Yang’s story crosses the period over three different decades. She was from a revolutionary cadre’s family. After spending her early life in Switzerland, she joined the Beijing 101 Middle School, which is a high school for elites. After the Cultural Revolution broke out, she actively participated in Red Guard activities in Beijing like her peers in China. As an educated youth, she later devoted her five years on a pig farm in a village located at northern China, herding pigs and performing other physical labor. Although grew up with faith in the Communist Party and love for Chairman Mao, she enthusiasm for revolution and devotion to the new China ended after suffering from hardship of physical labor.
Spider Eaters is a document recorded by Yang, someone who actually participated in and witnessed the Cultural Revolution, so Spider Eaters qualifies to be a primary source related to Cultural Revolution in China. However, as historical document, what Spider Eaters tell us about the Cultural Revolution? More specifically, how reliable and relevant it is? In the follow, I will discuss the quality of Spider Eaters as a primary source.
When determining the quality of the primary source, I will first examine who created the source and why. As the author of this text, and a person who experienced the Cultural Revolution, Yang has firsthand knowledge of the event. So Spider Eaters is one hundred percent reliable as a historical document? Not necessarily, it is important that we look at why Yang wrote this memoir. Besides recording her life, the main purpose of Yang creating this memoir can be interpreted by the book title. She believed “historic lessons were obtained through tremendous sacrifice.” Those who record eating spiders will share their experience to the later generations, “So afterwards people stopped eating them.” This memoir is the product of a thoughtful, deliberate process to record her experience in Cultural Revolution that Yang wants to share with us. Therefore, there is certainly bias in the documentation. However, we need to continue to look other evidence to determine the overall effective to the document’s quality.
The next thing we need to look at is whether the source is produced for personal use or for a large audience. Published as a book, Spider Eaters’ is meant to be public. Its audience is large audience and it is not a private document or for personal use. When we use a primary source that is meant to be public, we need to consider whether the recorder wish to inform or persuade others. If the material is intentionally created to persuade the readers, we need to carefully consider the context of the document and bias that possibly exists.
In the case of Spider Eaters, Yang’s faith in the Communist Party and love for Chairman Mao ended at the time she realized the reality that she was no longer in a elite family, she was in fact living at the bottom of the society. The hardship of physical labor tortured both her body and mind. Nevertheless, the book was not meant to be expressing anger. “Good fortune breeds disasters; misfortune ushers in well-being”, Yang used this old saying in China to summarize her experience and look forward to the bright future. Therefore, Spider Easters provides some degrees of reliable information regarding the Cultural Revolution, although Yang tells her story from her prospective.
Now we are certain that Spider Eaters provides some historical evidence of Cultural Revolution, but we also would like to know in what aspects the source tells us about history, also the strengths and weakness of the source.
In the following, I will discuss three aspects that make this memoir an important historical document that related to Cultural Revolution.
First and foremost, Spider Eaters is an important historical document because it was written by a woman. As a woman who threw herself into the Red Guard activities, Yang’s story tells us firsthand information of the Cultural Revolution. It is particularly valuable for us to understand lives of Chinese women during the Cultural Revolution. Along with this personal narrative, Yang also unfolded her relationship to her grandma (nainai) and her Aunty (nanny).
By doing this, Yang depicted women’s status in China and gave us a broader picture of women in China of different generation. However, we should be aware that Yang wrote her story in the perspective of a woman, it may not be relevant to represent the men’s point of view. We could even suspect Yang is a feminist from some of the words she selected. Nevertheless, it is still an important document for us to study women’s lives during the Cultural Revolution.
Secondly, Yang recorded her life in different period, in contrast the time she joined the Red Guard. In Yang’s childhood, she stayed in Switzerland with her family of revolutionary cadre. She was well taken care by her devoted nanny. She was happy and proud. During Cultural Revolution, she became a furious Red Guard who criticized her high school teacher, even the First Party Secretary. Like other educated youth, she later devoted her five years on a pig farm in a village for physical labor. During the nineties, she became an associated professor in an American college, an independent woman who raised her child single-handedly. Yang herself was amazed by this dramatic changes in her life, she even used a Chuang Tzu ‘s famous story of becoming a butterfly (p 8) to express her confusion of “Can these be the same person? Can this person be me?” Yang’s story perfectly demonstrated how the waves of Cultural Revolution change a person’s life.
In Spider Eater, we could also see how Yang’s enthusiasm for revolution and devotion to the new China ended after endless physical labor. Nevertheless, we may raise the question of how relevant Yang’s story is. Is it a typical Chinese people’s life? How many Chinese people were born in a family of revolutionary cadre and had chance to live in Switzerland during the fifties? How many Red Guard had chance to criticize the First Party Secretary in his face? How hard is it for a Chinese scholar to be accepted by an American college? After answering the questions above, many of you may argue Yang’s story was just a special case. Yang’s life may be seen as quite special, but the part of her life that related to Cultural Revolution is still invaluable information for us to study.
Despite the fact that it is subject to certain degree of bias and unreliability, Spider Eaters is still a valuable historical document that tell us about the Cultural Revolution, particularly its unique point of view from a woman, and great illustration of dramatic impact of Cultural Revolution to Chinese people.
Yang,U Spider Eaters, Cambriage Press