Karoline Kan, Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss and Hope in China, Hachette Books, 2019. 304 pgs.
Born in the village of Chaoyang in Northern China as the second child of a farmer’s family, Karoline Kan needed to overcome long odds to become a journalist and anglophone writer in Beijing. Her coming-of-age autobiography Under Red Skies documents how her education empowered her to speak to the world but alienated her from her family’s culture and way of life. Hers is a journey no less challenging than that related in Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir Educated. Like Educated, Kan’s Under Red Skies is a story that testifies to the life-transforming potential of education. Unlike Westover, however, who had to overcome the tyranny of her father and brother, Kan needs to fight against the obstacles imposed on her by the tyranny of an entire social system. Born in 1989 under an authoritarian government that dictated the birth, education, religion, information, and overall life chances of all its subjects, Kan’s story of forging her independence in the capital of China verges on the miraculous.
Kan’s autobiography tells not only her own story, but the story of “the people” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during its phenomenal economic rise from 1989 to 2019. Founded upon the myth of “liberating” the people of China, the communist regime used the “hukou” (戶口), a household registration system, to create two tiers of citizens, urban and rural residents. Rural residents, who make up 70 per cent of the PRC’s population, contributed to its meteoric rise in the last thirty years and made China an economic superpower. Yet in their own country they live as second-class citizens. Though provided with nine years of basic education (helping them to become capable and reliable workers), working-age men and women with rural hukou are not considered in the calculation of the nation’s employment rate, nor included in the public health care system, nor are they entitled to old-age pensions. Kan’s family belongs to this vast but mostly silent social group. Largely overlooked by writers from more privileged backgrounds, Kan may be the first millennial anglophone writer to tell the true story of a farmer’s daughter finding her own path in the post-Tiananmen massacre People’s Republic of China.
Under the one-child policy, Kan’s birth was considered a crime. The pregnancy cost her mother Shumin her job as a teacher in the village school. With a bulging belly, Shumin needed to hide in a cornfield with her young son to avoid the monthly house-by-house patrols of the village’s birth control officials. If discovered, she would be forced to have an abortion, as happened to some of her unfortunate neighbours. When Kan was finally born—in the family home, as she was not entitled to hospital care for an illegal birth—the birth control officers levied a fine of 6,000 yuan for a rural hukou, to be paid up within two months. Otherwise, Kan would be considered a “black child” (a non-existent person) by the regime. Kan states that, ‘according to demographic census done in 2010, China had 13 million “black children” who “are unable to attend school, marry or work legally, or even get on a train”’. Families that failed to pay on time had their property seized by village officials. Kan’s family took more than three months to gather the money and had to bribe sister Lin, the local birth control officer, so they could falsify Kan’s birthday by a month to get her rural hukou.
After prevailing, against the odds, in obtaining life and legal status, Kan’s next step was to ride the rising tide of urbanisation that lifted her family from the village to the city. Growing up in a patriarchal family that resented her mother’s decision to keep a second-born daughter, Kan worried constantly about being given away. After all, she was considered unfit to bear the family name or even sweep the ancestral tomb. When her headstrong mother had a public feud with her paternal grandfather over family finances, the Kan family became pariahs in the village. The Kans eventually gave up their comfortable village home and sought refuge in a crammed hutong apartment they rented in Lutai, a nearby town.
In the rundown two-decade-old hutong community of Dongdaying, Kan experienced first hand the two-tier residency hierarchy. Their local neighbours isolated and discriminated against migrants. Families such as the Cuis, who had government jobs and had been living in the hutong for generations, dominated the place. No one dared make a sound when the daughter of the Cui family studied; the Cuis brazenly used public space to build their private bathroom and kitchen without anyone objecting. The Lis from Hunan, like the Kans, were migrants. They had to keep their heads down and take up low-level jobs the townsfolk did not care to do. When the Lis erected a shed outside their yard, the authorities declared it illegal and demolished it. “We had moved to a filthy place where we were ridiculed and looked down upon as if we were dogs, but it was the best life we could hope for,” Kan laments.
Kan’s family, long-suffering farmers who were used to being silent and invisible, are given voice in this biography that recounts the lives of three generations. Her Laoye (maternal grandfather) Yuying is the son of a prominent landlord. Rebelling against his despotic father, Yuying joined the People’s Liberation Army in the 1940s and replaced the statues of Buddha and Guanyin in his home with portraits of Mao. In the 1980s, Yuying, by now a lifelong Communist Party member, became a secret practitioner of Falun Gong. Kan notes the calming effect of Falun Gong on her Laoye – “Li Hongzhi promised him a peaceful transit from this life to the next, as well as a place where he could see the people he used to know and love. Communism and atheism didn’t”. Yet this comforting reassurance proves to be a liability in the PRC. Soon loudspeakers in the village blasted a warning—“anybody who practices Falun Gong will be jailed”. Before long, the police confiscated much of Laoye Yuying’s Falun Gong DVDs and books from his bedroom with another warning: “if you stand against us, you will mess up your life and your children’s”. Kan learned “the Communist Party is the law. If they say it’s black, it will never be white”.
“I’m just an illiterate old village woman. That’s all there is to the story,” declares Kan’s Laolao (maternal grandmother) when Kan interviews her for a history project. Losing her father to war at the age of five, Laolao married a decade later and gave birth to nine children. Two baby boys died because of poverty and lack of medical care. The trauma of famine scarred Laolao for life, and she continues to finish off grains of rice left in her granddaughter’s bowl and makes “soup” out of hot water and leftover oil on her dinner plate, fearing the return of hard times. After being bedridden for years and only able to afford the care of a country doctor with mud-stained shoes, this ailing woman one day jumped out of her bed and claimed to be a weasel spirit, running out of the yard and breaking off a tree branch to wield as a sword. “I see you, demon! As a messenger from the gods, I’m obliged to kill you,” she shouted at Kan, her astonished granddaughter. She left deep tooth marks on her daughter Zhirong’s arm when Zhirong attempted to feed her congee. Witnessing her grandmother’s mental deterioration caused by lifelong hardship, Kan became determined to enter university. “I was more certain than ever that being poor was the most unfortunate thing in the world. It would literally kill my grandmother,” Kan writes. Kan’s desire to be free from the ghosts of poverty also drives the never-ending express train of China’s economic boom. In a land that had banished gods and spirits, money became the new deity.
Kan’s university education in Beijing was the watershed moment in her life. For the first time, she mingled with people from all over the world. She met a blond teacher with blue eyes who gave her an English name—Karoline. It became a second, autonomous identity. Years later, signing an application sent from her newly opened Gmail account as “Karoline Kan” most likely landed her a job offer as a journalist in an expat-run cultural magazine.
The most important experience Kan had in Beijing was discovering its tragic history in the year of her birth. Born in 1989, she had been curious about the year all her life but could not find any references to it either in textbooks or on Baidu—China’s answer to Google. Teachers skirted around the subject; family friends told her she would understand when she was older. Even foreign teachers who brought up the subject refrained from further discussion after being warned by the authorities. Kan was eventually advised to use a VPN to help her evade the all-encompassing firewall surrounding China’s internet. Photos and videos of the Tiananmen massacre brought tears to her eyes. “China collapsed for me suddenly. […] I had no faith in what I had been brought up to believe.” She wanted to do something on the 20th anniversary of June 4th because she “wanted more than to be told when to pee, what to drink and when to feel”.
However, June 4th, 2009 came and went and no one, Kan included, did anything to commemorate it. TV news celebrated yet again China’s ever-increasing GDP growth. Kan was told by her peers from central Beijing, whose parents and grandparents had taken part in the 1989 protest that “protests will only bring more instability to your life. Leave the problems alone, they’ll solve themselves as China develops”. Tiananmen children, it turned out, had learned the lessons of expediency. Kan wrote, “I crawled back into bed and lay down in peace, I was glad no one had protested and there wouldn’t be any trouble”. Most disappointingly, fear, silence and compliancy had become the legacy of Tiananmen.
The internet, with the help of VPNs, opened Kan’s eyes to the wider world. In the strictly controlled cyberspace of China, the web has become another tool for spreading misinformation and government propaganda. Villagers are no longer subjected to propaganda blasted from loudspeakers hanging on trees outside their homes; like Kan’s uncle Lishui, they are hooked to their smartphones, thoroughly enjoying the parallel universe generated by China’s internet engineers. Lishui jeered at America’s election of Donald Trump, “A businessman who is rude and arrogant is their president. Even I, a farmer, know he’s nothing but a joke!” Local corruption made Lishui lose faith in elections and long for a leader like Mao to send competent officials with high morals to work as village chiefs. Already in his 70s, Lishui still needs his Beijing reporter niece Kan to voice his grievances about the local garbage problem because he fears upsetting the village officials. A life of oppression has instilled the habit of submission and passivity, and the desire for a strongman leader.
When Kan worked on her play The Leftover Monologues inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, her cousin and childhood friend Chunting had already married into another village and become a mother. While Kan sipped coffee in an air-conditioned office in the Chinese capital, Chunting found a job in a local shoe factory working for the meagre wage of eight yuan per hour. A needle flew off the machine and hit Chunting’s glasses one day. She almost lost a finger to the leather knife. The shoes she made, Wolverine, are sold in the U.S. for 1,500 yuan a pair. The factory, one of the most serious polluters of the local environment, does not exist on official papers.
Though the one-child policy has been lifted for Chunting’s generation, Kan’s friend chooses to abort her second child because she cannot afford the expense. Many more farmer’s daughters are living the life of Chunting, having to struggle even harder than their parents’ generation. “By 2010, China had replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, a development fuelled by tens of millions of anonymous workers like Chunting,” Kan writes. China rose upon the serfdom of its landless farmers.
At the book’s end, Kan’s Lutai hutong home is demolished and migrant workers are being driven out of big cities like Beijing. The industrial machine is slowing, the children of farmers who no longer have land to return to, become rootless. Though they have given their youth and strength to develop their country, they have been cleaned out by their governments’ programmes to beautify the cities. Such is life under red skies.
Emma Zhang is a lecturer of English in the College of International Education in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation “Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels” (2015), analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight – the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake – The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.