Mao and Me
Written and Illustrated by Chen Jiang Hong
Enchanted Lion Books, 2008, 77 pp.
Mao and Me is a graphic memoir of Chen Jiang Hong who grew up in North China in an era of political turbulence and material scarcity. Chen lives with his parents, grandparents and two older sisters in a narrow dark apartment in Tianjin (a major city 90 miles away from Beijing). Life is difficult but the family manages it happily until one day, “a voice announced from the radio –‘Chairman Mao has proclaimed a great Cultural Revolution in our country!’” Three years of natural disasters in the early 1960s had ripped China of any form of material abundance. In fact, many people were living in extreme poverty. Told through an ordinary boy’s eyes, the story is set in the aftermath of the natural disasters and great famine and witnesses the ten years (1966-1976) of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Neighbors and colleagues were turned into class enemies overnight and the entire country became fanatical causing class wars and chaos.
Chen is three years old when the Cultural Revolution turns his world upside down. He sees his grandparents destroying old photos and any trace of a better life, he witnesses people being publicly beaten, among them Old Mr. Huang and his beloved neighbor Mrs. Liu; he sees his father sent off to a forest farm on the Russian border for re-education; he joins the Little Red Guard at school and works alongside peasants and soldiers; he quietly bears the sorrow of losing his grandfather, and plays tricks to make his grandmother smile in her depression at the loss of her husband and chickens.
Chen replicates the illustration style of Lian Huan Hua, literally translated as “linked pictures,” a predominant illustration style in China’s picture books up until the 1980s. The linked pictures successfully convey the sequence of the story even without the words. The artistic media of ink, brush and watercolor visually presents the details of real life scenes with historical and cultural authenticity. The intimacy of everyday family life alternates with the political uproar of national events on small frames and large pictures as the story unfolds. The black outlines with ink and brush of characters and the details of their facial expressions fill each page with intense emotions.
This powerful book can be paired with other picture books and novels, such as Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (2007) to give readers multiple representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Since the story is about an ordinary boy who lives in an extraordinary historical period, the book can teach diversity and unity through global literature. Except for living in an unusual historical context, Chen shares much in common with other children all over the world –he enjoys childhood games of building blocks and catching fireflies; he endures sorrow for losing his pet and his beloved grandfather; he is thrilled at learning to ride a bike; and above all, he likes to draw. Chen’s book can be used with other books that reflect commonalities across childhoods, such as The Composition (Antonio Skarmeta, 2000), First One Foot, Now the Other (Tomie de Paola, 1981), When I Was Young in the Mountains (Cynthia Rylant, 1982), and Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing (Guo Yue & Clare Farrow, 2008).
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ