The first chapter of Mr. China's Son

My ancestors settled in the remote mountainous area of northwestern Yunnan.  I am, of course, Chinese; however, I should like to add one more word: I am Bai Chinese.  I belong not to the great Hans of Central China but to the Bai National Minority.  At home we speak Bai, not the official language of my country, Mandarin.  In the past, because our contacts with outsiders were limited and frustrated by this language trouble, we were looked down upon as ignorant and backward.  We never found it easy to compete with the Han people.

Early in 1956, something unusual happened.  Under the direct leadership of the Beijing-based Academy of Social Sciences, a special committee--the Research Institute for National Minority People's Social History--was established in Kunming.  Most of its personnel were from Beijing.  Without delay, I was the first one selected to help in their investigations.  Not only am I Bai, fluent in Mandarin, but I had also studied English at college.  Sometimes I was instructed to translate English materials into Chinese for research use; sometimes, to join a group of experts and visit a distant mountain area.  On these occasions I acted as an interpreter, since people from Beijing can't follow the language spoken by the native villagers.

I rejoiced over the change.  I had been working in a government office building where an eight-hour day seemed like a sixty-four-hour day. But as soon as I was transferred to do a translator's job, my workday passed by like eight minutes.  Opening my dusty boxes, I brought out my books.  I began to think, I began to plan; I was going to use my English again. 

But all at once, in the summer of 1957, a great political movement known to the world as the Struggle Against the Rightists started all over our country. In the beginning, people opened with statements like "We are living in Mao Zedong's era.  Everybody is free to express his or her thoughts."  The most popular saying was ''Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend." This was the policy set forth by Chairman Mao for promoting the arts and sciences and for developing a flourishing socialist culture.  Office work stopped.  For several months we did nothing but hold meeting after meeting, where reports were delivered and documents chosen for discussion. 

Then, in the autumn of 1957, came the second stage.  This was called "Drawing a clear line between sweet-smelling flowers and poisonous weeds." Now we heard, "In order to protect our New China, to ensure its color doesn't change, everybody must boldly expose all the poisonous weeds.  Chairman Mao states that 95 percent of the population are loyal to socialism, but 5 percent only pretend to serve the people in a false way.  If you cannot find that 5 percent, you are blind."  Right after this, the struggle began.  In order to fulfill that number, the group members began to gather their strength and to reexamine and analyze all that had previously been said. 

In our office, three people were being dragged out, found out, discovered. One was a fifty-year-old man, a returned scholar from America. Another was a young man named Gao, a classmate of mine from college, who was a talkative fellow. The third and last poisonous weed was I myself. 

At first, face-to-face struggle meetings were conducted in a friendly atmosphere.  In some organizations, snacks were even prepared on the table. The activists criticized in kind voices and said, "Eat something soft. "They offered you a cup of water or a cigarette.  This was named "To struggle with pleasant wind and light rain."  But as the movement went deeper, people used the phrase "To struggle with a bigger storm."  They shouted at you, pointed at your forehead or pulled your hair.  They were so furious that they banged the desks and chairs with their fists.  They kicked the floor, as if the floor was an enemy.  And finally they hit, beat, or even gave you a "helicopter ride"--tied your arms behind your back and hung you up by them.  All these struggle meetings ended with a warning: 

"Let's stop here for this evening, but we have a tomorrow everyday.  Never, never retreat unless a final and complete victory is won!" 

It was easy to accuse me. My family had been classified as "landlord."  I had once said that although I admired the Soviets' heavy industry, their light industry was falling behind that of capitalist countries such as Britain and America.  I remember saying, "If you go into a bookstore and pick up a copy of a Soviet magazine, it gives off a terrible smell.  Can you find a strange smell on American publications?  British and American portable typewriters are light and good-looking. What about Soviet typewriters? Ugly and too heavy." They also remembered," You are a man who hates the Soviet Union and loves the enemy, America!"  I had once commented that nowadays in China, as soon as you knew the beginning of a book, magazine, film, radio program, you knew exactly how it was going to end.  For this they said, "You hate our new society!  You hate our Party!  No mistake--you are just the rightist we are all trying to search for!"  If I made a little unconscious mistake in speech, they immediately seized the opportunity to do evil. 

During the daytime we three were left in peace, but each of us had to write his own "material"--a written report expressing inner thoughts and giving convincing answers to hundreds of "whys" and "whats." 

*    *    *     *    *     *     *     *     *    *    

One day, after we had entered the second angry stage, I received a letter from Wu Qiyan, a former girlfriend. I could hardly believe my eyes, because many of my friends, including my former old classmates, had started avoiding me after they learned I had become a poisonous weed.  Earlier I had written to Qiyan in northeast China, telling her of my new job.  Then, a little while before the Anti-Rightist Movement began, I heard she had returned to Kunming and been assigned to teach Russian at a middle school.  For a time I thought of going to see her, but when I reconsidered it, I gave up the idea.  Following the invitation in her letter, that afternoon I ran as fast as my two legs could carry me.  The moment her school building came into view I stopped, looked at the gate, and then exclaimed, "No, it's too late now!  I am too dirty. Heaven will punish me if I go into that school and poison that teacher of Russian." 

I ran home, knocked my forehead against the desk, covered my head with my hands, and then threw myself into bed and sobbed. 

A knock came at the door.  Immediately I wiped my eyes and listened. More knocks followed. I thought my colleagues were coming to fetch me for another struggle session, so I replied, "I am here.  I have no wings. I cannot fly to Taiwan." 

The knocking didn't stop. I tiptoed over, lifted the corner of my curtain, and looked out.  It was Qiyan.  She opened the door and came forward a step or two, looking around, as though we were playing hide-and-seek. 

"Shuyi! Can you remember my name?"  Gazing straight into my eyes, she approached nearer. 

I couldn't control my tears.  Her voice brought back memories from the past. 

In spite of everything, Qiyan had taken the initiative and come knocking at my door.  How kind and how great she was!  I must offer her a cup of tea.  I reached for my thermos, but there was not a drop of water in it.  Formerly, the cleaning staff had brought me hot water regularly.  After they saw I had become a bad element, they stopped serving me. I ran out, intending to borrow some water from my next-door colleagues. People were talking inside, but they paid no attention to my knock.  About twenty minutes later, I did succeed in getting a thermos of hot water, I bought it from a tea shop. 

As I was returning, four children accosted me at the main gate of my organization.  One of them said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Lao You (Old Rightist)! 

Another boy asked, "Are you bringing poisonous water to your friend?"

The biggest boy came up to me like a top official and asked, "What side of the road are you walking on now?"

"I don't understand," I replied. "The road is public. It doesn't belong to your family." 

"No, all of us are the masters of the road.  You are a Lao You.  As 'you' means 'right', you must walk on the right side!"  With a push he forced me to walk on the right side. 

An old woman said, "Just listen to the children!  Hereafter they will all become the leftists of our country." 

The children followed me.  I couldn't stop them.  My only aim was to offer a cup of water to a special friend, but my head ached seriously. I found my door closed and nobody in. Luckily the window had been left open, and I climbed through. But at that moment I dropped the thermos.  Glass and hot water smashed all over the floor. 

Qiyan was nowhere to be seen.  However, my room had changed while I was out buying water.  There was no more dust on the desk.  All my books looked in good order.  A vase of straw-like flowers had disappeared.  On my bed I noticed a blue-covered notebook.  Upon opening it I found a little photo of myself pasted onto the first page.  I was particularly touched when I saw a faded rose beneath it. Qiyan and I had once picked two roses from the same branch of a bush in a temple.  Later we each kept one.  I had been preserving mine in my biggest English-Chinese dictionary. As I opened the dictionary and looked at my rose, Qiyan came back.  She put down a pail of cold water and took up the broom. 

"Someone has broken a thermos."

"It was my fault.  I forget everything when I am in a hurry.  I haven't even a cup of water to offer!" 

"It's all right.  I know your present circumstances." 

"Qiyan, you don't understand--I have become an enemy of the people.  I am now a poisonous weed; even three-year-old children are trying to weed me out!" 

"I do understand, Shuyi!  It makes no difference. Exactly the same in our school!" 

I heard voices and looked out the window.  A group of my colleagues' children were looking back at me.  One of them waved his hand and they repeated a new type of nursery rhyme.  It sounded a bit like one I had read in an English book:

"One, two, three, four, five,

We have caught a Lao You alive,

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

A strange lady brings him water again. 

One, two, three, four, five,

An inch the snake wants to move,

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

People will struggle him to death again!" 

Qiyan closed the window and asked," Do you have to get permission if you want to go out?" 

"No, Big leaders up above haven't made a final decision.  I am waiting for some sort of punishment now, but I still can go out and about in the streets." 

"I'm afraid those little ghosts will bring you trouble.  Shall we go for a walk?" 

"But what if later someone says, 'You are playing with a wolf, a snake....' "

"I don't mind." 

"Just like your father!  One day you'll become a famous lady-professor." 

"You are wrong if you think my professor-father is great.  As the earth turns round and round, everything changes.  For a time he was called an important big-school professor.  But one day, my dear friend, there was a storm up above.  He also received a cap--they say he is a fierce monster and demon.  In our present-day China, from north to south, from east to west, when anyone sees a weed which appears to be special or unusual, they say that weed is poisonous.  They pull up everything.  They destroy everything, no matter if it is poisonous or can be turned into a beautiful plant. Nowadays a father can do nothing for his children, and sometimes the children have to curse their parents.  Anyway, I think both you and my father are in the same boat." 

"So, according to your theory, I am a good man?" 

"Of course you are!  Otherwise I wouldn't have come to see you here. I have brought you a little gift.  As I was dusting your bookshelf I found that familiar dictionary.  That fully proved, after all, that you didn't forget me.  Is there anything missing?" She put the two roses together. 

"No, several springs and several autumns have come and gone, but nothing seems to be missing.  Only the color has faded a little.  But what about me?  I have changed my 'color.'  And Qiyan, you have not.  You enjoy a sweet-smelling job.  You are not involved in the present storm.  Cherish it, protect it, and defend yourself.  I am afraid I will spoil your bright future." 

"I think the present movement today really is like a heavy storm.  It's not easy to find a safe shelter.  Thousands and millions of people can't resist this storm.  In the past you seldom paid attention to the weather reports, and moreover there were holes in your shoes.  You couldn't get a pair of rubber boots like important people with good connections can, but you still splashed about carelessly.  Needless say, all kinds of dirty mud got into your shoes.  When the time came to examine each person's feet they said, 'Look at your feet!  They're stinking!' 

"But our weather is changeable. Don't forget that mud is washable, and one of these days a storm will come along and wash off your mud. Like many others, I believe you and my father will eventually see that day. So you must not be discouraged. How I wish I could take you to see my father, but, for the time being, it's raining heavily.  It's better not to take a poisonous-weed friend to see a monster father!" 

I opened the door and made sure no children were about.  Qiyan walked ahead and I followed.  As soon as we were in the main street we walked shoulder to shoulder, naturally.  We drank, ate, and finally sat on a bench beside a lake.  It was very late when we arrived at her school gate. Taking a lovely apple out of her bag, Qiyan said," I saved this apple for you.  It's from Shandong Province.  It goes to foreign countries as well." 

"You have it yourself or give it to your father."

"No, you must have it.  My father has some already.  All the way from Harbin to Beijing and then to Yunnan, I purposely kept one for you." 

The apple passed to and fro many times.  One of us missed and the apple rolled and rolled until it stopped just in front of the woman gatekeeper.  She at once cried out excitedly," Ai, what a big apple!  The biggest, the most beautiful apple I've ever seen in my life!  Ah, I must enjoy it myself...."She smelled it and opened her mouth wide, making a funny show.

Qiyan and I exchanged glances. The old woman smiled and said," Teacher Wu, I've been watching you from the very beginning of your 'apple ping-pong-ball game,' Very interesting.  I guess you must be our Teacher Wu's Mr. So-and-so.  Welcome to you.  Now tell me, what do people call that fruit?" 

"Everybody knows we call it 'ping guo' " Qiyan replied.

"But what does the word 'ping' mean?"

" 'Ping' means 'equal,' " I said.        

The old woman cut the apple into two and handed half to Qiyan and half to me. " You make a lovely couple, "she said. 

Everybody smiled.  We ate the apple.  We didn't speak, but we understood each other's hearts.  We hoped we would thereafter share joys and sorrows like we had shared that apple equally. 

During the period when that violent political struggle movement was in full swing, Qiyan's visit to my room was a great comfort. In our organization's office, when I was forced to answer their criticisms, I had for a time thought that the only way out for me was to die. But now, when I thought of Qiyan's words and her kind concern, I felt my life wasn't over yet. She had given me a little strength with which to survive. 

She dropped in at least once a week to see me. In order to avoid extra trouble, I never went to see her at her school.  Each time she came she would bring me something special to eat or help a little in my room.  On weekends we would go to see a film or walk for a while in a park.  One afternoon during the Spring Festival holiday she took me to see her father. I was touched to see the old man, but it was not convenient to talk a great deal as there were many other guests. 

By and by, my colleagues began to be suspicious of our relationship.  When we met in our dormitory, some smiled a little; but inside that forced smile they often hid a sharp knife.  I went about alone.  The office director allowed me to go back to my desk as usual, but a decision had been made not to let rightists touch the work they normally did. He said, "You just sit and read newspapers, including those published in other provinces. The only reason you have been seriously criticized by all the comrades is that you didn't pay attention to politics in the past.  You must make up this shortcoming.  The more you study politics, the higher your political level will be."  

In the beginning of the struggle movement, when it stormed and rained hard I thought I would be drowned.  As I studied the Party editorials, day after day, I slowly became convinced they would not order a man from a security organization to shoot me.  But I didn't know what kind of punishment I would have to face and bear. 

Meanwhile, Qiyan never said "I love you," and I never asked her "Do you love me?"  Nevertheless, we understood each other well.  Shortly after the Spring Festival of 1958, our marriage proposal was approved by her father. At first we decided to get married as soon as I was permitted to go back to my work.  However, when that would be was a top secret of the government.  Later we made a newer decision: Get everything ready, as quickly as possible. Qiyan had to fill in several forms at three levels: the Communist Youth League, the school authorities, and the local people's government.  It usually took a long time for everything to be processed smoothly. 

One evening I was plunged into a state of terrible anxiety.  How could I plan my life in my present uncertainty?  I went to see our office director at his house.  I told him everything about my past, and also about the true relationship between Qiyan and myself.  At the end of our talk, he said, "Don't worry too much. Your problems have nothing to do with the law.  Our Party is not going to send all the rightists to a court and then throw them into a jailhouse. Today we have big rightists, middle rightists, little rightists and ordinary ones. There are many different types.  You didn't secretly organize a group of counterrevolutionaries to destroy our society.  You are perhaps only a little rightist. So the punishment for you, I think, will be a lighter one.  You will be treated as an ordinary citizen.  You'll receive regular pay from the nation.  I guarantee you won't experience any physical harm." 

The next morning I ran Qiyan and told her to double her efforts to hurry along her marriage forms. Three days later, all my plans and dreams were destroyed.  It happened suddenly and swiftly.  At eight o'clock sharp we were told to attend a short meeting in the office.  Our director opened the meeting with these words: "Comrades, listen to me carefully.  Our plans and prearrangements always fall behind the flying speed of our society. I thought we would have to wait for a considerable time to see the outcome of our great struggle against the rightists.  But no.  The formal note from a high level has come at last.  I was instructed to declare it today in the presence of everybody. 

"Closing the gate here we are a big revolutionary family.  By mastering our great leader Chairman Mao Zedong's thought, using his thoughts as a mirror, we can see which comrade is true to our Party, and which is going to destroy our great cause of the proletarian dictatorship.  In this organization, as we look in the mirror, we see three enemies.  In the past, since we didn't pay enough attention to politics, we were all deceived by their sweetest words.  But today, under the correct leadership of our Party, and with the spirit of persistently chasing the enemy, we finally succeeded in revealing their ugly faces as those of monsters and snakes and ghosts.  We all know where they were born, their past family history, what they said and did to injure our socialism.  It is all down in black and white.  They can never deny a word.  All their material will be put into a big paper bag and will follow each one of them.   

"These three are not good-for-nothing.  The Party has spent a big sum of money in training them.  They are valuable state property.  Later, they thought they were wiser than others, so they began to fire at our Party. They didn't know that real wisdom is in the hands of the people. Yet when the time came for the Party to consider their problems, it was lenient and forgiving. As bad as they are, we don't intend to shoot, to beat them to death. We'll let them have an opportunity to correct their defects and make a self-reform plan in the coming years.  As soon as they realize they have been ungrateful to the Party and the people, the people will welcome them back to contribute to our nation's modernization program. I hope you three will consider and cherish this last opportunity.  

"Finally, I want you three to understand this: If you had committed such crimes in the Kuomintang days, you would have had your heads cut off.  You must be cheerful and rejoice because you are under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Yes, we agree, none of you killed a person in the street, or set fire to a building--but your anti-Party thoughts and the words you used to attack our Party were fiercer than those who use a gun to fire or a TNT packet to destroy.  They were not trifles.  If we place your anti-Party problems on a big-principle desk, it wouldn't be exaggeration to describe them as a case of treason.  And you know the penalty for treason is death.  Are we going to give you a death sentence? No. You'll live.  You still have a great hope to join our big revolutionary family.  Bear this in mind: Based on Marx-Lenin-Mao Zedong thought theory, all your problems belong to 'contradictions between the people and the enemy.' But our Party hasn't punished you in accordance with this rule.  In order to give you a chance to correct your wrongdoings, our Party has turned a 'people-to-enemy' contradiction into a 'people-to-people' contradiction.  Your problems are problems among people, not between people and enemies.  You three are very lucky.  If our Party had used the first to punish you, you would have died.  Please treasure this lenient policy of our Party.  

"The note we have received from above makes it clear that there is some difference between each of you.  One will be sent to a distant county in south Yunnan. The other two will be sent to a small county not far from Kunming.  Generally speaking, they are all state-owned farms.  They are not concentration camps, neither are they labor-reform farms of the Security Department, nor are they under the control of policemen.  They are very new farms, set up only several months ago.  You are to receive a reeducation program through labor. There is no fixed date on which you will be able to leave.  Two weeks, two years, or ten years--nobody knows how long you'll have to stay. You'll have the right to vote. You'll receive a little salary to buy soap, cigarettes, and stamps.  The country takes care of everything.  Just pack your things right after this meeting and get ready to jump into a jeep." 

Coming out of the office building, I thought of what Qiyan's school gatekeeper had said as we ate that apple.  Would Qiyan like to share her future with a man who was going to reform his thoughts on a farm?  I had to tell her the news, so first I ran to borrow one of our organization's bicycles. 

"What for?" the man at the gate asked.

"Very important.  I'll be back in a little while."

"No, just now I was informed not to lend anything to you but, instead, to watch you more carefully." 

As I began to pack I was called to the phone.  I rushed upstairs.  Another hand stopped mine as I picked up the receiver.

"Not for you now. This telephone serves the people," the man said.    

"Am I an animal?"    

"How dare you say that!  Before eight o'clock you could use this phone, but after the meeting...."

"Please, only this time, the last time.  I won't talk too long." 

"I'll have to ask the director first. Don't touch it until I come back."

My tears streamed down.  The man returned and said," What are you crying for?  You're not only a rightist but also full of bourgeois ideas!  The director says all right.  But tell me what you want to say."   

"Please tell the caller I am leaving before lunch.  Tell her I am going to a farm, and ask her to come over and see me as soon as her class ends."    

For fear they would not allow me to talk to Qiyan in person when she arrived,  I dashed off the following letter: 

"Dear Qiyan, 

At the moment I am forced to pack in a hurry, and to make matters worse, so many thoughts are appearing in my head and I have a hundred things to tell and say, but I simply don't know where to begin.    

Ridiculous things do happen everyday. Here they say I am still a "citizen," there I am stopped from using the telephone.  I will never be able to understand such policies.  Didn't we feel hopeful about our future?  Your father also said we should have a hopeful outlook.  They hadn't drawn up the final curtain then, so we thought many things were within our reach.  Today, when we look back at our behavior, I must say both of us were naive and childish.     

A word about our future. I think, beginning from today, we must set an example in being practical.  Can we manage to get married? Can a schoolteacher marry a criminal on a farm?  Maybe you will say," I don't mind!"  Dangerous!  Do you know what "social pressure" means?  Since the situation has changed like this, I have no more courage to think of that which is out of my reach.  If only you consider the duration, because they didn't tell me how many years I would have to reform on the farm, you will come to see my point of view.    

It makes my heart ache when I recall our times together.  What did we talk about beside the lake?  Remember?  I said no matter what kind of fierce storm might come I would stand by you.  I am very sorry.  All that's in the past.  I hope you will forgive me and accept me as a good friend of yours.  Always take care of yourself and write if your policy is "good friends."  I hope I can keep on hearing from you.    

By the way, I leave three boxes of things at our gatekeeper's room for you to collect.  I am taking the typewriter and some books.  Please take care of the rest for me.               


Someone had begun hurrying me even before I ended my letter to Qiyan. My room was in a state of disorder.  Time was so limited that I could only cram my belongings into several cardboard boxes.  At about half past ten, Lao Li (the returned student from America) and I were rudely forced into a jeep.  A crowd had gathered to watch.  One of the children called out, " Look, ladies and gentlemen, over there, Mrs. Lao  You is coming to see her Mr. Lao You off!"    

I thought he was making fun of me, but upon looking out of the jeep window I saw Qiyan riding up on a bicycle. The engine started. I asked the driver to wait for a moment, but the colleague who was responsible for taking us to the farm stopped him, saying, "No, you must not wait.  The political mission is above all.  No more love making affairs for an anti-Party element who is going to a reform farm."     

Our jeep began to move.  Qiyan was pedaling hard and had almost reached us. We waved and called--but we couldn't hear each other.  Her bike raced forward into the cloud of dust rising up behind our jeep. I dropped the letter out of the window but couldn't tell if she had seen it or not.  Soon our jeep pulled away, and she disappeared from sight.    

We bumped along.  The colleague escorting us just smoked and said nothing. The middle-aged driver offered us cigarettes many times and asked Lao Li and me many questions.  When he asked me how long we would have to spend on the "reeducation through labor" farm, I said, "I am living in a drum.  That's top secret."    

Lao Li added, "Heaven only knows the length of time."

The driver laughed, "No time means they have a lot of time to do whatever they want to do.  What a wonderful flexible policy!  To you, no time means no hope is left for you.  You will have to wait for a long, long time before that no time comes."  

Important Note: The name "Shuyi" is the original name, after he married Mrs. He Cun-niang, he followed the wife's family name "He" and change his "Shuyi" into "Liyi".

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