Under Red Skies

Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China


By Karoline Kan

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A deeply personal and shocking look at how China is coming to terms with its conflicted past as it emerges into a modern, cutting-edge superpower.

Through the stories of three generations of women in her family, Karoline Kan, a former New York Times reporter based in Beijing, reveals how they navigated their way in a country beset by poverty and often-violent political unrest. As the Kans move from quiet villages to crowded towns and through the urban streets of Beijing in search of a better way of life, they are forced to confront the past and break the chains of tradition, especially those forced on women.
Raw and revealing, Karoline Kan offers gripping tales of her grandmother, who struggled to make a way for her family during the Great Famine; of her mother, who defied the One-Child Policy by giving birth to Karoline; of her cousin, a shoe factory worker scraping by on 6 yuan (88 cents) per hour; and of herself, as an ambitious millennial striving to find a job–and true love–during a time rife with bewildering social change.

Under Red Skies is an engaging eyewitness account and Karoline’s quest to understand the rapidly evolving, shifting sands of China. It is the first English-language memoir from a Chinese millennial to be published in America, and a fascinating portrait of an otherwise-hidden world, written from the perspective of those who live there.


Aut​​hor's Note

My parents always used to say I was a "strange" child. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was growing up, my favorite thing to do after school was to follow the adults around like a little tail and listen to them tell stories. They called me genpichong, or "bum beetle," because I stuck to them like glue.

No matter whether they were talking to me or to each other—whether it was my grandmother, mother, aunt, or the neighbor's wife—I would always sit silently beside them, prick up my ears, and let my mind roam through the enchanting world of their stories. These women had little formal education, but the way they spoke was colorful and warm and delicately captured the moment. They talked in my grandmother's dim kitchen, under a willow tree in our yard, or in my neighbor's cabbage garden, their hands constantly occupied with never-ending chores like sewing patches, making soup, or clearing the table.

Some of the stories were mysterious, as though from a book of fairy tales. Weasels danced and imitated humans by singing in the village temple. River ghosts enticed villagers to jump to their deaths in the stream. Broom spirits held lanterns to light the way for people walking in the dead of night. The older women used spirits and ghosts to explain things they could not understand.

Then there were the real stories, which were just as fascinating.

My great-grandfather confessed to so-called "crimes" he had committed during the Cultural Revolution, such as reading and owning books written by Confucius or listening to the Peking opera, which during that time was disparaged as elitist and against the Communists' spirit of revolution, which sought to fight against the old way of feudalism and bourgeoisie.

My grandfather used his hat to hide the rice he'd stolen from the public kitchens to prevent his children from starving to death during the Great Famine.

My uncles had destroyed people's homes and tombs as Red Guards under Chairman Mao Zedong's regime. I heard stories of how a relative had fled to Taiwan after the civil war but could not return home for over half a century, and how political shifts had prevented my father from attending college, which became his life's biggest regret.

These were the first—and best—history lessons I ever had. And from these oral histories, I understand how my story is connected to China's.

In China's history, I've learned how ordinary lives can be upended by the political affairs of a nation. I learned how small changes could together alter the entire course of a country's future.

My dream became to write about the people I knew and loved and to tell their stories, as well as to write my own, free from government censorship and the Communist Party's narrative. I believe these stories deserve to be told, and I consider myself fortunate to have a platform to do so; many Chinese people never have a chance to make their voices heard.

For years, I buried my plan deeply in my chest. Almost all the memoirs I read in Chinese were about famous people. Nobody in my life had ever written a book—let alone a book in English. When I tried to sit my family members down for formal interviews, they would shrug me off. "There is nothing to say," they protested. "Everybody has this kind of story." They did not want to revisit the past; the right attitude was to focus on the future. They were afraid of saying the wrong thing or something that would get them in trouble, thanks partly to decades of censorship.

So instead of going to them as a journalist, I listened to them as a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, and a friend. We lived together, and their stories appeared in day-to-day gossip and arguments, the routines of daily family living. I had to be patient, and let the stories flow to me on their own, while still asking questions until I came to understand the truth.

The stories piled up in my diary, notes without a clear purpose. Then, before I realized it, they became a part of me. Now, years later, I can still see, smell, hear, and feel the days and nights when I learned and lived these stories: the light fragrance of the flowers of the Chinese scholar tree on spring afternoons, the orange light in my grandparents' bedroom, the crying cicadas and frogs on summer nights. I wrote in my composition classes, at home, and at work. I pitched personal essays to foreign newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and kept searching for the right home for the stories stored up inside me.

This book means more to me than just sharing stories about my family and myself, and what it means to be a Chinese millennial. Tens of millions of stories like ours make up the present-day complexity of what is China. Through these stories, I hope readers from all around the world can snatch a glimpse of how we came to be—of what our families went through to shape China into the country it is today.

As a Chinese millennial, I want to show the humanity behind the cold economic figures and classifiers associated with China, to reveal the emotions, choices, and compromises, the courage, love, and hope we share with people around the world. Like our counterparts everywhere, we defy single-word descriptions.

China has areas of rapid development but also miles of backwater. It is not only a global power but also a place where many still suffer from crippling poverty. Its technological advances make international headlines daily, but its rural schools still lack qualified teachers; and though we're pledged to the Communist Party, Chinese people live for the next Hollywood blockbuster, just like everybody else. To understand China and Chinese people, you have to imagine yourself there, to think what you might do in the circumstances experienced by families in this book, to have lived through certain politics and cultural traditions shown here. It is easier to blame China than to understand it; it is easier to judge Chinese people than to get to know them. But I believe the rewards for striving to do so are great—as are the risks for failing to try.

When writing this book, I often asked myself: Why should people around the world be interested in my stories about life in China? Some of the reasons are obvious: China has the world's second-largest economy and is the number one trade partner for many countries. China plays a central role in international affairs.

The subtler reason is that the lives of young Chinese people increasingly overlap with their peers around the world. Young Chinese factory workers produce goods that are bought by consumers in America, Canada, and Europe. When the streets of Washington, DC, or Berlin or Vancouver fill for women's marches, university students in China are inspired by them. We stand together in rejecting what society tells us is "right" and "wrong."

The real China is not only comprised of the one shown in the daily news cycle.

In recent years, several books have been written about Chinese millennials, but mostly by foreign authors. I respect many of these, because they inspired me to write my own. Globally, the voices of young Chinese—especially those of young Chinese women—are often neglected.

I may have been born and raised in China, but I am constantly learning new things about it. This is my story and my family's story. It is a story of China, and it is my honor to share my country with you…wherever you are.

Historical Timeline

1945–1949The Chinese Civil War occurs between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) and Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The conflict begins with deployments and military clashes as each side tries to position itself to control North China and Northeast China (Manchuria).

1949Chairman Mao declares the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Communist Party has been in sole control of China's government and army ever since.

1958–1960 Shortly after the People's Republic of China is founded, Chairman Mao aims to rapidly surpass the prosperity of the UK and the US with the Great Leap Forward. The party sets unrealistic production goals, including for agriculture and industry, requires participation from all farmers, and establishes collective farming.

1959–1961 An estimated 20–43 million people die of starvation in the Great Famine, caused by drought, poor weather, and the policies of Chairman Mao, such as the elimination of the four pests—rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows—upsetting the ecological balance.

1966The Cultural Revolution begins. To reconsolidate his power within the party and push back against capitalist and bourgeois values, Chairman Mao calls on the country's youth, the "Red Guards," to purge the "impure" elements of Chinese society and revive the revolutionary spirit. The Red Guards attack, imprison, torture, and kill tens of millions of people, including party leaders, intellectuals, artists, and former landowners.

1976 Chairman Mao dies and the Cultural Revolution ends.

1978 Start of the "Reform and Opening Up"—Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, believes China needs economic reform and commerce with the West. Farmers are given land contracts and allowed to work on plots individually instead of collectively. The Marxist economy is largely replaced by a capitalist economy, and private businesses are allowed to operate for the first time since the Communist takeover.

1980The One-Child Policy is created to manage soaring birth rates. Later, rural families may have two children if their first child is a girl. The policy remains until 2015.

1983The People's Commune collapses, in large part, due to the rise of individual farming and private enterprise.

 The Chinese government launches a "Strike-Hard Campaign." Party leaders believe Reform and Opening Up brought about chaos and wrong ideas and that the justice bureau was too soft on crime. In three years, over one million people are arrested and tried, often on flimsy or fabricated evidence. Minor crimes are punished severely. Today, many injustices are still being discovered and the rulings overturned.

1989The Tiananmen Massacre (a.k.a. June Fourth Incident) occurs. Young college students protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square for political reform. They want democracy and freedom of speech, among other rights. On June 4, the government sends the army with tanks to stop the protestors. It is estimated that up to two thousand people were killed.

1992The Falun Gong practice begins and spreads throughout the country. The Chinese government labels it a cult and bans Falun Gong in 1999. Tens of thousands of followers are arrested or imprisoned without trial.

1997Hong Kong is handed back to the Chinese government, ending more than 150 years of British colonization.

1999US-led NATO troops bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists during the Kosovo War.

2002SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, the epidemic outbreak that spread through China, kills hundreds of people.

2012Xi Jinping becomes general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

2013The National People's Congress elects Xi Jinping president. He is still the commander in chief today.


First and Second Generations

Chapter One

The Second Born

During the summer of 1988, the cicadas in the willow tree beside the main village road never stopped crying. On one particular day, my mother, Shumin, returned home early from work in the family's rice field. She lay in bed, deeply worried, knowing that her father-in-law would be angry that she had come home early, but that it would be nothing compared to how he would react when he discovered the secret she had kept from him for more than a month: she was pregnant with a second child. It was the only crime she had ever committed in her thirty-two years.

As she lay contemplating her next move, she could see from her window the banners painted in looming red characters on the white walls of her neighbor's home:

Giving Birth to Fewer and Healthier
Children Will Lead to a Happier Life

The ridiculous signs were tokens of China's One-Child Policy. But my mother was doubtful of the banner's promise: She had only one child, her family worked very hard, yet still they did not have money or happiness.

Mom and my baba, Chengtai, led a typical Chinese lifestyle. They lived with his parents and his three unmarried siblings. In the eighties, most young couples lived with their relatives. Their home was also typical: a three-room brick house, facing the south, and a small hut in the yard. At that time, burnt-red bricks were new, fashionable, and a sign of wealth. Previously, homes were built using handmade adobe—a mixture of mud and straw that dried into bricks in the sun—which was much cheaper, but not as strong. My grandmother, or Nainai, Baba's mother, had encircled the yard with bamboo poles to fence off her vegetable garden. Chickens and rabbits roamed under the two willow trees. Once a month, Nainai would sell the eggs and rabbits at the farmers' market.

That is how they lived. And everything about it was…ordinary.

My mother had not told anyone, except Baba, about the pregnancy. She couldn't; there was already too much tension at home with her in-laws. If Mom didn't wake early enough to work, Nainai would pull a long face and tell the neighbors she was lazy. "Young married women today are nothing like what we used to be," Nainai would complain.

Their village, Chaoyang, was a fairly new community in Ninghe County. It was rebuilt after the great Tangshan earthquake in 1976, which resulted in 240,000 deaths. After the earthquake, survivors built Chaoyang, which means "facing the sun," in hopes of a brighter future.

It is not known when people started to settle in Ninghe County—records were not kept. The old men, with their long, white goatees, said our ancestors had settled during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) to escape a famine. I always loved listening to the old men talk about the village's history, their eyes closed and one hand stroking their beards. For hours, they'd squat in the shadows, chatting. They were the modern griots and storytellers.

My mom was raised in a different village but adapted easily to Chaoyang. Like her own hometown, it was small and everyone knew each other. Every woman in the village was from another place—this was the way of it—and it was the men whom we relied on for the best stories of our village.

In such a small place, rumors couldn't be tamed for more than a day, and this also worried my mom that morning. There were about five hundred people in Chaoyang, and on only three streets; one paved with asphalt and the other two with red bricks. Folks living in the houses along the asphalt road were considered fortunate. It was the smoother, more modern-looking street, and on rainy days, it didn't have little water pits like those that collected in the cobbled roads. The village chief had an asphalt road in front of his office, which spoke volumes about it as a symbol of status. Those with homes like ours, on the brick road, would build their houses taller and grander, as though to make up for an inferior feeling.

My family, the Kans, worked together on more than ten mu—over 1.6 acres—of farmland. In those days, the climate was wet enough to encourage the villagers to plant rice. Ninghe was famous for its rice, reeds, and fish. In the beginning of the twentieth century, when my grandparents were young, everyone in Ninghe depended on those resources to make a living. Before the first bridge in Ninghe was built, villagers would cross the river using wooden dinghies. A screen of tall reeds on the riverbank stretched like waves in a green sea. But when I was a child in the mid-1990s, Ninghe started to suffer from drought, and the fish died from water pollution. Soon, corn and cotton—which required less irrigation—replaced the lush rice.

It took a lot of work from the entire family to run the farm. They'd set out to work in the early morning, when the water in the paddy field was still cold. In their farmers' clothes—wide-legged pants and loose gray shirts—they were like uniformed ants.

Mom was a pretty woman by Chinese standards, with big, smoky eyes and a small nose. She would tie up her long mane in a scarf and let it hang to hide her neck from the sun. She was lighter skinned than most women in the village, and had a few freckles. Women with freckles were said to have a wild spirit. She was also a strong farmer. Mom would walk barefoot in the field for hours, row by row. She was small but sturdy, focused, and fast. While other women rested at the field ridge to drink water, Mom would continue treading the fields.

But to the dismay of her in-laws, she worked in the field on the weekends only. During the week, she went to a job she loved, a place where she could wear her floral printed shirts and dresses made from soft polyester fabric. She was a teacher at the primary school in her parents' village, Caiyuan. She did this even in early summer—a crucial farming time—and so she was labeled as stubborn.

The family had to work fast and hard if they wished to bring in a good harvest, and it was difficult to satisfy my paternal grandfather, Wengui. At the time, farmers did not have access to many machines, and there were only a few horses, so labor was mostly by hand.

In 1982, China embarked on significant land reform. Whereas in the past a village would have worked the land together—communally—this new system rented land to individual family units. So, the more time a farmer spent on his land, the better the harvest would likely be in the autumn and the more income his family might accumulate. This notion made Grandfather Wengui the family's drill sergeant—he needed everyone to be swift and available—and he had a big problem with my mom's choice to divert her time elsewhere.

*  *  *

The land reform led to the collapse of the People's Commune, an agricultural cooperative initiated in 1960 during the Great Leap Forward, a campaign led by Chairman Mao that set unattainable production goals with the sheer objective of overtaking Western countries within a few years. The government decreed that the production of steel in 1959 should be four times the volume of 1957, and the production of grain should double within two years. Their mission was clear.

Mom was a little girl then, and told me that one day the village chief had gone to her house and announced that, henceforth, they would be able to eat beef and potatoes every day. Everyone was amazed; it was the best food the villagers could imagine having access to. They didn't care that they'd have to share it. Her mother made the best meat dishes. She and her brothers were ecstatic, but one day she came home to find her mother quietly weeping. Local officials had arrived to take away the family's dining table and their only iron wok—a prized possession in most Chinese households. "You don't need these anymore," the village chief had said sternly. "Everyone will eat together in the public canteen." He removed a notebook from the chest pocket of his blue Mao uniform—a dark two-piece suit with baggy pants and a four-pocket collarless blazer. He made note of the items he had confiscated. "It's time to say goodbye to the old way of living, in which you care only for yourself and your own family. In the People's Commune, we will support each other."

But the meals at the canteen were short lived. The first month, there was beef and potatoes, the second month only rice and boiled vegetables. In the last month, the cooks didn't have enough grain to supply three meals a day. Within three years, although the villagers had continued to work communally on the farmland, the canteens were closed. The government later announced that the public canteens were a "great proletarian revolutionary experiment" and the villagers were allowed to return to their own kitchens. They had been reduced to rats in a lab.

Though productivity was low, village officials around China would report grain production several times more than what they obtained in order to impress the higher-ups. When the exaggerated figures were registered, the central government had collected a disproportionate amount of grain, leaving tiny amounts for the localities. This contributed to the Great Famine, which lasted from 1959 to 1961, when tens of millions of people died from starvation. My mom vividly remembers walking with her father to the graves of our family's ancestors, where bitter wild grass tended to grow and which they would pick for dinner. She was four years old, and it was all they had to eat.

The Communists hoped the land reform of the 1980s, which allowed farmers to work on land owned by their families, would rekindle people's belief in socialism. However, villagers like Grandfather Wengui were doubtful. If there was anything he had learned from the war with Japan, the civil war, and the Cultural Revolution, it was to grab whatever fortune you could scrounge during peacetime, before chaos returned and things like food started to disappear again. Like the other villagers, Grandfather Wengui stopped complaining and started to invest all his time into the land he had.

*  *  *

Mom knew my grandparents would try to force her to have an abortion. They needed her to work, and a second child was illegal. If she had the baby, she would face a hefty government fine. But she wanted another child, and she vowed to Buddha that she'd walk to the Dule Temple one hundred miles away to thank him if he helped her. She and my father hoped they would be able to borrow money for the fine, and that she'd keep working throughout the pregnancy to save up.

Wengui didn't understand why Mom cared so much about teaching other people's children and not staying at home with her own. "How could you be so selfish? You leave your son for the whole day. What kind of mother are you?" Wengui said one afternoon when he and Mom were sitting on the floor of their front room, weaving a reed mat.

"I don't make much, but it helps that I can feed myself," she answered without raising her eyes from the mat.

Wengui roughly threw aside the hammer he had been using to tamp down the mat edge. "Feed yourself? The Kan family will feed you as long as you are still our daughter-in-law. Why do you need to go around like a woman who pāotóulòumiàn?" Wengui stressed pāotóulòumiàn, which means "go out to be seen in public" and is usually used to refer to women in a negative light.

Women were traditionally required to stay home and avoid contact with men other than close family members. Pāotóulòumiàn was common after Mao's revolution, when women were widely encouraged to work outside the home. But still, the traditional concept remained.

Wengui believed in those old values, that a wife was the property of her husband and his family. And Baba was not helpful. He was an obedient first son. A thin, hairy man, Baba had eyes that always looked at the ground when he spoke to his father—a sign of respect and meek, filial piety. He was afraid of Grandfather Wengui, but also cared too much about what people thought of him. Speaking up for his wife—or showing affection toward his wife or child—could damage a man's reputation, and he did not want to be a laughingstock.

Baba had a very good memory and did well in school. He had been accepted by a prestigious medical university to major in surgical science in 1977, but Wengui refused to let his son go, saying he could do better than being a doctor, who was no better than a patient's servant in Wengui's eyes. So he turned down the offer and took the exam again the following year. But even though he passed a second time, the local education bureau disqualified him from applying to university, scolding him for "wasting the education resources the previous year." In desperation and pain, Baba returned to the farm and followed in his father's footsteps.

But in private, Baba listened to my mother more than his family knew. It was Mom's idea for him to buy a tractor so that he could haul bricks from a factory in a neighboring province at a lower price, then sell them to nearby villages. It brought in additional income for the family.

Born in the village, Baba had automatically received a rural hukou, not an urban one. Hukou


  • "A heartfelt introduction into China's recent history -- and a rare firsthand dispatch from its millennial generation....For those seeking to understand the future of China and U.S.-China relations, voices like hers are an essential part of the conversation."—The Wall Street Journal
  • Marie Claire, "Inspiring Memoirs by Women That Are More Addictive Than Fiction!"

    Bustle, "New Memoirs Out In Spring To Help You Welcome Warm-Weather Reading!"

    Financial Times, "Readers' Picks for Summer"
  • "Vivid and humane, Karoline Kan's memoir of coming of age in China is richly revealing and contemporary, shaped both by the pain of history and the hope for the future - at turns bold and vulnerable, like China itself."—Evan Osnos, National Book Award-winning author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China and New Yorker staff writer
  • "At first glance, Karoline Kan's Under Red Skies is a simple coming-of -age story. A young girl from a poor family grows up, goes to university, falls in love and gets her heart broken (repeatedly), and finally triumphs as a journalist. But contained within is a sharply observed critique of all that is dysfunctional in Chinese society. You can learn more about modern China through this compulsively readable memoir than from many weightier tomes."—Barbara Demick, National Book Award finalist and author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
  • "Karoline Kan's intimate portrait of growing up in contemporary China opens a new window onto a country going through lightning-fast change."—Edward Wong, International Correspondent and Former Beijing Bureau Chief, The New York Times
  • "Under Red Skies is a beautiful look at the struggles of China's fast-changing society. In Karoline's inspiring and heartfelt stories of her family, she voices how much Chinese people have overcome. This book should be read by people from all corners of the world if they want to know the real story of China."—Xinran, author of The Good Women of China
  • "Karoline Kan's Under Red Skies is an engrossing account of a rapidly changing China seen through the eyes of an imaginative, ambitious young woman... An intimate coming-of-age story, this book should be read by anyone seeking to understand the aspirations and frustrations of young people in China today."—Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China
  • "A fascinating memoir about three generations of Chinese women. Whereas classics like Wild Swans end with the Cultural Revolution, Under Red Skies picks up where Jung Chang leaves off in this look at contemporary Chinese life and history as it changes before our eyes."
    Lijia Zhang, author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of The New China
  • "With her revealing and introspective account of growing up in post-1989 China, Kan fills a void in contemporary literature on the country. While the profound societal shakeup that unfolded during that period has left everyone of her generation with a remarkable story, few have possessed such skill and courage in telling theirs."—Eric Fish, author of China?s Millennials: The Want Generation
  • "Poignant, humane, and insightful, [Under Red Skies] brings the extraordinary story of the last fifty years in China vividly alive. The Kan family's struggles to survive and prosper through many adversities, largely inflicted on them by government, are a moving testament to the resilience and determination of three generations of women."—Isabel Hilton, OBE, founder of China Dialogue and author of The Search for the Panchen Lama
  • "A remarkable multigenerational memoir that clearly explores 'the real China-its beauty and ugliness, the weird and familiar, the joyful and sad, progressive and backward at the same time.'"—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "Kan presents an engaging debut memoir that would make an excellent book club choice."—Library Journal
  • "[Kan is] an eloquent, restrained and gripping writer."—TruthDig
  • "[Kan] has written the gripping autobiography of a generation--and a superpower--caught between tradition and ambition."—The Economist
  • "Razor sharp... [this book is a] coherent explanation of the dizzying changes that have affected daily life in contemporary China."—The South China Morning Post
  • "[Kan] is a clear and straightforward writer, walking readers through her own life and that of her family... An impressive [story]."—Asian Review of Books
  • "Stunning."—Remotelands.com
  • "It's enjoyable to get to know Kan on the page; she tells moving family tales as well as poignant personal stories, and serves as an engagingly candid guide to the fascinating generation she is a part of. She and they have faced the distinct challenge of coming of age as their country experiences its own dizzying transformations."—New York Times

On Sale
Mar 12, 2019
Page Count
320 pages
Legacy Lit

Karoline Kan

About the Author

Karoline Kan is a former New York Times reporter who writes about millennial life and politics in China. She’s currently an editor at China Dialogue. She lives in Beijing.

Learn more about this author