THE MONKEY KID

About the Cultural Revolution

Prior to the film's French release,The Monkey Kid was shown to children between six and 13 in government-sponsored screenings throughout the Seine-Saint-Denis section of Paris. This essay was written by Xiao-Yen Wang, director of The Monkey Kid, as part of a study guide for these schoolchildren.

The Cultural Revolution was the product of the power struggle among China's leaders. Used by Chairman Mao to solidify his power, the movement involved every adult and child in China. Chairman Mao utilized mass force to destroy those with different ideas.

Chairman Mao became the "god of the nation." "The Red Sun," we called him. By the middle period of the Cultural Revolution, everyone had to chant daily in public, "We pray Chairman Mao will live forever! Forever! Forever!" The same salutation had been used for emperors in the imperial court. Chairman Mao became the nation's sole subject — every song, every dance, every book: a tribute to Mao.

The first few years of the Cultural Revolution were a time of uncontained violence, of blood and physical abuse. All schools — elementary, high school, university — were closed to set loose the key element of the movement: students became the "Red Guards" who denounced and destroyed their teachers and professors. They joined with masses of all ages to become "soldiers of the Revolution" searching for targets: intellectuals and people in high positions. Millions were killed.

In the ensuing stage of the Cultural Revolution, tens of millions of high school students were sent from the cities to live and work in the distant countryside, their education cut short. Most stayed over ten years, well past the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Following, in 1970, was the period of indoctrination and brainwashing. The nation was flooded with Mao's Little Red Books, and everyone was required to read "The Thoughts of Chairman Mao" daily — to memorize them, to recite them by heart. This was the time that The Monkey Kid takes place.

As a child during the Cultural Revolution, I knew nothing of what I know now. I only saw what was happening around me. And what was happening was chaos.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution everything was flipped black to white. Meek people suddenly became fanatically revolutionary, dressed all in army-green and waving banners, jumping up and down, denouncing neighbors. People who had been highly respected became the target of the Revolution.

Slowly, the term "culture revolution" sunk in. And I began to understand: anything old — old concepts, old books, old fashions, even "old people" (meaning high officials) — anything linked to the West "needed to be beaten down." I used to sneak to the meetings at my father's institute to see "uncles" and "aunties" from the neighborhood — people I had known since I was two — kneeling head-bowed, wearing big, tall hats and huge signs round their necks saying "I am a traitor." Thousands of people shouted, "Down with the traitor Hong!" "Down with the traitor Zhang!"

This was the first time I encountered the fear that something might happen to my intellectual parents. Later, I found out my father was already sweeping streets and cleaning toilets. I grew up fast.

The Monkey Kid concerns a later period of the Cultural Revolution, the period of my most vivid memories, when I was older and more conscious. It was a time when everyone learned to keep a fine balance, to draw the best from the darkness. Like every child of intellectuals, I was shielded by my parents from the reality of the times — not just to create a semblance of a "normal" childhood, but because the less a child knew, the less chance she'd inadvertently blurt out thoughts she wasn't supposed to have.

In the script I avoided "explaining things": consciously leaping up to point out political dramas. The Monkey Kid is not a film about the Cultural Revolution. It is the story of one girl and the Cultural Revolution is seen from her point of view.

The story of The Monkey Kid is common to all children of my "generation" — the millions whose parents had been shipped to the countryside. Most children had been sealed off by their parents from the terror of the Cultural Revolution. With parents gone, they quickly learned to fend for themselves.

Every person in China, willing or not, was sucked into the beliefs and the workings of the Cultural Revolution.