icasso had his blue period. Hugh Hefner, by his own admission, is currently in a "platinum blonde phase." And during my college years, (when I wasn’t cruising up and down "O" street looking for trouble) I was in a China phase. Red China Blues, Wild Swans, China Wakes, and Fox Butterfield’s lovely tome China: Alive in the Bitter Sea were my entree into a world of concubines, hard labor, gulags, emporers, tyrants, stealthy political activism, and destruction from the inside of one of the world’s most populated countries.
I would have made a terrible member of the Red Guard. Where I am indolent, self-absorbed and
largely concerned with my own comfort and contentment, the Red Guards–young people organized to support Chairman Mao during China’s cultural revolution–were industrious, hard-working, selfless, and utterly devoted to the Great Leader. Or so it seemed. But Fan Shen, author of Gang of One (out this year in paperback from NU Press) lets us in on a secret that, at one point, could have gotten him killed: He Had His Doubts.
The son of good and loyal Communist Party members, Fan Shen spent much of his youth engaged in faux combat exploits with his buddies Little Dragon and Snivel. But by fourteen, in the interest of "educating" urban youth in the ways of the proletariate, Fan Shen found himself on a two day train trip to a remote village in a really remote province. Now, I know, it sounds like a party, but let me tell you– it was not all fun and games for these kids. Between back-breaking work hauling rocks and digging frozen earth, subsistence on corn buns and porridge, and endless study sessions with the village’s zealous party leader, Fan Shen was in for a rough couple of years.
Fortunately, even while constantly questioning Mao’s ideas in his mind, our boy knew how to feign enthusiasm like a champ. Through his industriousness, hard work and a bit of sneakiness, he got himself into barefoot doctor training, and at 16 had become the only medical provider in his region. Armed with little more than acupuncture needles, cough drops and bandages, he managed to perform amputations and deliver babies, and once–and this section of the memoir is NOT for the faint of heart–he improvised a frantic blood transfusion to save a dying woman.
From the village to an electrical plant with a freakishly high suicide rate among its employees, through a delirious and joyful journey to college, Fan Shen set himself apart from his peers by learning constantly. Though he had no idea what his future held, he instinctively knew that memorizing everything he could get his hands on, including the occasional rare stash of banned books, would serve him well in the future. Arriving in college, a member of the first class accepted on academic merit since the beginning of the cultural revolution, Fan Shen wrote, "I felt like a happy salmon that had finally swum out of shallow mountain streams and into the ocean."
Alas, his hardships weren’t over when he finished college. I won’t spoil your fun, dear readers, but let me just say that he ended up assigned to teach in a wasteland where everyone’s teeth were mysteriously rotted. Good times. But luckily for Fan Shen, a graduate school scholarship and trip to America were in the cards, and it is the start of this journey that concludes his memoir.
I hope we hear more from Fan Shen. I guess my "China Phase" never really ended. In the modern history of that country is an almost perfect blueprint for how NOT to govern. But so too is there a history of people who persevered through the worst that fate could throw at them, and found a way to flourish. The story of China is a story of individuals, ultimately– people like Fan Shen. He writes, "The Chinese have a saying: There would be no books if there were no coincidences." His is a story of coincidences that shaped his future, and he has delivered that story to powerful effect in Gang of One. Collectively, these coincidences have set his country on a new path, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.