Red Scarf Girl

by Ji-li Jiang
320 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

An accurate portrayal of the times, but with some sexual content and crude language.


(Full Title: "Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution.")

The true story of a twelve-year-old Chinese girl and her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. Ji-li is torn between her patriotic duty to Chairman Mao, and her love and responsibilities to her family. Under pressure, she must decide which means more to her.


Ji-li struggles with the idea of betraying her family and breaking ties with them. The members of the Red Guard, obsessed with trying to serve Chairman Mao, are cruel and harsh. Old women are forced to spend their days sweeping the alleys, fathers and mothers are humiliated, and children are encouraged to leave their families.

Ji-li generally only feels sorry for the humiliation of her relatives and her friends; when her enemies' parents are hurt, she feels little sadness. Some men, under pressure, confess to things that they have not done and consequently get friends in trouble; this kind of behavior is not looked kindly upon.

Spiritual Content

Ji-li's family prays to Allah, but she has no real belief in a god. She and her friend try to predict the future.


The Red Guards torture people on the black list in order to get them to confess, and when one of Ji-li's uncles is beaten, his face is described. Two people commit suicide, one by hanging himself and the other by jumping off a balcony. Ji-li's brother gets into several fights and received a black eye; a Red Guard kicks a cat. Throughout the whole book, the author captures the fear that pervaded her childhood - fear of the Red Guards, fear of the black list, and fear of violence.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Ji-li's father smokes cigarettes.

Sexual Content

Ji-li is afraid of people gossiping about her being around one of the boys at school, so she shuns him. It is mentioned that her aunt had relations with several men before marrying, and that another woman "ran around with men." A sanitary belt is mentioned as well.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

"D*mn" and "d***ed" are both used. Red Guards call Ji-li's brother a "black b******" and the title for children with families on the black list is "black whelps." One use of "pi**" used in its correct form.


I pulled this book off the shelf recently, thinking that I had already read it and wondering why I didn't remember it. As it happens, I had not read it; I did so in about one afternoon. Though written for readers below my age level, and though the writing was quite simple, it pulled me in all the same. I was interested in what happened to Ji-li and I could feel for her struggles. There's a lot of feeling in this book, and even though it wasn't "entertaining" in the sense of being lighthearted or funny, it grabbed one's attention.

That said, the book did have some issues - moral and philosophical. It seemed to have more sexual content and language than parents may find suitable for the age range that the book targets, not to mention the violence. While it can be argued that the writer was simply capturing the times, parents and readers must make their own judgments. Also, Ji-li's outlook on life is clearly not Christian (fairly obvious, as her family worships Allah); she is unwilling to forgive those people who bully her at school, and she is generally too proud to accept the concern of her friends. She does, however, express a deep concern for her family's welfare and is willing to do what it takes to keep them together.

Plot-wise, some of the threads of the story seemed cut short at the end. You never find out what happens to Ji-li's sick mother, or her father, and her attraction to the boy at her school is also not very satisfactorily concluded. The latter, however, may be put down to the fact that not all of the parts of our lives have nice and tidy conclusions.

This book was a hard one to pinpoint. While, as I said, it accurately portrays the times, I would have a hard time recommending it to a mother wanting a book about China in the mid 20th Century for her child to read. It's a tangle of moral struggles, violent times, and the darkness of human nature. It's the kind of book that, after reading, you want to go find a nice, funny, light story to balance it with.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 2
Written for Age: 11-12

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