Writing the Cultural Revolution: Jan Wong and Madeleine Thien in Conversation

May 24, 2018 | Annie

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On May 31, the Chinese Canadian Archive will host an event featuring Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, and Madeleine Thien, winner of the Governor General’s Award and Giller Prize and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien and Wong will be in conversation on writing the Cultural Revolution, a movement that had changed many lives and detoured Chinese history. Additionally, Wong  will present some of the compelling personal items she has donated to the Chinese Canadian Archive. Join Wong and Thien on May 31 from 7:00-8:30 pm at Toronto Reference Library, Hinton Learning Center. 

Madeleine and Jan

In May 1966, the Cultural Revolution started in China. Over the following decade, the country fell into a political and social disorder that significantly affected its economy and ideology. Fifty years have now passed, the Cultural Revolution has become a story of interest to many, not only historians, researchers and writers, but also those whose lives were profoundly shifted by the movement. 

One such writer is Jan Wong, a well-known Canadian journalist of Chinese descent. Wong spent eight years, beginning in 1972, studying and working in Beijing as a foreign student and reporter. Through this time she actively joined and recorded numerous government-guided activities young intellectuals participated in, such as labouring in the countryside and factories (與工農相結合), and big-character posters (大字報).

Wong’s firsthand experiences and observations of the Cultural Revolution were well documented via photos, diaries, study notes, manuscripts and memorabilia, all of which are now part of the Chinese Canadian Archive at the Toronto Public Library. In her memoir Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, she narrates happenings of the Revolution around her, the school and her friends, and how her Maoism crumbled at the end. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed "Red China Blues" a “superb memoir like no other account of life in China under both Mao and Deng.

Red China Blues

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong 

As a researcher and writer close to Chinese history and culture, Wong’s truthful and shrewd perspectives are also reflected in her other works:

Beijing confidential 

 Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found by Jan Wong

 Jan Wong's China  

Jan Wong's China: Reports from a Not-so-foreign Correspondent by Jan Wong

Apron strings  

Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong


Madeleine Thien is a Canadian short story writer and novelist, also of Chinese descent. She is connected to, although didn’t experience herself, the Cultural Revolution because of family relations -- her step-mother Katherine Luo is the author of The Unceasing Storm: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Unceasing storm 

 The Unceasing Storm: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution  by Katherine Luo 

Thien’s works reflectthe increasingly trans-cultural nature of Canadian literature, exploring art, expression and politics inside Cambodia and China, as well as within diasporic Asian communities.” (Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature)

Don't say we have nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing  by Madeleine Thien


Certainty by Madeleine Thien

Chinese violin 

Chinese Violin by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the perimeter  

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Simple recipes  

Simple Recipes by Madeleine Thien