Spider Eaters: A Memoir

Spider Eaters: A Memoir

Spider Eaters: A Memoir

Spider Eaters: A Memoir


Spider Eaters is at once a moving personal story, a fascinating family history, and a unique chronicle of political upheaval told by a Chinese woman who came of age during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution. With stunning honesty and a lively, sly humor, Rae Yang records her life from her early years as the daughter of Chinese diplomats in Switzerland, to her girlhood at an elite middle school in Beijing, to her adolescent experience as a Red Guard and later as a laborer on a pig farm in the remote northern wilderness. She tells of her eventual disillusionment with the Maoist revolution, how remorse and despair nearly drove her to suicide, and how she struggled to make sense of conflicting events that often blurred the line between victim and victimizer, aristocrat and peasant, communist and counter-revolutionary. Moving gracefully between past and present, dream and reality, the author artfully conveys the vast complexity of life in China as well as the richness, confusion, and magic of her own inner life and struggle.

Much of the power of the narrative derives from Yang's multi-generational, cross-class perspective. She invokes the myths, legends, folklore, and local customs that surrounded her and brings to life the many people who were instrumental in her life: her nanny, a poor woman who raised her from a baby and whose character is conveyed through the bedtime tales she spins; her father; and her beloved grandmother, who died as a result of the political persecution she suffered.

Spanning the years from 1950 to 1980, Rae Yang's story is evocative, complex, and told with striking candor. It is one of the most immediate and engaging narratives of life in post-1949 China.


It makes me sad that, forty years after the Cultural Revolution, the topic is still taboo in China. Serious discussion about this historical event, which involved millions in the 1960s and 1970s, is still unattainable.

As a result, young people born after the Cultural Revolution know next to nothing about it. When I asked my Chinese students at Dickinson College, they told me they knew about it. It was in their history book.

“What does the book say?” I asked them, surprised.

“It says: due to mistaken decision(s) made by the country’s leader(s), the Cultural Revolution was a ten-year-long catastrophe.” (Here the Chinese sentence does not reveal if the nouns are singular or plural.)

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

But the Cultural Revolution I lived through was a lot more complex. It meant entirely different things for different groups of people: the élite, the small potatoes, the old, the young, those who had revolutionary families to brag about, and those whose families were condemned … Some benefited from it. Others suffered unspeakable losses. How can it be summed up with a one-sentence conclusion?

As for those who lived through the Cultural Revolution, many have “joined the ancients.” Those who are still alive have, after four decades, either revised their memory conveniently or lost the bulk of it. The vivid details are washed away by the relentless torrent of time. Tell me about the transient nature of our memory! From my own experience now I understand.

Therefore I am glad that I began to write Spider Eaters in the early 1980s, only a few years after the Cultural Revolution was over. My memory was still fresh. For this, I should thank America, because I would never have written such a memoir and confessed that I had beaten people and raided homes in 1966, if I had stayed in China. I’d . . .

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