“We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories” by Emei Burell

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We Served the People is Emei Burell’s graphic novel treatment of her mother’s stories from the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, in effect a biography covering the time she was a 15 or 16 year old student in Beijing until she left China for Sweden 19 years later.

“My Mother’s Stories”, as the volume is subtitled, are about the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the closure of the schools, sending youth down to the countryside, and then the eventual return to Beijing and effort to capture the years of missed years of education.

 

We Served The People: My Mother’s Stories, Emei Burell (Archaia, May 2020)
We Served The People: My Mother’s Stories, Emei Burell (Archaia, May 2020)

The stories are largely told in narrative by Burell’s mother, Yuan. In contrast to many graphic novels, We Served the People has little dialogue. This allows Burell to speak directly about China and the experience of the Cultural Revolution rather than leaving the reader to discern the same information from dialogue. Yet this raises the question whether narrative alone would have sufficed. But Burell is an acclaimed graphic artist (nominated twice for Eisner Awards for her work on the comic “Get Naked”) and although the art is straightforward, Burell’s illustrations convey both Yuan’s feelings and a sense of life in China far better than simple narration. The image of Yuan attending her first “TV University” class, standing at the back of a room crowded with people watching a lecture on TV conveys both Yuan’s hope for education as well as the eagerness of so many to complete the education cut short by  the Cultural Revolution.

Burell extends the graphics with actual photographs of her mother from her time in school and in the countryside. Unfortunately, the photographs often lack captions and are left to stand alone and outside of Burell’s illustrations.

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Although the title suggests a sweeping work on the Cultural Revolution, Burell’s aspirations are more modest: We Served the People is more an oral history and as such, there are gaps in the narrative. Yuan recounts that Beijing youth were sent down to the countryside in groups and that she avoided being drafted for an early group but went with a later group that was going to paying jobs at a Yunnan rubber plantation. But Burell does not explain how Yuan avoided being sent down in the early draft or the degree to which youth sent down went to paying jobs. Later, it is equally unclear why Yuan wanted to go to Sweden and, more importantly, why she stayed.

In these stories, even as  Burell’s mother is carried along by events, she is not passive. Her mother’s stories have a message that any parent would give a child: be persistent, do not give up, luck matters in life, be prepared to take advantage of it. Yet, beyond the moral of the stories lies insight into the China of the time of the Cultural Revolution and early reform period. We Served the People is a modest volume that could be read at a single sitting, but reading the stories one at a time as Burell’s mother comes of age rewards with greater insight into the challenges that Yuan faced and overcame in this turbulent era.


Stephen Maire retired in 2020 after a long career in the garment business in Asia.