On May 23, 1989, in the weeks leading up to the crushing of pro-democracy protests by Chinese government forces, three armed men sneaked into the centre of Beijing, a bold plan in mind. Their weapons? Approximately 30 paint-filled eggshells and two slogans meticulously painted on a pair of paper scrolls.
“The cult of personality worship will vanish from this day onward!” read one. On the other was penned “Five thousand years of dictatorship will cease at this point!”
Bold statements, especially in a China still dominated by the memory and edicts of Mao Zedong, then just a dozen years dead. The giant portrait of Mao that hung in Tiananmen Square was the young revolutionaries’ target, and they succeeded in raising their banners and splattering Mao’s smooth face with their homemade paint bombs. Their gesture, though hotly debated by student leaders, helped stiffen the resolve of the protesters, and even today serves as an inspiration for China’s pro-democracy forces. The young men themselves, though, quickly disappeared into the Chinese prison system, their names remembered only by a handful of human-rights activists.
Until now, that is. With the publication of Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship (Random House Canada, $32.95), Vancouver-born author Denise Chong has revived interest in the moral heroism of Lu Decheng and his friends Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue.
It’s Chong’s first book in a decade, following the 1994 publication of her best-selling family memoir The Concubine’s Children and the 1999 appearance of The Girl in the Picture, which tells the story of Vietnam War survivor Kim Phuc. It took Chong a long time to discover the next story she needed to tell, as she relates on the line from a Vancouver hotel room. But once she met Lu, now living in exile in Calgary, she knew she had a tale that was worth her time.
“There were things that publishers would put forward,” she explains, adding that these proposals were generally on the order of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn—quirky histories of the everyday. “But I kept thinking to myself that a book, you put so much into it—heart and soul and time. It takes years, and you want to discover something about your place in the world when you do that. So I kept waiting and waiting for a subject to come where I could sweat that out as I worked on it.”
In Lu, whose personal story is given as much space as his political inclinations, she had an honest-to-God hero, someone who did the right thing despite knowing he would suffer harshly for it. Consequently, Egg on Mao asks us to question our own bravery: would we do the same when confronted by oppression? It’s a provocative book, and Chong herself got a small taste of what it’s like to live under a dictatorship while researching her subject’s upbringing and family life in a small river town deep in Hunan province.
She’d lived in China in the 1980s, but in relatively comfortable conditions. This time around, however, the Ottawa-based author and former civil-service economist felt almost like a spy, so furtive were her investigations. She knew she wouldn’t be able to travel freely were her intentions known, so she posed as a tourist. And getting Lu’s friends and family to talk, she admits, involved a fair amount of “skullduggery”.
“Just the very fact that I had to be so cautious and clandestine about it speaks volumes to the worry about the state,” she says. “You still cannot show any dissidence. Certainly much has changed, certainly you can talk much more openly in private. But don’t you dare oppose the regime in public!”
The experience, she adds, has strengthened her resolve to protect the rights and freedoms we know here at home.
“What I realized while writing this story, as I was tracking this growth and development of a moral being, is that if you don’t stand up for those rights, if you don’t stand up against the indignities that accumulate in daily life, then the very values that you’re supposed to defend—like decency, dignity, goodness, respect—they all start to lose their currency,” she says. “And that’s not peculiar to China.”