3 out of 4 stars
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Little Mao by Bruce Bian is a memoir following Bian’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution in China. This memoir shines a light on the untold stories of the peasants and political outcasts during that time.
The life of Bruce Bian, called Bian Xiaomao in Chinese (meaning “Little Mao”), has followed a rather interesting trajectory. Bian is born in the city of Yuxin only four years before a local political figure banishes his family from their home city to a small country village due to the perceived “political incorrectness” of his father. Later, through strokes of good luck and his innate musical talent, Bian rises above the poverty and his inferior social status. Bian works hard and travels far, eventually settling in Australia as a successful lawyer. The memoir shares anecdotes about his early life in the city, and even one about his later life in Australia. The bulk of the stories, though, center on the tough farm work and harsh living conditions his family endured in the countryside during the Revolution.
Little Mao contains several stories that may be off-putting to sensitive readers. The book is brutally honest and does not shy away from the less delicate aspects of poor country life, including unsanitary latrine situations. The early chapters conjured up a few mental images that I found rather hard to shake out of my mind after reading! I would not recommend reading the first half of this book while eating. The second half of the book contains a few stories about how the boys in Bian’s family acquired the meat for their kitchen table, which may also be distressing to some readers. A warning prefaces these sections, however. The book also contains some strong language and dirty jokes told by the adults in the village.
This memoir interested me because I wanted to learn more about the Cultural Revolution and daily life in China for the lower class. Little Mao is not a history book, but it gives enough information about the events and political players of the time to glean a basic understanding of modern Chinese history. I liked that the book also describes events from his parents and his grandmother’s early lives. These glimpses into the early 20th century allowed a more thorough understanding of both Bian’s family circumstances as well as the building of the political climate that led to the Revolution. I also appreciated the photographs of the farm and domestic tools included in some of the chapters. These pictures help readers unfamiliar with Chinese farmwork fully understand what Bian is describing. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about modern Chinese history, the daily life of the Chinese lower class, or the impact of a dictatorship.
I give Little Mao 3 out of 4 stars. I found no typos or grammatical errors, but there were a few slightly distracting idiosyncrasies in the writing style. Bian writes the last names of all the characters fully capitalized, though this may be a cultural custom. One small criticism I have is that the episodes are divided up by category, rather than in chronological order. It was hard to keep track of the time leaps and determine where the family was and when. However, this organization did make for more cohesive storytelling as each chapter follows a theme. Overall, I found Little Mao to be enjoyable and informative.
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