows off someone's political beliefs, but those are ditched all the same.
Ji-li tells us a lot about four olds because they are all over the place. To Mao, they represent an outdated way of thinking, but for Ji-li, many of the four olds confusing and don't make much sense. She and her friends get a slap on the wrist for using certain words, for instance, and Ji-li hears about people getting in big trouble for keeping photos of four olds. The whole idea of four olds definitely gets carried away. Instead of simply modifying cultural investments, the four olds become more about showing off the power of the Red Guards than anything else.
Let's face it: We've all trash-talked a teacher before. Sometimes they just get on your nerves with the endless list of rules and homework assignments. We're big enough to admit that most of our gripes have had more to do with our own laziness than anything bad on the teacher's part, though. Since no one likes to admit this to themselves, though, we totally get it when Ji-li's friends all start putting down the teachers, using Mao's system to take down the powers that be in their classrooms.
Thing is, they aren't just whining about writing a five-page paper or completing a science project. They are writing da-zi-baos. Translation? Nasty letters accusing the teachers of something serious against the revolution. As a result, the teachers get interrogated, beaten, or worse. This doesn't seem to faze most students. Ji-li describes what it's like at school while this is happening:
Da-zi-bao were everywhere: in classrooms, along the hallways, and even on the brick walls of the school yard. The row of tall parasol trees that lined the inside of the school yard was festooned with more da-zi-bao, hanging like flowers from the branches. Long ropes strung across the playground were covered with still more da-zi-bao, looking like laundry hung out to dry. (3.3)
Everybody—and we mean everybody—is writing da-zi-bao about teachers like it's nothing. Not Ji-li, though. Try as she might, she just can't come to terms with lying about her teachers. She knows they only want the best for her. This is our first glimpse at Ji-li standing up against the revolution. Sure, it's only a small step, but it tells us a lot about her character. She'd rather be mocked than lie and get her teachers in trouble. The da-zi-bao might be intended to smack-talk people, but it actually represents how honest and noble Ji-li is.
By the time the book is over, we feel like we're good friends with Ji-li. Why? She's been talking to us for a couple hundred pages. Not only that, but she shares all the gory details of her life; she doesn't just tell us what happened, Ji-li also explains how she feels about things.
Remember when she helps destroy a sign because it's a four old? When she relays the experience to her family, she's surprised by their reaction. Listen to what she says:
I knew the movement was vital to our country's future, and I did not understand how Mom and Dad could not be interested in it. (2.41)
Notice the I's tucked in there? That's how we know this book is in first person—whenever the narrator busts out I all the time, we're definitely in first person territory. And since Ji-li's right at the center of the action, she's a central narrator, too. href="http:>
Ji-li is over the moon when she's asked to try out for the prestigious Liberation Army troupe. Her joy quickly fades to frustration after her dad tells her that her family won't pass the required background check, though. Ji-li is upset and really confused. Why not? What's wrong with her family? We're calling this our initial situation because it's the first glimpse of what's to come for Ji-li. This is when she learns that there's more to her family than she realizes—and it isn't in sing with Chairman Mao's rules.
At school, Ji-li starts learning about the four olds and how everyone must get rid of them to support the Revolution. Sounds simple enough, right? Except when you think about the fact that almost anything can be considered a four old. Old photographs? Check. Loose pants? Check. Books? Check. It becomes harder and harder to understand why they need to get rid of this stuff for Ji-li. This is the first conflict that she faces. Sure, she wants to support the revolution, but she doesn't get why that means getting rid of half her stuff and bad-mouthing her teachers.
Things go from bad to worse when Ji-li's dad is arrested on trumped up charges. Basically, the government is just mad that her grandpa was a landlord and filthy rich, so they take it out on Ji-li's dad. She knows her dad has done nothing wrong, but Ji-li feels torn between her loyalty to him and her commitment to the revolution.
This comes to a head when she's asked to testify against him at a trial. Testify to what, you ask? Anything she likes. Make it up for all they care. They just want witnesses to speak out against the guy. We can tell that this is a turning point for Ji-li because it's when she decides once and for all that she cares more about her family than Mao's new China.
Ji-li gets sent to work in the fields, and when she gets back, she finds her family is worse than ever. Her dad is still locked up, her mom is sick, and her grandma is old and frail. When the Red Guards show up demanding information, they slap Ji-li's grandma and force her to work in the streets, even though she's over seventy years old. The whole family is ostracized simply because they were once wealthy. Ugh. Ji-li promises her mom that she'll always take care of her siblings if something bad happens. We're calling this our falling action because it's helping us wrap up Ji-li's story. Again we see her face harsh times and choose to stick it out with her family.
It's not until the epilogue that we get our resolution. Written thirty years later, we learn that Ji-li's dad was eventually released from jail and everyone was reunited; then the whole family moved to the United States. Some work still needs to be done to make things right, though. In fact, Ji-li confesses that part of the purpose of the book is to mend relationships between the U.S. and China. Hopefully sharing her story helps.