Early 1970s, Beijing. Communist China wages war on all things bourgeois. As twelve-year-old Qiangwei (“Wild Roses”) enters adolescence, the policies of the Cultural Revolution make themselves felt in every aspect of her life. Her school’s curriculum is shaped by the doctrines of Mao’s Red Book; writing assignments are devoted to criticizing perceived threats to the ruling party’s ideology; and in drawing class the students are instructed to produce violent illustrations of the proletarian triumph over the intelligentsia.
Qiangwei’s mother, a child of the bourgeoisie and a Russian literature professor at the University of Beijing, has been sent to a reeducation camp, where dissident scholars and artists are consigned to hard labor. Mother and daughter get to spend one day together every fortnight; the rest of the time, Qiangwei lives at an accommodation center together with other youngsters who have been similarly “orphaned” by the regime. Qiangwei’s father, meanwhile, is becoming a hazy memory; his military unit is stationed in a faraway province and Qiangwei hasn’t seen him in years.
Against this backdrop, young Qiangwei is changing—in body and mind. The daredevil tomboy grows, awkwardly, into a young woman. There are budding breasts and tentative infatuations. When Qiangwei develops feelings for a young carpenter and is told that romantic matches between people from different class backgrounds are ill-advised, the personal becomes even more political for her. As she grapples with the realities of Chinese society and culture, Qiangwei engages those around her in lively conversation and sifts through contradictory anecdotes and opinions about ideology, history, and philosophy in the hope of uncovering truth beneath the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. She reads forbidden books under a blanket. She listens. She argues. But how does one separate truth from prejudice or propaganda?
Qiangwei’s relationship with her quick-tempered mother is a fraught one. Mother’s concern for Qiangwei’s development, combined with the little time she has in which to impart to her daughter what she knows, makes her an impatient and stern taskmaster. While mother is forthcoming about her political beliefs, which often stand in opposition to what Qiangwei has absorbed at school, she is less than candid about the emotional and reproductive relationships between the sexes. Her worries for her girl, blossoming and alone in the city, cause her to instill in the teenager an irrational fear of all men—wolves out to murder her—which Qiangwei internalizes to the point that she is distrustful even of her uncle and, later, her father, when they pay her impromptu visits.
Socializing with her contemporaries is no less complicated. Given the loneliness of her situation, Qiangwei hankers for friendship and affection, but she is wary of getting attached to people who may well disappear from her life. With hormones raging, she and her peers are volatile creatures, and bonds are often severed as quickly as they’re formed. But some of the children’s stories provide poignant illustrations of the many ways—both obvious and subtle—in which the pervasive class warfare mentality of Maoist China affects the young. For instance, Liyuan, a seductive, precocious classmate of Qiangwei’s, is determined to become an actress and marry well, so that her mother, a farmer’s daughter, can hold her head high before neighbors who have always looked down their noses at her because of her lowly origins.
In this way, Qiangwei’s interactions lay bare the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the lives of ordinary citizens. Scarcity reigns, and tales of fellow students’ family members who have emigrated to Europe or the United States spark daydreams of white bread and butter, of chocolate, of owning well-made clothes and a bicycle. Meanwhile, government policies continue to tear families apart. Many husbands have been displaced—dispatched to reeducation camps or recruited to serve their country professionally—and are absent for weeks or years on end. The women who are left behind often find solace in the arms of other men. For instance, the mother of Xiangdong, a schoolmate who lives in the building where Qiangwei and her mother keep a modest room, has taken a lover. And Qiangwei’s own mother, who writes tearful weekly letters to her faraway husband, seems to be on intimate terms with Uncle Yang, the remote and proper party functionary in charge of the foreign languages department at the university.
In the prevailing culture of suspicion and betrayal, bourgeois opinions or partialities are expressed at one’s peril: perusing art books, listening to western music, or voicing revisionist thoughts can have dire consequences. And the paranoia extends to the past as well: the historical stain of an ancestor’s actions may limit the educational and employment opportunities of his descendants for generations to come. For instance, Peng, a gangly boy who elicits a confused knot of emotions in his classmate Qiangwei, hopes to be accepted into a renowned music academy to study the piano, but he fears that his hopes will be dashed once it is discovered that a distant relative on his mother’s side was a 1930s warlord.
Even under such oppressive circumstances, Qiangwei’s curious mind will not be shackled. But truth remains elusive as her black-and-white notions are replaced with ever more shades of grey—whether it concerns the past or the present, China or the West. After all, how does one reconcile stories of the pre-1949 exploitation of the Chinese by Bible-wielding western capitalists with mother’s fond memories of the nuns at the English school she attended as a child? And what to make of the racial strife and inequality in the United States, a country Qiangwei has long romanticized?
Facts ultimately prove overwhelming, and greater knowledge does not make the world Qiangwei inhabits any less unsettling. Neighbor Xiangdong—irritating and abrasive though the little macho-in-the-making often is—turns out to be an unexpected inspiration. He is as inquisitive as she, but his peeping-Tom methods, morally questionable though they be, betray a bravery rarely seen in a repressive society that breeds terror and cowardice. Xiangdong’s pluck allows Qiangwei to forget her fears for a while. In the end, it is learning to stop asking questions, to abandon talk in favor of play, and not to rush headlong into adulthood, that may prove for Qiangwei the most valuable lesson of all.
Fotograaf: Theo Benschop