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In my memory, my childhood landscape is one of paddy fields and green mountains stretching to the end of the sky, beyond clouds; air filled with the sweet scent of wildflowers, rivers meandering below, teeming with life and bamboo rafts punted by strong Miao boys sliding in and out of sight on the winding waterway. When night fell and the moon was high, love songs echoed across the river.
But my childhood was not supposed to have looked like this. All my friends, the children of my mother's colleagues, grew up on a labor camp on the east coast of China. I used to ask my parents, "Why did we go to Sichuan instead of Shandong?" Eventually, one day, they told me.
"Because that was where your father went and we decided that the family should stay together," said my mother.
"But why couldn't Baba come with you to your labor camp? My friends told me that they did not starve there and that you could do a lot of fishing too."
My mother sighed. When my parents had met, my father was a People's Liberation Army officer stationed in Beijing and my mother a college student. In those days, people had to live where their residence permit, or Hukou, was registered. Then my father retired from the army and was sent back to his hometown, Shanghai. My mother felt lucky to be allowed to stay in Beijing. Once they were married, my father was permitted to visit her in Beijing twice a year, and she was able to visit Shanghai twice a year as well. They tried very hard to gain permission to move my mother's Hukou to Shanghai, but it turned out to be more difficult than they thought. Then events overtook them.
I was born in 1966, the year of the Cultural Revolution. My parents were caught up in the chaos that swept through the country: factories stopped production; homes of Party officials and intellectuals were searched and destroyed; pidouhui, or public beatings, were conducted daily across the country. Middle school and high school students, now called the send-down youth, were transported to People's Collectives around the country to live and work with peasants. Then, in 1970, intellectuals (a term reserved for those, like my parents, who had been educated at college) began to be sent to labor camps to work "with their hands" and so to rehabilitate themselves and fulfill Mao's vision of a peasant-based society.
My mother's work unit, which was connected to the Department of Foreign Affairs, had set up their labor camp in a rather lovely part of the countryside in Shandong province, near the Yellow Sea. My father's labor camp was very different. It was in a remote mountain region in the southwest, looked down upon because it was populated with the Miao minority and had no modern living facilities. There the intellectuals were assigned hard labor, building secret military facilities against a nuclear attack from the West.
"Your mother and I had a choice," my father told me. "Either we could go to separate labor camps or your mother could exchange her place in the 'better' camp with someone from my work unit. Your mother chose to go to Sichuan with me." At this, he looked at her and smiled. They exchanged glances as naturally and effortlessly as they had exchanged their lives. It seemed that it was the simplest thing that one could do -- to be together as a family.
So the earliest memories of my childhood began in one of the most beautiful and magical regions of China. The labor camp was in the deep mountains of Nanchuan County, a region bordering Sichuan province and Yunnan province in the southwest of China. The mountains were giant, green and endless. When the rainy season came, shades of green would all smudge together into yet another nameless shade and spill over the edges, like paints dissolving on a canvas.
The Miao -- a mountain tribe who settled in China's southwest in the ninth century -- are a people of song, dance and crafts. Miao women wear long dresses over wide, flowing trousers. Hand-embroidered trims of flowers, birds and beautiful shapes in bright colors breathe life into their costumes, and many of them wear matching headpieces. In the morning, returning from the market, usually in small groups, carrying their goods in baskets on top of their heads, they'd travel up the mountain trails singing. I'd hear their songs long before I'd catch sight of them.
When night fell and the moon was high, young men and women would gather on hilltops on either side of the river, declaring their love and admiration for each other. Singing is the way of courting for Miao people; it was said that the way to a Miao girl's heart was through song. With love songs echoing over the mountains, it seemed to me that life would always be full of romantic tunes.
Unfortunately for my parents life in the labor camp was nothing to romanticize about. The living quarters had been built up on the top of a mountain while the building site was down in the valley. Every morning, my parents would get up early to drop me off at the kindergarten and then walk down the mountain trail to work. The intellectuals either transported bricks from storage sites to the building site or simply laid bricks, day in and day out. The construction site was guarded by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and workers were supervised by army engineers.
After working on the construction site for most of the day, my parents had to attend group study sessions, during which they read and discussed editorials from the People's Daily or passages from Mao's little red book. Like everyone else in these reeducation sessions, my parents had to do self-criticism and pledge their loyalty to the Party and Chairman Mao. Any hesitation or questioning about what they had to read meant severe punishments such as public beatings and prison terms.
As innocent children, my friends and I had no idea of the political oppression that our parents lived under. While our parents labored away on the building site in the valley, we attended kindergarten. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Cai, a soft-spoken, kind lady in her fifties. One day she told us about her homeland, the beautiful island in the South China Sea called Taiwan, and taught us a folk song that her mother used to sing to her when she was our age. I loved the song and could not wait to sing it for my parents that evening. But I was disappointed. My parents were not overjoyed, as they usually were when I showed them something new I had learned from kindergarten.
"Who taught you this?" Mama asked. She immediately said to me, "Don't sing it again. You don't know who might be listening."
I could not understand why my parents were so afraid of my singing the new song. After all, Mrs. Cai had also taught us many revolutionary songs. The next evening, a few parents came to our apartment, all with the same worries. "We are their parents, what they sing or talk about reflects on us," said one of them. "We simply have to do something about it before they cause trouble."
"Life is tough enough without their singing counterrevolutionary songs and talking about Taiwan," joined in another.
Thus the parents decided to report Mrs. Cai to the authorities. A couple of days later, our teacher vanished. No one, including the parents, knew what happened to her. Many years later, my parents still talked about Mrs. Cai and felt guilty for what might have happened to her. But back then they believed that they had no other choice. They needed to protect their family. Such was the extent of fear in the labor camp, as elsewhere in China during that time.
Life in the camp was difficult. Because the living quarters were high up in the mountains, water had to be carried from the river below. It was then poured straight into a large tank in the open air for every family to use. Many people became sick after drinking the water. Food was shared out weekly, allocated by my father's work unit. Meat was scarce: although each family was supposed to have two kilograms of meat a month, some months we only received half that. We had a small coal-burning stove outside the door. Every evening, as soon as my parents came back from the building site, tired, sweaty and thirsty, my mother cooked dinner with the little we were given. At dinnertime, the stairway was always filled with the smell of cooking oil and smoke from the small stoves, while wives and mothers chatted loudly up and down the stairs.
For my parents, the possibility of living together in Shanghai after the camp gave them strength to endure the hardship. Certain promises were given to my mother before she came to the camp that if she could show the Party her willingness to "swallow bitterness and endure hard work," she might be able to gain the necessary approval and be allowed to move to Shanghai. Coming to the camp, however, had been particularly hard for my mother. A few months earlier, on 3 September 1969, my little sister, Xiao Jie, was born. Guessing the probable conditions at the camp, my parents decided that it would be better to leave my sister in Shanghai with my paralyzed grandmother and a nanny.
The situation was made worse for my mother by the fact that she was not allowed to go to Shanghai to see her child. There were two reasons. First, my sister's Hukou was not in Shanghai although she was born there. Her Hukou had to be with my mother's, which was in Beijing. Second, because my father had now "moved away" from Shanghai, mother had no official connection with the city any longer.
Mother missed Xiao Jie terribly. In the night, after a long day's hard work moving and laying bricks, Mother would lie on the bed, talking to my father of her second daughter, counting the months since her birth, wondering whether she had cut new teeth and imagining how she might look now. As the rain beat down on summer leaves outside, she would weep while remembering the day she last saw her newborn child.
A few months after my parents and I arrived at the labor camp, my father made his first trip to Shanghai to visit his mother and more important to check on my sister. He took a long-distance bus for two days to Chongqing, a city at the other end of Sichuan province and a port on the Yangtze River. There, he caught a messenger boat going down the majestic Yangtze to Shanghai. The boat journey took another four days. When he came back, he brought with him the most beautiful things I had ever seen: candies in colorful wrapping paper, and cookies with a heavenly smell.
"Listen now, Wei, these candies and cookies need to last for a long time...until the next time I go to Shanghai. Every week you will get your share, but no more." Baba put the candies and cookies in two aluminium tins and locked them up in the cabinet beneath the desk drawer.
For the next weeks, my biggest joy was to receive candies and cookies from my parents, until one day when I made an amazing discovery. I found that if I took out the drawer on top of the locked cabinet, I could reach down for the tins. I ate as much and as quickly as I could. My parents finally discovered what I'd been up to when they found the tins empty. I still remember the way my mother and father looked at me, sighing. I realized then that I'd made them sad, because they were not able to give me more for many months to come.
When winter came again, Baba made another trip to Shanghai. My parents and I walked down the mountain trail, on a clear and fresh morning, to send Baba to the bus stop. Like local Miao children, I carried my tiny backpack-style basket on my shoulders. I had saved up four tangerines, allocated by the work unit, for my father to take on his journey. My heart was filled with expectation and anticipation of what he might bring back this time.
One day, what felt like months after Baba had left for Shanghai, I returned home from kindergarten to find the rooms we lived in crowded with people. There were loud voices and laughter. I walked into the crowd rather curious and was happy to see my father standing in the center of the room. It turned out that he had just come back from Shanghai.
"Come over, Wei," a loud and large neighbor said, almost in my face. "Come and see your little sister."
Although I knew I had a sister, I searched hard through my memory but could not remember anything about her. Only later on in the evening, after much prompting from my parents, did I vaguely remember leaning out of a window and seeing my mother come home with a new baby.
But there was my father in the center of the room, holding up a rather skinny little creature with short hair growing in every direction. It seemed that she had just woken up from her sleep. She looked dazed for a while and then turned to the loud neighbor and said, "Ma-Ma."
"No, this is your Mama." The woman was embarrassed and pulled my mother forward from the crowd.
Everyone in the room laughed out loud.
Though we had more glass-papered candies as promised, I was disappointed. Suddenly everyone's attention was on Xiao Jie, my little sister. My parents did not even spend time to tell me how my candies should be regulated. Baba, however, did bring yet another novelty -- egg noodles. The noodles looked so beautiful compared with the black mixed-grain noodles I was used to, and had a wonderful smell as well. Unfortunately they were only for my sister as she was still too young and needed the extra nutrition they provided. But my resentment of my little sister did not last long. Soon enough, Xiao Jie started walking steadily and I could not wait to play the big sister.
Spring was the most beautiful season in Nanchuan, as endless azaleas blossomed from mountain to mountain. For many weeks, the green mountains would be completely covered with a red carpet, thick and heavy. It was through the fields of azaleas that I learned to love my little sister. Childhood for me will live forever in the touch of Xiao Jie's tiny hands, the sound of my parents' laughter and the sweet scent of azaleas.
The climate of southwestern China is extremely humid. To cope with the humidity, the locals rely on a very spicy diet -- the famous Sichuan cuisine -- to help stimulate internal circulation and sweat. Summer in Sichuan is usually very hot, so hot that the people in the labor camp could only work in the mornings. In the late afternoons, when the effect of what the locals called the "poisonous sun" died down to a more tolerable degree, Mama and Baba would take us swimming.
The river running at the bottom of our mountain was our salvation in the summer. The part of the river we always went to was not terribly wide, though the current in the middle could be strong at times. There were huge rocks scattered in the water, making swimming a dangerous adventure if one was not careful; so our parents never allowed us to go too far into the river. Xiao Jie and I, not able to swim much anyway, usually had a wonderful time playing on the shallow riverbanks. Occasionally I would search for wildflowers in the mountains surrounding us. Sometimes brave boys would dive from the giant rock in the middle of the river into the white current, emerging triumphantly somewhere downstream, and I would clap my hands with delight. To me, the river was cool, clear and beautiful; every now and then, I also wondered what was upriver from us.
"I don't really know, Wei," said Mother. "I suppose some cities or villages."
Unfortunately, we soon discovered what was up there. In September 1971, the regular rainy season came early, as soon as summer ended. It poured for many days and many nights. Together with the rain came a hepatitis epidemic. Many in the labor camp believed that it was caused by a chemical factory upriver dumping chemical waste into what was also the source of our drinking water. Though the authorities never confirmed this theory, the factory was closed down a couple of years later.
We had a small clinic in the labor camp and one doctor. The nearest hospital was "many mountains away." Families were first asked to treat the sick at home. Soon, the spread of the disease became too alarming to leave the isolation and medical care of infected individuals to their families. A sick camp consisting of several large military tents was set up by the army engineers.
Xiao Jie was the first in my family to fall ill. One evening she started to run a very high fever and exhibit symptoms of the disease. Immediately, my parents realized the danger; Xiao Jie was only two years old at the time. Mama put on her raincoat and ran out to find the doctor. Baba stayed with Xiao Jie and nursed her fever by putting a hot towel on her forehead. But she showed no sign of improving. She was crying and turning in pain.
"Wei, go back to your room and don't come out here again," Baba yelled at me loudly. "Do you want to catch the disease too? Go back right now!"
I went back to the room that I shared with Xiao Jie but left the door open slightly so that I could hear and watch what was happening in my parents' room.
Mama came back some time later, soaked from the rain.
"What did the doctor say?" Baba asked.
Mama cuddled Xiao Jie tightly in her arms. My sister had started to lose her voice from constant crying. Tears streamed down my mother's face.
"The only doctor is on duty at the sick camp. He does not have time to come to see Xiao Jie, nor does his assistant. They are swamped by the number of patients in the camp."
"What about medicine? Is there anything we can give to Xiao Jie to get the fever down?"
"They have penicillin, but only for patients at the camp. The disease has spread out into the whole region and medicine is running out. The camp can take Xiao Jie tomorrow morning but not tonight. The barefoot doctors from nearby villages have gone home to rest."
The barefoot doctors were peasants who had been given some basic medical training so that they could take care of health problems in remote regions and villages.
I don't think that any of us slept much that night. My parents could do nothing but put hot towels on Xiao Jie's forehead in the hope that the fever would ease through sweat. As the night went on, Xiao Jie became silent. She had completely lost her voice and her face was burning red. Mama and Baba spent the whole night holding her in turn. In the morning, when my mother took Xiao Jie to the sick camp, her eyes were bloodshot from her own tears.
For the next couple of days, Mama did not sleep much. Because Xiao Jie was seriously ill, the doctor put her in the isolation unit and would not allow anyone to visit. Mama stayed up almost every night, walking the floor in the apartment, wondering about the condition of my sister, hoping and praying. She was also prepared to go to the sick camp at a moment's notice if the worst should happen to my sister, and be at her bedside as soon as possible. My father stayed up with her during those nights, comforting her whenever she burst into tears. On those nights, I lay on my bed listening to the endless rain beating on the window; staring into the dark I hoped that I would see my sister soon.
On the third day of my sister's admission to the sick camp, my parents were given the good news that Xiao Jie had come out of the critical period of the illness and my parents could now visit her at the camp. After they came back, they were deliriously happy and could not stop talking about how well she looked.
"When can I see her?" I asked them as soon as they came in from the rain.
"We don't know. It could be a while. The doctor said that she had to stay in the isolation unit for some time before she could be allowed to mix with others."
"Can I go with you to visit her?"
"No," Mother said sternly, "we don't want you to get sick."
That evening, despite my parents' attempts to keep it from me, I also came down with hepatitis. Maybe because I was older than Xiao Jie, or maybe because living in the mountains had made me stronger, I was not nearly as sick as she was. Though I had to be admitted into the sick camp, I did not need to go to the isolation unit. When I arrived at the children's unit with Mama, I found all my friends from the kindergarten were there. Many of them looked yellow and swollen.
By the end of the month, most people at the labor camp had the disease and had to move to the sick camp. Lack of doctors, nurses and medicine had seriously delayed the recovery of many patients. Most of the time, the doctors could only focus on reducing casualties. It was said that the epidemic had swept through the entire province that year and that the central government had organized the delivery of emergency medicines to aid the fight of hepatitis. Unfortunately, since Nanchuan was very remote from the major cities in the province, medicines took time to reach us.
By the second month, all the women who had not yet contracted hepatitis were needed to nurse the sick. My mother volunteered, partly to be close to her family as, by then, my father had also come down with the disease. The sick camp lasted for almost three months. Eventually the medicine arrived and most of us recovered. When I was discharged from the sick camp, I actually felt sad. All play and no school ended. Life went back to normal, except that now kindergarten felt boring.
At the end of 1971, the news of Lin Biao's death reached the labor camp. Lin Biao was the defense minister and the vice president of China. He was also Mao's right-hand man and chosen successor. My earliest childhood memories included a vision of Vice President Lin waving the little red book. I was told that no one loved Chairman Mao more than Vice President Lin.
The official version was that Lin Biao had been plotting to assassinate Mao. When this attempt failed, he tried to flee to the USSR and died when his plane, also carrying his son, crashed in Mongolia. The death of Lin Biao came as a surprise to many, including my parents. I remember neighbors and friends coming to our home after receiving the news.
"Who would have thought that Lin Biao would plot to overthrow Chairman Mao?" said our loud and large neighbor. "I actually believed that he was Mao's most loyal follower."
"See, this is why his deception was very good and why Chairman Mao was wise to be alert. Chairman Mao always said that 'we need to be aware of those who have honey in their mouths and a knife in their hands,' " said another. "Lin Biao was the most dangerous kind. He managed to deceive the entire country with his 'never let the [Mao's] little red book leave hands,' nor 'long live Chairman Mao' leave lips.' "
As we learned after Mao's death many years later, the Lin Biao crisis created a vacuum in Mao's power system. In those years he had come to rely a great deal on Lin and his friends. With Lin's death, and almost all the marshals denounced for speaking out against the Cultural Revolution, Mao was faced with the prospect of losing control of the most powerful force in Chinese politics: the military. Mao had to compromise by bringing back those disgraced officials who still had a lot of influence in the army. Deng Xiaoping would "come out of the mountains" not long after.
When the spring came to Nanchuan, our lives changed again. The secret military facility was finally complete -- only to find that there was no use for it. By then, the effect of the Cultural Revolution had taken a huge toll on the country's economy. Living standards for the Chinese people had dropped even further. Mao also realized that unless people saw improvements in their lives, resentment and even rebellion might flare up. In a complete reversal of his previous policy, Mao ordered intellectuals to go back to cities and perform their normal duties. The labor camp was closed down.
Mother had hoped that by having spent almost three years at the labor camp, she would have earned the right to move to Shanghai with my father. However, despite previous promises she did not get permission.
"Labor movement is completely controlled by the central government, unfortunately," they told her coldly. Mother was very upset and angry. Now she had to go back to her old work unit in Beijing. So it was decided that my sister and I would go to Beijing with my mother, and attend school there. My father would report back to his work unit in Shanghai and try somehow to move to Beijing later.
Spring went by quickly as all the families prepared for long journeys home. A few people who decided to give up their city Hukou to stay in Nanchuan were invited to good-bye dinners by those who were leaving. One of them was a handsome young army soldier, Xiao Li, who had married a Miao woman; he'd been a good friend to my father in the past two years. In our home, we had mostly basic furniture that was distributed to us by the work unit. This furniture was not of good quality and considered not worth taking with us to Beijing. My parents gave our furniture to this young man to set up his home. He was very grateful.
Ten years later, Xiao Li traveled to Beijing and visited us. I waited with great anticipation for his arrival. I still remembered the handsome young man with soft white skin. Once again my thoughts went back to the mountains of red azaleas and white-water rivers. When he finally came, I could not believe my eyes. His face was dark and rough. Although he was about fifteen years younger, he looked my father's age.
Xiao Li told my father how thankful he still was for my family's kindness. He took out beautiful handmade insoles in typical Miao patterns, traditional Miao gifts to make your shoes more comfortable.
"My wife made these herself. One for big sister," he turned to my mother, who was bringing in tea, "and one for you, Old Liang.
"These are for the children. I hope they fit, because she sized them by guessing."
He took the tea. We were all sitting around the table, looking at him. We each had different thoughts going through our minds, thoughts that stretched back ten long years. I searched my memory for the young man who often came to our apartment for meals, and to whom I loved to show off my reading skills.
"Good tea." He nodded at my father gratefully. He told us that he wanted to move his family back to Shanghai so that his son would be able to go to a decent school and thus have a future.
"I talked to so many people, in Nanchuan, Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) and Shanghai, but no one wanted to help. They said that I had given up my Shanghai Hukou and there is nothing they can do now." He sipped more tea and continued. "They said that my son was born in Nanchuan and our family Hukou was there, so it was in Nanchuan that we need to stay for the rest of our lives. But if we stay, my son will have no future; with the kind of schooling there, he would not even have a chance to go to high school."
After Xiao Li had left and the tea was cold, my parents talked at length about the labor camp years, the young man and the fate of others we'd known.
"He should never have given up his Shanghai Hukou," said my mother as soon as Xiao Li left. "It's worth its weight in gold." Then she turned to my father who was putting away the teapot and cups. "Remember how difficult it was for me to try to move to Shanghai? And I was a highly qualified university graduate! Twelve years we had to live apart."
"In the end, I had to exchange my Shanghai Hukou with someone in Beijing before I could move here," echoed my father. "A Shanghai Hukou is worth more than the weight of it in gold."
"But it was not his fault," Baba continued, now angrily. "No one knew where events would turn next. First, it was the 'Great Leap Forward': everyone sent out to make steel. Then it was 'Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom,' when you were supposed to criticize the shortcomings of the Party."
"Had you done so, you would have been put in prison in the 'Anti-Rightist Movement,'" said Mama.
"Then there was 'Up the Mountains and Down to the Countryside,'" I added, remembering the older brothers and sisters of my friends, many of whom had gone to work in remote People's Collective Communes in the Cultural Revolution.
"One moment you were red, another moment you were black. One year we were sent to the labor camp, three years later we came back. It was revolution -- reorganizing the whole society," said Baba. "Like all of us, Xiao Li just wanted to live a life. He did the best he could."
Red was the good communist color. Black was bad, shorthand for capitalists. In the Cultural Revolution, people were categorized into either red or black depending on their birth. Reds included peasants, workers, revolutionary officers and their children. There were nine black categories that included landlords, capitalists, "stinky intellectuals" and their descendants. Another of the black categories was "spy," which, broadly speaking, included anyone with overseas connections. People in the black categories became the targets of the Cultural Revolution. Many were stripped of their jobs and positions, sent to labor camps, imprisoned or even killed.
There was always great sadness when my parents recalled how the Cultural Revolution had destroyed the lives of many of their friends and colleagues. They wondered about their own lives and how it might have been if the Cultural Revolution had not happened. So many what-ifs came to mind.
At last summer came to Nanchuan, and the day of our departure. A number of my parents' friends, including Xiao Li, came to help.
We chose to leave in the early morning so that we could avoid the time when the sun was brutally hot. In fact, we left so early that there was still fog lingering around the mountaintops. Two strong young men pushed wooden carts loaded with our belongings, while five other people carried smaller pieces of luggage. My mother carried Xiao Jie in her arms, while Baba had a carton of crockery in one hand and me in the other. I had to leave my beloved basket behind since there would not be any use for it in Beijing.
As we moved slowly down the mountain, we could hear the sound of the river in the valley. Looking around, there was endless green for as far as the eye could see. Wildflowers peeked out here and there. As we walked down, the labor camp where we had lived for the past three years faded from view. Soon, we could see the road at the bottom of the mountain. We had walked the trail for the last time.
After the luggage had been loaded on top of the bus, we waved good-bye to those who had helped. The bus started to move. I turned around and looked out from the back window...and I saw a little girl walking down the mountain trail with a tiny basket on her back, alone, surrounded by endless burning-red azaleas.
Copyright © 2003 by Wei Liang