Book Review – Egg on Mao by Denise Chong

“Of a generation who remembers Tiananmen Square, 1989, I considered how some excuse – the lack of, or slow progress on, human rights in China because ‘times have changed’, or because other concerns, including making money, come first, or because rights, freedom, and democracy are somehow different issues there than in the West.”  Denise Chong

China holds a special place in my heart. The country has played an important role in my life yet I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say I truly understand the nation.

With its cover bearing the portrait of Mao Zedong, Egg on Mao caught my attention from the display shelf of the library. I haven’t read Denise Chong’s previous works but knew their titles well – The Concubine’s Children and The Girl in the Picture, the latter dealing the Vietnam War. I knew Chong has a strong reputation for investigative non-fiction.

Egg on Mao follows the life of one ordinary man, Lu Decheng in 20th century China. Decheng is from Hunan province, the home province of Chairman Mao. Decheng has a nominal education, marries his teenage sweetheart, and settles down to a job as a mechanic. At the same time, as Chong chronicles this seemingly ordinary life, we see Decheng’s growing awareness and frustration with the political situation in China. He sees flaws in the system, yet to speak out against the government is fraught with danger and many are afraid to state their opinions.

This changes for Decheng in 1989. If you know anything about China, you probably already know where I’m going with this. Inspired by the protests and hunger strikes of students in Beijing, Decheng and two friends travel to Tiananmen Square and throw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong. For this crime, Decheng serves almost nine years in prison. One of his friends serves seventeen years. Yes, this is a true story.

If you’re not familiar with Tiananmen Square, let me try and explain. The square is located in the centre of Beijing (which is the capital city of China), directly outside the Forbidden City (the former Imperial Palace). It’s the third largest city square in the world. A statue in the square commemorates the martyrs of the Cultural Revolution. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong is located there. The portrait of Mao is more than just a picture like we might hang of Queen Elizabeth or our prime minister. The portrait is huge, it dominates the square, it seems to see into every corner. It represents more than just a man – it represents the worship of that man, of the Communist Party. The best way I can think to describe it is as the primary icon of the cult of Mao. (If you visit China today, you will see Mao’s image emblazoned on everything from cigarette lighters to t-shirts to scrolls.) To throw eggs and paint at this icon is more than simple property destruction; these three men wanted to make a powerful statement against the cult of Mao. One of the slogan the men created to go along with this act of protest was, “The cult of personality worship will vanish from this day onward!” That is what they were attempting to do.

When the three were arrested they insisted on their action being recognized as a political one even though that meant harsher and longer sentences. Quite frankly, their willingness to stand by what they believe is inspiring. Most of us in Canada take our democracy for granted. We vote in miniscule percentages, if we happen to have the time on election day. We disrespect every person now and in history who has fought and died for that privilege. Books are powerful tools to spread this message. I’m glad that Chong enabled this story to be shared but I’m disappointed that I had never heard of this book before.

The book isn’t perfect. The dialogue in particular gave me pause. I can recognize Chong’s attempt to translate as closely as possible to the original Chinese but in English it often sounds stilted and unnatural. (This translation problem is why we get restaurants with names like Seven Happiness Family Noodle House. They sound great in Chinese but awkward in English.)The narrative though, which is the majority of the book, is well-written and her amount of description is perfect.

If you don’t know much about China, I would encourage you to read this book. China will only become more important on the world stage as time goes on. I also encourage you read other books about China – this is a big topic and you can’t rely on one book to tell you about it or to form your opinion by.

As far as books on democracy go, I also recommend Nelson Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Favourite quotes from Egg on Mao:

“Democracy is not granted from the top down; it is won by individuals.”  Fang Lizhi

“The numbers of courageous people willing to speak up, to step forward, are becoming fewer and fewer. I’m willing to be one of those few people to take the first step.”  Lu Decheng

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