Red Scarf Girl: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson offers a plot summary and analysis of prevalent themes in Ji-Li Jiang's 'The Red Scarf Girl.' The memoir is a about the author's childhood in Communist China.


The Red Scarf Girl (1998) is an award-winning memoir written by Ji-li Jiang. It is about the author's childhood in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution.

Plot Summary

The story is set in Shanghai, China. In 1966, Ji-li Jiang is a happy little girl of twelve years. She excels at school, and she has earned the respect of her classmates. She eagerly anticipates a future working for Chairman Mao's New China and his Communist Party. Her credo is: ''Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.''

However, her happy life is suddenly interrupted by the advent of the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement led by Chairman Mao to purge Chinese society of all elements of capitalism. Her family becomes the target of government persecution, since her parents and grandparents are affluent and educated. They are labeled as ''Black'', which means that they are opposed to the (Red) Communist Party. Chairman Mao's officials--the Red Guards--break into their home to search for evidence that might incriminate them. Ji-li and her family members become outcasts of society, and they live in perpetual fear of arrest.

Finally, her father is arrested and detained. Ji-li is forced to make a very difficult choice: disavow her father or disavow the Communist Party that she cherishes so much. She chooses not to betray her father. At the end of the memoir, she moves to the United States, where she starts a company with the mission of bringing the Western and Chinese cultures into harmony.

The Brutality of Life

The memoir emphasizes that life is difficult and that everyone, including children, has a cross to bear. In an interview about the memoir, the author explains that she wanted to portray ''the fact that real life is not a pink rose garden and everyone will experience difficulties.'' The memoir relates a lot of scenes in which her family is physically and verbally abused. These scenes convey the severity of life in Communist China.

The memoir also portrays how life's hardships interfere with personal dreams. The narrator reflects on the impact of the Revolution on her life: ''Until now I had never doubted that I could achieve anything I wanted. The future had been full of infinite possibilities. Now I was no longer sure that was still true.'' She is forced to come to terms with the reality of the communist regime.

The Power of Forgiveness

In the memoir, Ji-Li's family is persecuted by former friends and neighbors, though they have done nothing wrong. Ji-Li learns that, while she does not have to forgive the people that have forsaken her family, harboring a grudge will only harm her in the end. She chooses to forgive her friends and family, and this assists her own emotional development.

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