LIANG HENG is a 28-year-old native of the Hunan 10.8 Province of the Republic of China who now lives with his American wife, Judith Shapiro, in New York City, where he is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. That sounds interesting but not, in these days of Sino- American comity, especially unusual. Yet in point of fact the story of Liang Heng is an extraordinary one, and in Son of the Revolution he and his wife have made a remarkable book out of it.
Heng was born on May 2, 1954, into somewhat privileged circumstances; in the city of Changsha his father was a "reporter, editor and founding member of the party newspaper the Hunan Daily," and his mother was a "promising cadre in the Changsha Security Bureau." He had two older sisters, Liang Fang and Liang Wei- ping. Both of his parents were ardently loyal supporters of the Communist Party--indeed, Heng now believes their marriage was made more of political convenience than of mutual affection or regard--and their energetic service in the party's cause promised rich dividends for their children.
Yet it didn't work out that way. Heng's "naive and trusting mother" responded with misguided zeal to a party directive and suddenly found herself branded as a "Rightist," and his father was as a result placed in a terrible quandary: "Father's traditional Confucian sense of family obligation told him to support Mother while his political allegiance told him to condemn her." Cold reality left his father with little choice except the latter. His mother was exiled to the countryside to work as a peasant, and his father began the process that eventually would lead to divorce:
"If there were no legal separation, Father would never be allowed to join the Party, and the files that would be opened on us when we came of age for middle school would say that we came from a Rightist background. We would be branded forever as people with 'questions,' and it would be difficult for us to go to middle school and college, get decent jobs, or find husbands and wives. Mother's misfortune meant the end of all of Father's dreams for himself and for his children; he must have hated her for what she had done."
What was so cruel about this awful twist of fate was that it was so random and inexplicable; Heng's mother had committed no real offense, she was granted no real opportunity to defend herself, and the punishment exacted on her and her family was wholly irrational. Yet the worst was still to come. For in the summer of 1966, when Heng was 12 years old, the Great Cultural Revolution suddenly exploded across China. It began as a "crackdown on anti-Socialist elements," but soon enough it degenerated into a time of chaos in which "it was hard to keep track of who was right and who wrong." Posters were pasted over every available surface, impugning the reputations of real or fancied deviants from a norm that no one seemed able to define; one of these alleged deviants was Heng's father, that poor loyalist, whose humiliation left his son shattered: "every word engraved itself on my heart with a blazing knife, every phrase struck me with a blow that was even greater than terror. I would never believe the ground was steady again." It was a time of mass insanity:
"It was absolutely terrifying. Bullets whistled in the streets, and the roar of a motorcycle or the wail of a siren meant violence and tragedy. The gateways of many units had broad white lines drawn across them, and armed guards waited on the other side to shoot anyone who had stepped across without permission. There was a 9 p.m. curfew, and no one wanted to go out during the day unless he had to; there were many reports of the deaths of innocent vegetable-buyers by stray bullets. People crisscrossed their windows with tape to prevent their shattering as the city shook with explosions and gunfire."
Through all of this outrageous upheaval Heng's devotion to Chairman Mao, like the devotion of the entire nation, remained unaltered; it seems not to have occurred to anyone to connect the father of the republic with the anguish through which it was being dragged-- though Heng does describe one poignant moment when the faith of his own father faltered, even if only briefly. In fact, manifestations of adoration for the chairman intensified during this period; in company with thousands of other youths, Heng went off on a reenactment of the Long March, and he made a pilgrimage to Peking in hopes of catching a glimpse of Chairman Mao and thereby being accorded a flicker of "ecstasy."
Devout though he was, Heng because of his mother's imagined apostasy had been "branded an outsider forever"; for his family, "all the happy futures we had envisioned . . . were now the shattered dreams of the past." Yet if Son of the Revolution is an account of a nation seemingly hellbent on destroying itself and its most loyal citizens, it is also the story of one young man who, having been granted extra measures of grit, intelligence and luck, managed to rescue himself from destruction. Heng, it developed, had a talent for the game of basketball; a job was found for him at an oil refinery so that he could play on the factory team. His old hopes for college were revived by this turn of events and by the legitimacy that basketball most unexpectedly had bestowed upon him. He was urged to apply for one of the two college openings granted each year to his factory's workers; after a complex sequence of events he was admitted to Hunan Teachers' College. It was there that he met a teacher named Xia Zhu-li ("Summer Bamboo Beauty"), whose American name was Judith Shapiro, and all at once a life that he could never have even imagineddsuddenly beckoned to him.
Heng knows that in being allowed to go abroad "to gain experience and knowledge"--he has expressed the hope that he and his wife soon may be able to return-- he is one of the lucky few: "So many young people of my generation were passionately thirsty for truth, but they had no way of analyzing anything but their own circumscribed plots of earth." But in telling his own story with such candor and insight--and, if I may be forgiven the use of an overworked word, in telling that story with such charm--he has amply discharged any debt he may have owed for his good fortune. To the Western reader, Son of the Revolution provides an invaluable view from the inside of a culture that seems destined forever to fascinate and mystify us; to the reader anywhere, it tells a story of the triumph of human will against the most terrible odds and obstacles.