Book Review: Egg On Mao by Denise Chong

Double, double toil and trouble;
fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Yes, once again Denise Chong, that best-selling author and fellow Canuck, stirs the ol’ hot pot again with her latest snipe at Zhongnanhai’s corrupt geriatric set over their handling of the whole so-called “6-4 Incident.” Enter her latest smashing volley, Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship.

Recounted through the heartfelt memories of Lu Decheng, the intellectually dullest of the trio of wayward Liuyangers who one-timed oil paint-filled egg shells from a local jian bing stand at the Forbidden City’s omnipresent portrait of the Great Helmsman, Chong spins a vivid tour-de-force tale depicting the aftermath of their arrest and subsequent incarceration in the dying days of the late-’80s student democracy movement.

During the spring of what would become that fateful ’89 year, Lu along with his friends Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue were caught up in the fervor of ousting the Party leadership once and for all. They became drunk on the idea of setting the People’s Republic’s sails firmly on a course for integration with the West along with the abolition of China’s corrupt glad-handing society.

Heeding the poetic words of student leader, Uighur activist Wu’er Kaixi, the “sun shining off of Mao’s portrait was so bright that the people couldn’t open their eyes to what was going on around them.” Hopping on the overnight choo-choo via Changsha, the three impressionable young cats — caught up in the inexorable flow of thousands from all across the nation descending on Beijing (or Peking as it was still then known in the West, still stuck in Wade-Giles mode) — somehow found themselves in the thick of it at the center of T-Bone Square, rocking it on ’til the break of dawn against the Big Bad Red Machine.

Chong employs a nifty literary technique shifting back and forth between what was and what is, flashbacking to our impressionable ones’ preparations as they eagerly anticipate traveling north to the capital, matched against their deep-seated doubts about what they were monumentally about to do. The portrait vandalizing incident was only an afterthought, can you believe it?

I found the most harrowing portions of this book — quite expectedly — to transpire inside the jail where the three were sentenced to life imprisonment for defacing the People’s Property. A couple of the guards sympathized with their cause, while many others were tasked with the deplorable job of smashing their willful spirits and crushing the resistance out of them via a daily slew of humiliation, physical abuse, and in several cases, unmitigated torture. Their prison authorities somehow remained convinced that they’d succeed in luring the young men, especially the brilliant Zhijian, from of their “counter-revolutionary” paths, by inculcating in them the values of Mao‘s Homo Sineticus, the “ideal” modern Chinese super-ego.

Decheng, a bus mechanic and driver by trade, was the least educated of the bunch at the outset. His journey is magnificent because his life changes by 180-degrees by story’s end. Dongyue, youngest and most impressionable, was a mere wet-behind-the-ears type at the crime’s time, a mere teenager. Zhijian was the one with all the bright ideas and coffee house theories, the one who read all the European classics, and the one who became most disillusioned by the end thanks to the students’ perfidy in refusing to come to the three’s aid by secreting them away from the lurking plainclothes PSB goons at the time, instead offering them up like sacrificial lambs.

Given that Decheng was our narrative vessel in Egg On Mao, we came to learn of the harshness of the boys’ prison conditions through his arduous journey in his own words. As he arrived at the stark realization that the West was absolutely powerless (or unwilling?) to convince the PRC’s Party higher-ups to spring him and his mates from the cavernous clink, Decheng set out to improve his skills and brain power while living out the typical prison double life.

Compelled to undergo the routine Maoist ideological indoctrination and daily hammering of Marxist-Leninist Thought, Decheng would mechanically nod his noodle during classes, only to “raid” the prison library later in the evenings to feast his eyes on anything he could get his meat hooks on: well-thumbed, outdated tomes on all manner of Western theory and thought — all in English which the guards couldn’t read — realizing that eventually his salvation would come and he should be prepared for that eventuality. Guards would needle him for his seeming craziness; the mere sight of Decheng reading stuff that looked as if though it could maim, rather than educate, him elicited many giggles. In time, howe3ver, this strategy would prove ultimately successful, confounding the dastardly designs of the prison system.

By 1998, Decheng was a free man — first, gaining asylum in Canada, where Chong learned of his story.

There’s a lovely parallel story in this book, and that’s the love affair between Lu and his young bride Qiuping, a woman he eventually weds prior to performing the fateful deed.

Even before the first yolk is hurled at Mao’s grim, moled likeness, Decheng and Qiuping have birthed their first tot — a XX Chromosomal Child Unit. His subsequent imprisonment, despair, and eventual divorce from his wife who fears her man will never be released for the ignominy caused to the Party’s international image, is a touching counterpoint to the violence taking place within the prison compound’s walls. The brutal and repeated attempts by Decheng’s prison warders to destroy his rebellious soul do nothing to diminish his abiding passion for his wife and their oft-stated commitment to “never accept a divorce, neither in life nor in death.” When news of Qiuping’s request for a divorce trickles through to Decheng via a letter he receives from a guard, it momentarily sidelines him as he struggles to reason out the rationale for her irrational behavior. When she eventually remarries, it nearly slays him, though he soldiers on knowing that in the aftermath of Deng Xioaping’s October 1992 demise — the man responsible for approving the murderous actions by soldiers on the Square against their own citizens — changes may be soon afoot in the “peaceful” People’s Republic.

Author Chong was censured for this book in the PRC. No surprise there. While she doesn’t personally do any of the criticizing about the events which took place on T-Bone Square — nothing is couched in her own words save for her parting caustic remarks in the Epilogue and Acknowledgments — the mere fact that she’s chosen Lu Decheng as the vessel of her apparent disapproval with the septuagenarians inhabiting the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee have now branded her as a PRC persona non grata. She won’t be able to return now, though she likely made her peace with this reality the instant finger touched laptop keypad.

Given that she had a year and a half to contemplate her fate — the duration of all her interview sessions with Lu Decheng in Canada, where he now lives — this was a well-designed goal.

Why you should read this book, friends?

Egg on Mao was likely the first straightforward and direct account about the actions of the perpetrators of the portrait defacement, told in their own words. No third-party stuff here, folks, or PRC spin-meistering for our ravenous Western investigative appetites.

Also, for those of you late-arriving (and young) Western stragglers who are convinced that TAM was a student-lead and directed protest crushed by the heavy-handed Chinese state apparatus, complete organized student hierarchies and chains of command on T-Bone Square itself, you’ll be shocked to discover that chaos was more the order of the day during those fateful two months. Chong does well to highlight this through the authentic recollections of Lu himself. Good job.

At 249pp, your bottom-line cost to purchase this brand new is just a few cents shy of a short paper route (wink, wink). The copy isn’t crafted to wallop you over the noggin from its apparent brilliance, and Chong, for lack of a better term, “keeps it real.”

This is a mean-slugging account of a very unusual time in China, an era when things were still in flux and the regime was deathly afraid of losing its balls years before Hu Jintao’s policy of China’s “harmonious rise” was even promulgated. I polished the book off on the trusty exercise bike over the course of a few days, wagging my head in several spots as I made my way through in astonishment, careful not to permit sweat droplets to damage its pristine acid-free (and lovely-smelling) pages. Cautious, as well, was I to ensure that my neighbors didn’t think I was becoming a closet Maoist, what with the Chairman’s identifiable head on its cover, even if it was smeared in a cocktail of egg and paint goo.

If you’ve already read the book and digged it hard, let us know.

If you haven’t caught it yet, it’s not the sort of “China book” that will make you dizzy-busy (so busy, you’re dizzy) from its girth and heft. ;-) Try it, Mikey, you’ll like it. I promise.

And, oh yeah…my name is Adam Daniel Mezei and thanks again for tuning in.


ps I’m in search of a new “China book,” friends, so if you’ve got any suggestions for me — which I promise to subsequently review — kindly let me know.

huxia juqui
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