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Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (American Lives) Hardcover – April 1, 2004

4.9 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While the general outlines of this account of growing up in Communist China will be familiar to readers of recent Chinese memoir, the details can still shock and astound. Shen, age 12 at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, recounts being complicit in arduous Red Guard activities that directly or indirectly led to several gruesome deaths of political "enemies"â€"and later falling in love with and marrying the daughter of a man brutally tortured and killed by one of his fellow Red Guards. Shen (who now lives in Minnesota) also offers a snapshot of the political wiles needed to rebel against the fate one was assigned by the party: in order to both leave the abominable and oppressive conditions and to avoid persecution, Shen learned to feign political ardor, fabricate spy stories to confound the watchful authorities, pull strings with highly placed friends and falsify health tests. Though he might seem to overly relish these clever maneuvers, Shen's portrait of the social and political climate in China is unambiguous: power rested in the hands of a few and professed loyalty to party ideologies made it unsafe to trust anyone; the only way to win was to use the party's rules to one's own ends. The memoir's title is significant (the Gang of Four were those responsible for the Cultural Revolution)â€"it spells out the need for self-absolution for his painful past as a Red Guard and expresses the utter loneliness forced on anyone trying to live for himself under a regime that could not care less.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

This compulsively readable memoir in Tobias Wolff's American Lives series opens with a massive book burning. The author, then an adolescent caught up in the surging reforms of Mao's Cultural Revolution, now an English professor at a U.S. college, avidly participates. The ironies proliferate from there, as Shen comes of age amid spasmodic reversals of fortune: his parents are branded antirevolutionaries despite lifelong party loyalty; his own unfortunate penmanship error (a slip of the brush modifies "Long Live Chairman Mao!" to a damning "No Live Chairman Mao!") lands him in a remote peasant village for re-education. Shen's disillusionment with Maoism eventually deepens to a "thick and odious sludge of hatred" as he is tossed from one detested job assignment to another. The cycle of despair followed by Artful Dodger maneuverings makes for a somewhat repetitive story line, but Shen's wry, anecdotal storytelling style spurs one on, as does the desire to see him through to his eventual triumph--a passport and a seat aboard a 747 winging its way to San Francisco. Jennifer Mattson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: American Lives
  • Hardcover: 282 pages
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press; 1 edition (April 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803243081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803243088
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,753,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Frank Chen on May 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a can't-put-down coming of age story. Fan Shen writes hypnotically, telling one nearly unbelievable episode after another about his life growing up during China's shameful Cultural Revolution. I can't recommend this book more highly.

I'm Chinese-American. I have an Indian-American coworker with whom I often discuss whether China or India will be the next economic superpower. His argument is that China will far outstrip India as an economic powerhouse because its centralized, authoritarian government can guide the country more effectively towards economic growth. Compared to India, he argues, China has much more effective political machinery for implementing policies from on high: a strong central bank, a single language, a willingeness to try out revolutionary policies, etc.

I think the jury is still out on the China vs. India as the next economic superpower. But what's clear to me -- and what Mr. Shen's book illustrates perfectly -- is that there is also a big downside to effective political machinery. Namely, when you have misguided leadership controlling that political machinery, the result is dramatic suffering at truly staggering scale.

In episode after episode, Mr. Shen relates the pettiness, the brutality, the completely arbitrary nature of life during the Cultural Revolution. Neighbors could denounce you an enemy of the state and have you tortured and killed without a trial. Entire cities could be forced to drink water so polluted that everyone's teeth first blackened and then started falling out one by one.
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Format: Hardcover
Here is more enlightenment on the Cultural Revolution in China. This personal story highlights how impossible that time was for Chinese in China. Even devoutly following party guidelines did not keep one safe from the chance of being a target of the political crazy making. This book is an enjoyable read from start to finish; a short book without a dull momment. I will remember this book out of the many I have read as contributing to my own personal development. A friend of mine has the book now, and I expect to continue to loan this book often. Thanks to Fan Shen for sharing his memoirs. My dream is that this book would benefit many more individuals in comparison to the number that have been hurt by the Cultural Revolution (impossible).
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Format: Hardcover
I was lucky enough to be enrolled in one of Fan Shen's English courses within the past year. Being that he was my professor and it is RCTC's Common Book, I knew that I should take the time to read it, but as most college students do, I procrastinated, telling myself that I didn't have time to read a 279 page book. But, as fate has it, I bought my books for my Summer Session Humanities course and there it was on the required reading list. I headed to Boston shortly after, bringing "Gang of One" with me. If I don't fall asleep on the plane, I'll give it a shot, I thought. Well, I didn't get a chance to read it on my way there, but I did on the way home. From the time I checked in until we boarded, from boarding to a layover in Chicago, and Chicago's bumpy flight home, I could not put his book down. I had to keep reminding myself that this was my professor... He wasn't just a guy in a fictional book that made me want to cry, that made me laugh, that made me want to jump up and down with happiness. Professor Shen is an amazing writer with a heartbreaking, comical, and real story to tell. I only hope that you don't procrastinate as I did.
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Format: Paperback
"Gang of One" is an engaging first-person account of life in China during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution. Fan Shen was a student in Beijing in 1966 when Mao Zedong initiated the ill-fated program to remove counter-revolutionary elements of Chinese society. Initially swept up with enthusiasm, the author quickly became disillusioned with the movement, recognizing the damage that the revolution was causing.

The book covers about 20 years of the author's life, in a chronological and easy-to-follow narrative. The stories and anecdotes are colorful, to put it mildly. With a strong work ethic, infinite patience, and incredible perseverance, Fan Shen overcame a series of obstacles and restrictions before we could finally emigrate to the US in the mid-1980s.

Like any well written autobiography, "Gang of One" is told with humility and humor. Shen shares many highs and lows in his journey through a tumultuous life under China's Communist regime. And he's not afraid to embellish in his story-telling -- coincidental encounters that span years and miles provide a thread of continuity to characters throughout the book.

Finding patterns and perspective in history is made easier when there are many voices to tell the story. Fan Shen's contribution is the account of one man's journey through dark but important years in the 20th century. Our understanding of how events unfolded during these years, and how ordinary citizens learned to cope, is strengthened thanks to Fan Shen's autobiographical work.
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