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Ken Ling: The Revenge of Heaven: From Schoolboy to 'Little General' in Mao's Army (1972)
By Dahpon Ho

   

This review, orignally published on the University of California San Diego website in 2003, and now unavailable there, was discovered on the website of Aldridge State High School, Brisbane, Australia.

 

At once vividly detailed, dramatic, and tragic, Ken Ling's Revenge of Heaven is as much a personal account of love, war, and struggle as it is a chronicle of the first three years (1966-68) of the Cultural Revolution in Fujian Province. It is ultimately this emphasis on the author's feelings and motivations as a revolutionary during those three years of tumult that makes the book most compelling.

Published in 1972, a few years after the author's escape to Taiwan, this account is one of the first personal narratives to come out of China during the Cultural Revolution period. Ken Ling speaks of the dilemmas and conflicting roles he faced as an obedient son, a Red Guard, a destroyer of the four olds, a revolutionary leader, and finally a human being with desires and ambitions. Far from focusing on the personage of Mao Zedong or blaming him the entire Cultural Revolution, Ling dispels the myth that the Red Guards were all just faithful tools of Mao (p. 130) and illustrates how he and many other little generals were primarily motivated by ambitions for personal power and social status. Ling's description of mutual exploitation [as the] basis for relations between the central authorities and us [Red Guards] (p. 131) is an interesting corrective to assumptions of wholesale blind devotion to Mao s personality cult. This book portrays the Red Guards of Fujian province as independent actors who had a real stake in toppling the authorities and using the rhetoric of revolution to their own advantage.

 

Ling's account may also raise some questions about generalizations on the centrality of the class factor in the development of factions. He recounts how the leader Piggy, who was of the working class, unreservedly loved and trusted her schoolmates of capitalist background as long as they shared the same viewpoint. But she would regard her own brothers and sisters as enemies if their viewpoint differed (p. 129). Class background in this case seemed to matter less than political consciousness or opinion. It is also astonishing that Ling himself was even able to become one of Amoy s first Red Guards and later a high leader considering his middle-class background and the fact that his elder brother had been labeled a counterrevolutionary in the 1950s. Later in the story (April 1967), when the revolutionaries in Amoy split into the Tzu Lien and Ke Lien factions, the key issue described is support or opposition to the military Ling does not mention class. However, at another point Ling is careful not to ignore the importance of class; he confides that our active participation in the movement was partly motivated by the hope of improving our own future, since we did not belong to the favored five red classes. This was true of many others (p. 185). Hence, the reader is left with some unresolved questions on the class issue.

 

Another strength of this book is the amount of detail about relations between Red Guards and ordinary people. Ling devotes many pages to describing how the people in the cities and the countryside responded to Red Guard activities in a love-hate relationship that often depended on material circumstances. He paints a varied portrait of these relations that includes the tensions rising from the wanton destruction of the destroy the four olds movement, the way that citizens hated to the bone the Red Guards who jammed the buses and bought up all the goods (p. 163), and the vocal support of workers (and gangsters) who responded to the material incentives offered to them at various junctures. Interestingly, Ling claims that in the very monotonous life of this society people looked on participation in the Cultural Revolution as a kind of excitement (p. 318). Simple adventurism thus adds further to the list of possible motivations for participation in the turbulent events of the Cultural Revolution. Ling s meticulous recollection of the factional fighting in Amoy is illustrative of the type of war euphoria that led to the deaths of so many, including his own beloved.

 

It is difficult to assess the historical accuracy of Ling s narrative indeed, of just about any personal account coming from this chaotic period but fact or fiction, Revenge of Heaven remains a powerful and moving story of a young man s struggle for recognition in a world that seemed to be turned upside down. It has been aptly stated by one reviewer that even if only half of what he says is true one would still be left with a shattering picture (Colin MacKerras, Pacific Affairs 45.4, Winter 1972-1973, pp. 588). With its complex and soul-searching analysis, Ken Ling's book merits a place on any survey syllabus of the Cultural Revolution.

 

This page is copyright 2003, Dahpon Ho