Confessions of a Maoist

Jan Wong, author of the new book Comrade Lost and Found, talks to MORE.

By Jan Goodwin

At the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, Jan Wong was one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. When a Chinese student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help in getting to America, Wong, then a Maoist, reported her to the authorities — which could have resulted in Yin’s execution. In Comrade Lost and Found (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Wong recalls her 2006 return to China to find the woman she betrayed — and to apologize.MORE: You were a middle-class Canadian-Chinese woman. Why were you besotted with Maoism? Wong: In Canada, we felt the impact of the Vietnam War; we had many draft dodgers from the U.S. Young people were experimenting with drugs and politics. Western kids were wearing Mao suits. I naively thought that China had the answers to the world’s problems.MORE: But didn’t you know what could happen to Yin if you turned her in?Wong: I wanted to prove I wasn’t a soft bourgeois type. At that time, children were turning in their parents and teachers. But I didn’t realize there would be a denouncement rally, that Yin would be expelled from school, and that she could have been executed. It was only when I went back that I learned she’d been sentenced to a life of hard labor.MORE: Did you seek out Yin and write the book to make amends or to assuage your guilt? Wong: Both. I can’t believe what I did. Yin suffered terribly. If Mao hadn’t died, she might still be serving her life sentence. She was ostracized for two decades. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about what happened to her, even to her daughter — until we met.MORE: How did Yin respond to your apology? Wong: I burst in on her life in Beijing with no warning. But she met with me many times during my trip. It was cathartic for both of us. When she told me she had tried to kill herself the night she was arrested, I was shocked, but not surprised. On my last day in Beijing, some of her resentment came out. She phoned and said, "I was wounded in the heart." I felt relieved that she was finally able to tell me.MORE: Are you at peace now? Wong: When I returned from China I plunged into a serious depression, the first in my life, at age 56. All of my feelings about what I did to Yin were on the edge of my skin. I’ve since recovered and, ultimately, being able to meet her again was a form of closure.Originally published in, March 2009.

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