Factories and businesses came to a halt. The break out of violence and injustice was becoming more and more common. And perhaps worst of all, families were being broken up, members were being forced to betray and turn on one another, former friends and neighbors were turning away and abandoning those who became victims of the chaos to their pitiful fate.
Ji-li, the protagonist is a twelve year old ‘golden girl’ of Communist China. She is clever, pretty and popular in school. Her very name means ‘lucky and beautiful’ (Ji-li Jiang:1) in Chinese and it appears as though the careful thought paid by her parents in naming her predicted her fate accurately. She loved China and the Communist party. ‘Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party. father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao’ (Ji-li Jiang:2)
However, all of this disappeared like a shattering window when Chairman Mao’ Cultural Revolution turned everything Ji-li held dear onto its head. One of the central targets of the new regime was the idea of the ‘four olds’ (Ji-li Jiang :28-29) which China’s society must be purged of. The things that used to be respected and valued have become things of ridicule.
When her family is targeted and her home ransacked, Ji-li realizes that her place in the world has changed completely. Everything she used to be proud of has become a liability to be ashamed of and to hide. Even her family, which used to occupy the center of her life and form the foundation of her belief and support of the Communist ideology is now a great danger to her wellbeing. Her family is a firm part and example of the ‘four olds,’ old ideas, old cultures, old customs and old habits. Being part of this family and this class makes Ji-li a target and a victim in the new society.
Evidence of her paternal grandfather’s past reveals him, and thus his whole family, as ‘filthy capitalists’ and perhaps worse, as landlords. In the context of China’s economic history, this revelation is a disaster. For the next three years her family become outcasts. They are labeled as members of tainted class. Ji-li and her siblings, being the children of capitalists and full members of their class become ‘black whelps’ and are spared none of the hardships and tortures of the rest of their family. They become pariahs, reviled by friends and neighbors, with no where to go and no one to turn to.
While her mother’s health deteriorates and her family begins to collapse all around her, Ji-li’s father is taken to prison and the family become even more condemned and isolated. The ugly characteristics of the new regime, that causes students to renounce unpopular teachers and parents to fear their own children’s condemnation become ever more apparent. (Ji-li Jiang:265-272 epilogue)
In a strange way however, this trial of her family, brings Ji-li closer to her family than she ever could have become had none of it happened. She is marked as a member of her family, and must bare this mark everywhere she goes and with everyone she meets. The situation is analogous to that of the Jews during the holocaust who reported becoming more Jewish and having their identity cemented by the ordeal and common hardship they experienced together. Ji-li know’s she is a part of her family in a way perhaps more real than most people ever experience. She is