Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine, is the story of Ling Chang, a young girl growing up in China in the 1970’s, the time of the Cultural Revolution. She lives with her father, a western trained surgeon, and her mother, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. They are an upper class (bourgeois) family living in an upper class apartment near the Wuhan hospital where both of them work. This story, based on the author’s own experiences of that time, is told from Ling’s perspective. Much of what occurs is at first confusing and unfathomable to her.
The family’s comfortable life begins to disintegrate when one of their rooms is taken over by Comrade Li, a political officer of the Communist Party. Bit by bit their lives are filled with escalating suspicion, fear and betrayal. At school Ling’s hopes to become a member of the Red Guard are destroyed because of her family’s status. She is bullied and harassed at school by her classmates who have become members. Loud speakers blast revolutionary slogans constantly. One by one other tenants in the apartment are publicly humiliated and begin to disappear. The Chang family is forced to burn their English books and decorate their house with Mao posters and slogans.
It isn’t enough. In spite of everything they do they are still targeted by the revolutionary guards and accused of being anti-revolutionary. First Ling’s father loses his status as a surgeon and is forced to work as a janitor in the hospital. Their home is ransacked a number of times and eventually he is taken away. For the next few years Ling and her mother are left to struggle to find enough food to survive. They have no idea where Dr. Chang has been taken. It turns out that he has been taken to jail, but is called in to operate on top party officials who won’t trust themselves to the ‘barefoot doctors’ trained by the party.
This is a stellar book on many levels. It is well written and compelling. It is an engaging story of a strong girl growing up and coming of age in extremely difficult circumstances. It is an historical novel that educates the reader about the events in China in this time period. There is an authenticity to the element of sadistic violence in the name of Chairman Mao that is chilling. Yet at the same time as it speaks to our human capacity for cruelty, it reminds us that we also have the capacity for kindness and survival.
This book pairs up perfectly with another children’s book about China at the same time, Chu Ju’s House by Gloria Whelan. Whelan’s story is set in the country instead of the city. Chu Ju’s family were poor farmers. Her father was one of the ‘barefoot doctors’ referred to in Compestine’s novel. While Chu Ju’s House hints at potential violence and corruption, Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, spells it out much more clearly. Both are wonderful reads.
This book has been on my to read list for a long time. I am so glad I finally got around to it!
I think we need a set for literature circles.