Gang of one

Over at NRO’s Corner this past spring, Jay Nordlinger recalled:

Ten years ago, I wrote a piece about an amazing woman named Youqin Wang, who dedicated her life to memorializing the Cultural Revolution. If you’d like to read it, go here. Also, I reviewed a book called Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard. That was in 2004. (For the review — which comes after two others, in a single piece — go here.) The author is a man named Fan Shen. Frankly, his memoirs are among the best I’ve ever read.

I feel like I know a secret — like I know about a masterpiece, hidden from the world. Gang of One is the kind of book that might be read hundreds of years from now. Really. Odd to say, but I feel it true. The publisher is a humble one, the University of Nebraska Press. As far as I’m concerned, they are in possession of a literary, and human, diamond.

I’ve said this many times over the years, but don’t no one listen . . .

Jay to the contrary notwithstanding, Minneapolis attorney Kirk Kolbo listens. (Kirk recently wrote this critique of the Sixth Circuit’s affirmative action decision for us.) Kirk was so impressed by Jay’s words that he tracked down Fan Shen and found him living in Rochester, Minnesota, virtually in our back yard, teaching English at Rochester Community and Technical College. Kirk invited him to speak last night to the club he founded for such purposes and invited me to join him as a guest.

Professor Shen has an incredible, incredibly moving story to tell. His publisher summarizes it this way:

In 1966 twelve-year-old Fan Shen, a newly minted Red Guard, plunged happily into China’s Cultural Revolution. Disillusion soon followed, then turned to disgust and fear when Shen discovered that his compatriots had tortured and murdered a doctor whose house he’d helped raid and whose beautiful daughter he secretly adored. A story of coming of age in the midst of monumental historical upheaval, Shen’s Gang of One is more than a memoir of one young man’s harrowing experience during a time of terror. It is also, in spite of circumstances of remarkable grimness and injustice, an unlikely picaresque tale of adventure full of courage, cunning, wit, tenacity, resourcefulness, and sheer luck—the story of how Shen managed to scheme his way through a hugely oppressive system and emerge triumphant.

Gang of One recounts how Shen escaped, again and again, from his appointed fate, as when he somehow found himself a doctor at sixteen and even, miraculously, saved a few lives. In such volatile times, however, good luck could quickly turn to misfortune: a transfer to the East Wind Aircraft Factory got him out of the countryside and into another terrible trap, where many people were driven to suicide; his secret self-education took him from the factory to college, where friendship with an American teacher earned him the wrath of the secret police. Following a path strewn with perils and pitfalls, twists and surprises worthy of Dickens, Shen’s story is ultimately an exuberant human comedy unlike any other.

Early on it became Professor Shen’s dream to study in the United States and then to become an American. He loves the United States. He made it clear last night that he is not amused by the Tom Friedmans of the world who think that the Chinese government should serve as a model for the United States. Only last week retired Microsoft executive Robert Herbold made a Friedman-like pitch in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. Herbold’s column posed the question “China vs. America: Which is the developing country?” Professor Shen knowledgeably makes the case that Friedman and others are “terribly mistaken.”

Last night Professor Shen inscribed copies of his book for those of us who attended the meeting. Displaying the sense of humor to which his publisher alludes, he wrote, he told me, in Chinese: “The Red Guard salutes you!”


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