Jiang Ji-li was born on Chinese New Year. Her name Ji-li means lucky and beautiful. She was twelve when the Cultural Revolution started. A promising student and quite a fan of Mao at first joins her classmates in denouncing the Four Olds (“old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits”), but soon discovers that her family’s class status (her grandfather was a landlord) places her under the scrutiny of her relatives, neighbors and classmates. Their house is subject to searches, they burn old photos, hide or disguise ‘bourgeois’ belongings, her father is taken in for questioning, and Ji-Li watches as her bright future dims.
For me, the most appalling moment was when her father’s work unit comrades question Ji-Li at school, telling the teenager to choose between two paths:
“You can break with your family and follow Chairman Mao, or you can follow your father and become an enemy of the people.”
I can’t imagine having to live a life like this, full of worries – and not just your usual teenaged worries, but worrying about your parents and grandmother and siblings, about all kinds of things:
“I not only needed to manage our limited incomes and take care of Mom’s bad healthy, I had to bear the stares and the gossiping of our neighbours and attend the study sessions at school. But these were not my biggest worries. The worry of tomorrow haunted me constantly. I worried that Grandma would be sent to the countryside, as other landlords had been, and would be punished by the farmers there. I worried that Mom would be detained for attempting to help Dad. I worried that Dad would be beaten to death for his stubbornness. I worried that Ji-yong’s temper would get him in trouble, and that Ji-yun would be so frightened that she would never laugh again. Worst of all, I worried that by not hiding the letter well enough, I had ruined our lives forever.”
Jiang Ji-Li was born in Shanghai, China, in 1954. She graduated from Shanghai Teachers’ College and Shanghai University, and was a science teacher before she came to the United States in 1984 (When she was 30) After her graduation from the University of Hawaii, Ms. Jiang worked as an operations analyst for a hotel chain in Hawaii, then as a budget director for a healthcare company in Chicago. In 1992, she started her own company, East West Exchange, to promote cultural exchange between Western countries and China.