During the Cultural Revolution, many young Chinese in the cities were encouraged — if not ordered — to move to the countryside. Millions of young Chinese in high school and university moved to rural China ostensibly to “receive re-education from the poorest lower and middle peasants to understand what China really is” (to quote Mao Zedong, at the time). Many students remained in the countryside until the end of the Cultural Revolution almost a decade later.
One of these young Chinese people was the mother of Emei Burell, who turned these stories into a graphic novel: We Served the People: My Mother's Storie (Archaia, 2020). The book is roughly split into two halves: her mother’s hard work on a rubber plantation in Yunnan, and her struggles a decade later to restart her education upon her return home.
In this interview, Emei talks about her mother’s story, both during her time in the countryside and when she returned home. We talk about what it was like for her to turn these tales into a graphic novel, and what may have been gained from expressing them in a visual format.
Emei Burell is a cartoonist and illustrator from Sweden. Her work has also appeared in Adventure Time Comics, Hip Hop Family Tree, Studygroupcomics, and a number of publications in Sweden, Denmark, the UK and Chile.
Nicholas Gordon is an associate editor for a global magazine and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He is also a print and broadcast commentator on local and regional politics. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. In his day job, he’s a researcher and writer for a think tank in economic and sustainable development. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.