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

Documenting family history is incredibly important. If you don’t, your family’s history will disappear and you may never discover what happened or what led you to where you are in life. Emei Burell examines her mother’s past in We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories, a graphic history of life during China’s Cultural Revolution and the impact it had on lives after it ended.

At the beginning of this graphic biography, Burrell notes that this is the story of her mother’s experience and is her mother’s story – her story doesn’t speak for everyone. She was an adolescent at the time, just 14-years old, about to graduate from 7th grade when her life suddenly and drastically changed. First her school was shut down with the teachers forced to stay in the school and not allowed to return home. She and her fellow students still had to come to school, but there was no actual learning taking place. Flash forward to 1968 when Mao ZeDong launched the Down to the Countryside Movement. That meant that all educated youth were forced to go to the countryside to be reeducated by the poorest  lower and middle peasants so they could learn what China really is. They didn’t have a choice not to go, but she avoided leaving until 1969 when she ended up in Yunnan and was stuck there for ten years until the end of the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was officially a rusticated youth in Yunnan.

Throughout this book, Burell pairs her drawings with her mother’s words and photographs from that time. Those photographs add a connection to the story that readers may not have otherwise had with the drawings alone. Her mother’s stories depict how she ended up as one of the few truck-driving women during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Her life growing up in mid-1960s Communist China was rough, yet she managed to survive and thrive while living in a time of massive political upheaval. Determined to get her fair share, she wasn’t afraid to fight for what she wanted. She found ways to work the system, get an education, and eventually leave China like she always planned.

I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic biography. The Cultural Revolution in China was not something I had much knowledge of before I started reading this, but this book has pushed me down a rabbit hole to learn more about this time period and the millions of lives that were lost.

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