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The Story of a Red Scarf Girl: A Talk With Ji-Li Jiang
Lynda Brill Comerford -- 11/10/97
On the jacket of Ji-Li Jiang's memoir, Red Scarf Girl, are two photographs. The first is of a smiling schoolgirl in Shanghai: Jiang, aged 12. The back flap shows a recent picture of the author as a successful American businesswoman, the co-founder of East West Exchange, which promotes business and cultural communications between China and the West. Looking at the two images of the author -- both the child and the woman radiating poise and self-confidence -- it is difficult to imagine how Jiang's life, values and dreams were severely shaken during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution.
Jiang, whose autobiographical address at the New England Booksellers Association meeting last month won her a standing ovation, uses a direct, no-frills style in both speaking and writing. She masterfully recreates the emotions she felt as a child "brainwashed" into believing that her country had been saved by the grace of Chairman Mao. "We were taught that we were very lucky to be living in China when two-thirds of the world was dying of starvation under capitalist rule," Jiang states. "We would cry over the testimonies of poor peasants, who told how they had been exploited -- made to work long hours and forced to eat food meant for pigs -- before Mao came to power."

As an impressionable youth, Jiang was very much caught up in the frenzy and excitement of the Cultural Revolution, a time when old ideas, traditions and lifestyles were being systematically undermined by the government. Then the tables turned, and officials changed her family's status from red ("good") to black ("evil") because of their tie to the landowning aristocracy (Jiang's grandfather, dead 30 years, had been a landlord). Suddenly, Jiang's opportunities to participate in school events, attend a prestigious school and have a career disappeared. All of her family's belongings were destroyed, her mother was fired from her job, her grandmother was forced to sweep the street and Jiang's father was held prisoner at the theater where he worked.Worst of all, Jiang was asked to renounce her parents and ridicule her father in public, which she ultimately did not have to do. "What happened to my family was not unusual. Many others suffered much more," says Jiang.

A few years after Mao's death, when Jiang, now close to 30 years old, was finally permitted out of the country to attend the University of Hawaii, she carried the darkness of her past with her. Years earlier, after a particularly bitter disappointment (being denied enrollment to the Shanghai Drama Institute), she vowed to share her traumas with "everyone in the world." She was reminded of this promise in Honolulu when the American family with whom she lived gave her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. Inside they had written: "In the hope that some day we will read the Diary of Ji-Li Jiang."

"I was deeply moved by Anne Frank's story and inspired by her book to write my own story through a little girl's innocent eyes instead of an adult's looking back," Jiang states. Her busy schedule -- attending college full-time and working 40 hours a week -- prevented her from doing any writing at that time, but after graduating, when Jiang was employed as a hotel management trainee, she felt a sudden urgency to record her history. "One of my co-workers asked me, 'Ji-Li, how come you don't have bound feet?'" Jiang remembers. "I realized then how little some Americans knew about China and the Chinese people. I made up my mind to write my story immediately."

In discussing her purpose for writing, Jiang reflects: "At first, my goal was to make American children appreciate their freedom more, but then I came to understand that "free" children have problems too. They have peer pressure to experiment with sex and drugs, for example. Maybe from my book readers can learn that we all go through suffering for different reasons. Maybe my story can give readers the courage to make right decisions."

After finding an agent for her manuscript with the help of a friend, Jiang was contacted by editors from three publishing houses. "I received two short letters and one long one," the author recalls. The long one was from HarperCollins editor Ginee Seo, who came to America from Korea as a baby and whom Jiang felt best understood her story.

Seo calls working on the manuscript of Red Scarf Girl "a labor of love," stating her strong belief that American children need to know Jiang's story. "Ji-Li and I worked together chapter by chapter, developing ideas and information about the Chinese culture that might be unclear to American readers." From the very beginning, Seo was captivated by the "visceral" quality of Jiang's writing and her ability to present material about China's Cultural Revolution in a "personal and understandable" manner.

Since the book's publication in September, Jiang reports being somewhat overcome by the onslaught of positive feedback she has received. While most publicity for Red Scarf Girl has been concentrated in the Bay Area, where Jiang lives, booksellers across the country have shown enthusiasm and support.

Busily involved with her company and currently working in conjunction with PBS to produce a documentary on Zheng He, a 15th-century explorer from China, Jiang takes a few moments to ponder what she has learned from writing her memoir. "It has given me the opportunity to reexamine history," she says. "Sometimes we are so eager to move forward. We don't have time to stop and look back, but writing this book forced me to relive days in my childhood and think about why I made certain decisions, like not testifying against my father. I hope that this experience of rethinking the past will allow me to see things more deeply in the future."
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