Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Gish  Jen

Andrea  Conroy 
The Social Changes of Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Gish Jen's New American Family

Mao Zedong’s decade-long Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution resulted in radical social changes that challenged the principles that once formed the very foundation of Chinese society. In the time from 1966 to 1976, Mao replaced the previously prized values of intelligence, wealth, and family with the communist ideals of simplicity and equality as well as with a fierce loyalty to the government. Spearheading this cataclysmic movement was the newly established Red Guard, whose members devoted their whole lives to studying, applying, and defending the thoughts and beliefs of their Great Commander Mao Zedong. The Red Guard’s extreme loyalty to Mao and his government led them on a destructive path that resulted in the humiliation, persecution, and death of millions of Chinese citizens. Families also fell victim to the brutality of the Red Guard. Family ties within the country were tested, their members forced to choose between allegiance to their family or to Mao and his government.

In her works, Chinese American author Gish Jen explores the bonds that unite families. Using her personal bicultural experiences she creates a sincere portrait of the struggles and triumphs of blending two different cultures into one new American family. The Chang's story begins with Ralph, a Chinese man who temporarily comes to America to further his education, but is forced to remain in America due to the communist takeover of China. He is later joined by his sister Theresa and her best friend Helen. The three come together to form an unlikely family, clinging to their traditional Chinese customs as they unwillingly settle in America. They later become an example of the unconventional nature of American families. The expansion of the Chang family is documented in its sequel, Mona and the Promised Land. Ralph and Helen, who initially maintained Chinese traditions, do not pass this knowledge onto their daughters, leaving Mona who feels disconnected from her culture converting to Judaism while Callie goes to college and majors in Chinese studies. Both of their daughters ironically learn more about their Chinese heritage from other cultures rather than from their own family.

Major Works Consulted:

Jian, Guo., et al. Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2006.
Jiang, Ji-Li. Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Vintage, 1996.
---. Typical American. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Photo Credit: Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Vintage, 1996.