A Family Memoir

By Wenguang Huang

Riverhead. 262 pp. $25.95

In the 1970s, when Wenguang Huang was a little boy in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, his grandmother’s death loomed large over his family. The woman was old, but not ill, yet the particulars of her funeral consumed her. A diminutive figure with a towering personality, she spent years milking her son and grandchildren’s loyalty to get what she wanted.

’The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir’ by Wenguang Huang (Riverhead/Penguin Group)

“The Little Red Guard” is the story of the Huang family’s attempts to carry out their matriarch’s wishes, a task made both complex and risky by sweeping policy shifts imposed by Mao Zedong’s communist government. Burial became illegal in China in 1949, leaving cremation the only permissible way to handle the remains of the dead. Officials ramped up their enforcement of this rule during Huang’s childhood. Still, Grandma insisted on a traditional burial.

So her dutiful son, a Communist Party member whose honor and livelihood could be devastated if he were discovered to be violating a law, roped his wife and children into a series of stealthy maneuvers. The family sneaked seamstresses into their home to craft special burial robes, and schmoozed train conductors and drivers to transport the body. And they lived on a shoestring so they could pay back a massive loan taken out to buy the black-market coffin that Huang slept beside for years in the family’s cramped apartment. “Father claimed that the coffin and the burial would restore harmony to the Huang family,” Huang writes, “but instead the wooden box became a constant source of friction and woeful contention among the adults, unwittingly drawing us children into the arguments.”

The memoir is a fascinating look at unhealthy family dynamics: a wife who resents her husband’s blind devotion to his mother, grandchildren who begrudge their grandmother the sacrifices she forced on them, and a grandmother who blatantly favors her son and eldest grandson. But this tale isn’t just about Huang’s family. Vignettes of scrounging for food when rations were scarce and forcing tears at school when Mao died so no one would question Huang’s allegiance to communismprovide insight into the cultural landscape of China in the tumultuous 1970s.

Sarah Halzack