LIFE IN CHANGE
( Chapters from the book of "LIFE IN CHANGE ")
By Alan Zhang
In the remote countryside village in southern China, the children at my time were hardly fed with enough food, dressed with decent clothes and good pairs of shoes, not to say to be housed in warm rooms in winter and cool shelters in summer. We were surviving in the lifeline of poverty. Living in that condition, there was no need to know where was America. My parents were never able to tell me where was America when I was a very young boy. My schoolteacher tried to explain where was America but I could never understand it at that time. To make a long story short, I was always told that America was under our feet, on the other side of the earthen globe. In fact, children of the whole China were told that this was where America was. It might be very true. America was full of mystery to me but I never thought I could reach her any day, not to say to dream of ending up my life in America. The truth is, no matter I live, I am still and always proud of the fact that I was from where I was.
March 1956, my life started in the countryside village named Heping in southern part of the People's Republic of China. Heping meant "peace". What a beautiful name! My family was the poor of the poorest in the country. My ancestors had been farmers for generations ever. My parents had four children in the end. I was the second with an older sister and two younger brothers.
The year when I was born was the beginning of the 3-year agriculture disasters in China. During these three years, the numbers of people who died of hunger were never being recorded, one million, two millions, who knew. Who would care for what had been in the past for so many years? In my village, people ate grass root, tree skins and leaves to struggle to survive. I was the young survivor.
In four years after I was born, I got the two little brothers. They, too, were lucky to be born but unlucky to be born in these years of poverty. My father almost adopted my youngest bother to a couple in the city of Hangzhou, 50 kilometers from our home. The couple set forth a rule that we would never go to Hangzhou, to see and to recognize my brother as a member of our family and we had to completely cut off any connection with my brother's new family. In the time of making that decision, I was only five years old and I still remembered today these days that my father was talking about this possible adoption every day. My dad kept saying that he (my youngest brother) would have been able to have a good life if we let him go. Staying in with us in the family would make all of us suffer from poverty and being poor. However, father could not bear to suffer the heartful pain for not to see my brother forever. Father finally decided that we were to live together and to grow together, even we were kept being poor. He could not let the baby just being taken away without knowing of his future. I remembered I was very happy to learn the final decision and felt settled for the case.
My mother was the most industrious woman in the world. Although mother had to work full time in the field as every peasant did, she also needed to take care of the four children. We did not have baby-sitting. Mother left us at home while she went to work in the fields. After work for a day in the fields, she worked every evening at home to make clothing and shoes for the whole family. All our clothes and shoes were made by my mother. Mother made the clothing by first planting cotton in the piece of lot that was allowed for each family to use as called self-use land. She spun the yarn and made cloth. I never wore a cloth that was bought until I was 18 years old. Every time when I thought of the tremendous work mother accomplished in raising the four children by her bare hands, my eyes went wet. Mother was a very intelligent woman. She could be able to do anything in the fields as well as in the family. Unfortunately, education was not available to mother at the time of her childhood. Therefore she was illiterate. If mother could have had a chance to go to school, she would have been a very successful business woman, an outstanding scientist, an excellent doctor or a brilliant professor in a world level institution, a powerful lawyer or banker or anything she would have worked on. I felt painful when thinking of mother who received no school education. There were millions of Chinese women were kept out of school. The majority of the Chinese women in the countryside had lived without any knowledge of written culture. Many of them even lived under the fists of their fathers or husbands in spite of poverty.
We grew up slowly. I remembered once we all got sick. Four of us, the kids, were kept in the same bed. We did not have much room space to keep us separate. So one was sick and all became sick. Father had no money to seek doctor but made tea for us to drink. The tea was supposed to be good for curing flu. Amazingly, we all got better although we looked like sick children without any good nutrition. Again, I remembered, father set up a few mousetraps and caught a few mice overnight. Next morning, he managed to clean the mice and steamed the meat with some soybean sauce and salt. We had a good lunch that day that I would never forget. Sometimes in summer time, father was good at catching flogs from the water field and cleaned them to feed us with flog meat. Besides these two meat foods, we seldom had a lunch with any other flesh unless it was some type of seasonal occasion like New Year's eve, etc. when we had salted pork and pork head as to be remembered as best dinners.
All these memory was traced back to my very early years at age of five to eight. As I was growing up, a desire of supporting my father grew, too, in my little heart. One day in spring when I was nine years old, I came back from school and saw the peasants working in the water field, planting rice seedling. I jumped into the mud and started to learn to plant. I was barely a baby but I wanted to work to earn some work credit to help father in supporting the family.
In the evening, I noticed that father was in anger with something, probably with me, I sensed. We had dinner on the table, a bowl of white rice for each and one bowl of preserved vegetable and one large bowl of tomato soup in the middle of the table. This was our typical dinner. I was afraid that father would get angry with someone. We started to eat our food. Father started to talk and I knew the one in trouble was myself. Father said to me: "Ninan, you were planting rice seedling in the field today, weren't you?"
I stopped eating and kept silent with my eyes staring at the earth floor.
"I don't want to see you in the field again. You must concentrate on school study. This is the only way you can change your life, and leave this place." Father's voice was trembling.
I began to understand father's dream. Being poor was the worst thing anyone could bear, particularly when you had four children in the family. I was determined to study hard in school. I started primary school at age of six in September 1962. The People's Republic of China was founded only 13 years ago by the Communist Party of China under the principle of socialist society, one step before communism theoretically. Our children were taught to believe that they were the future of the communist world. Children were supposed to be trained selfless and to devote everything to the nation and its peoples. We were also taught to love the country, the Communist Party and the people.
"We are the communist successors,
Carry on the glorious tradition of the revolutionaries,
Love our motherland, love our people,
With the red scarf fluttering in front of the chest,
Study hard, make progress every day,
We are the communist successors."
This was "The Song of the Young Pioneers" that we learned in school. It was the song that we sang for many years and our children in China today are still singing "The Song of the Young Pioneers".
It was very difficult to improve our life by laboring in the field. With four children, my parents were hardly able to make ends meet. At the year end of 1965, I was almost ten years old. It was on New Year's Eve. Mother prepared some good food and as always, we had to worship our ancestors with the food on the table and some lit candles on both sides of it. We came to the front of the table and kneeled down, bent our heads to bow forward three times. We did it all and it came to my father's turn. He did not kneeled but went over and fiercely slapped his fist on the table and said: "I bowed every year and prayed for a better life. I never see any changes in my family. We are still in poverty and I am not going to do it again." This was the last time mother set up the praying table in the house. Every year later on, we omitted this ceremony in our family because father never believed again worshipping. I believed father was right. Therefore, I never believed in superstition, nor was I intereste
d in any religion although worshipping and religion were two different things. I took it as idealism but I really believed in hardworking and realism.
Hardship and poverty seemed to be endlessly leading the life of the poor and lower-middle peasants. When I was 12 years old, father accepted me to work with the adult peasants on Sunday when I did not have school. I could help to earn a little bit credit for the family. During summer vacation of 1965, I worked full time in the field 14 hours a day. It was a season when the ripen rice in the field had to be harvested and the new rice seedling to be planted right after the ripen rice was collected. This was to be completed in a very short period to catch the season. All the work was done under the attack by mosquitoes in the morning and evening and a very hot sun and humid temperature during the day. When I got back home after the work of the day, I was so tired and could not do anything else but sleep. It was easy to do such work just for one day but it was really hard everyday. I experienced the hardship of working in the water field and was looking forward to a different life in the future. I could not help wishing to leave this place some day. The only way walking out from here was to carry on school study.
Under the law that enforced the household registration policy, people could not move to another place to live and work. Everyone was registered in a team that was administrated by the higher authority, the commune committee. There were only certain reasons that you might be able to legally leave your birthplace for a new home. That was 1) Marriage. When a girl got married and she had to move to her husband's house that could be a different team in a different commune. However, people could only marry to the people who matched in social classes. A city girl or boy would never consider marrying a peasant. 2) Joining the armed forces. When you joined the armed forces, you left your birthplace. You had a chance to work hard in the army and to try to grow and to become an officer, a high rank title. When you were retired from the army as an army officer, you would be assigned a job in town, much better than working in the countryside's water field. If you did not get a chance to become an officer, you had to come back home after your term was over. You might become a local team leader if you got well trained and became better literate. 3) Making good grades in school. When you made good grades in school and continued education, you would have a chance to go on to university or college to study further. Once you graduated from college or university, you would be surely assigned a job by the governmental enterprises or government offices. Otherwise, your destiny was where you were born. However, most of the peasants had been living in their villages for generations. All they knew was to work in the field to feed their children, so their children could be able to grow up, to get married and to have their children, to make the perfect circle of life. They did not see the benefit of sending children to school. My father was different. He wanted me to become an educated person so I could avoid living in a financially low class life like the peasants.
I barely finished middle school with no certificate was issued. Everyone was voluntarily or involuntarily engaged in revolution. I had no more school to go and had to stay with my parents and did farm work. I was twelve years old.
The life style was the same, poor, no money and living in shabby house where in winter cutting wind frozen our hands and feet and summer rain always watered our beds. We did not have money to rebuild the house, not even repair it. My father was very disappointed to see me around, getting no school to attend. He became very impatient and out raged sometimes for no reason. It was unexpected that I could not get along with my first brother Sannan. We started to fight all the time and this gave my father a good reason to beat me up every time. I did not want to admit that it was my fault for fighting with my brother. But my father said because I was two years older and should know not to fight. And if we fought, he would openly punish me because he suffered from being fought by his elder brothers when he was little. Therefore, he publicly beat me up. I could not stand by being watched by these neighbors. The more did father beat me up, the more hatred was built up in my little heart. Whenever I had a chance to take revenge from Sannan, I would take and fight him. I knew that I could not avoid being caught and punished by father. One time after I quarreled with my brother in the morning, I thought I got away this time. Late in the afternoon while I was standing in front of our house, father came from behind and grabbed the collar of my T-shirt and torn it from my neck down till tearing the piece off my shoulders. I was unexpectedly shocked and suddenly realized that I was in serious trouble. The following was his fist landing on my head everywhere. My nose got hit and blood ran out from it. I was crying. I never thought of fight back. The only thing I did when dad was punishing me was that I kept crying with my arms around my head and turning myself around when I stood up or rolling on the ground when I was on the floor. I never thought of running away because I knew that when I came back I had to go through with this anyway. Dad did not care my nose running blood, he grabbed my feet after I fell down and pulled me inside the house and kept beating me on my up body. My sister was crying for help and calling dad to stop beating me. I thought he was going to kill me. I was feeling horrible and wronged all the time. I was thinking to run away from home or to find a way to die. The only thing that I liked at home was our cat. We had a beautiful whole white cat. Every time I was feeling miserable, I found the cat, holding it in my arms and kept looking at it. I had a lot of juvenile thoughts as how to get away with my unhappy life. Committing suicide was one of the options. Sometimes I thought I should die and became a cat next life if life could really recycle like the adults said. I had loved my cat and did not want the cat to be alone. If I had to choose to die, I could like to take my cat with me, sometimes I thought. I did not rebel with my father for his injustice in dealing with me at age of twelve and thirteen. In fact, I never had an instinctive feeling of take revenge on father.
It's like you had to take it since it was your fate. I really thought father hated me sometimes. However, recollecting what happened that time, I really thought that this was not really a juvenile with parent issue but a combination of everything. I can understand my dad now that as a human being living in poverty, he had no life, not be able to take good care of the family, the children and he could not find any solution. His anger, desire, anxiousness and misery had been burning his heart like fire and made him sad and frustrated. He had to have something and somewhere to freaking out his sorrows. It was beyond anyone's mantel ability to restrain. As a child and the most trouble making one, I naturally became the beating target of my farther. I was sorry for myself that I served as such a target and I maybe made farther feel better after every time he beat me. I had no doubt that he loved us all. Ever since that period, I was always scared of my farther even if he was friendly. I always wished I could leave the family to live by myself.
Almost one year later in 1970, recommended by Chairman Mao, Mr. Deng Xiaoping became Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China. Chairman Mao said, "Comrade Deng Xiaoping was a genius and hard to be found". One of the first tasks of Mr. Deng Xiaoping was to restore China's education system. He called for restoring education program in the whole nation. In our county there was a population of 250 thousand people with only two high schools. Because of the Cultural Revolution, those schools were closed. As a result of the restoring education program, our county decided to reopen the two high schools and to add a new high school class in a middle school in our commune district. This high school class was budgeted to enroll 50 students from the population of 50 thousand. The news made me having kept dreaming to go back to school. I wanted to go back to school. I meant to go to this high school class. My father started to file my application to the school and the education committee of our commune on my behalf. One night father came home and told me that there were a lot people had applied for the high school class and the chance to be selected was very slim. I kept crying for a long time till I fell asleep. I did not want to miss this opportunity. Otherwise, I would be stuck here for all my life. It was a painful feeling and I could not accept it.
Two months later, I received a notice from the school that I was admitted to attend the high school class in the middle school. I was excited and could not go to sleep. Two weeks before the school term started, I learned that the school management was investigating me if I was really qualified to attend this class because some other applicants accused me using illegal connection to get approval and requested the school to investigate. When the school leader came to our village, our village leader persistently confirmed that I was absolutely and legally qualified. Thank Buddha I was safe to attend the high school class. I was sorry that not every young people could have an opportunity to continue education. My two-year high school class began in February 1971 and was completed in spring of 1973 when I was sixteen years old. I was a totally different person after graduation from high school study. I started my English study in these two years. After I left school, I kept learning English from a radio station. However, we did not have a radio, I went to see the people who had a radio, so I could borrow it for half an hour. I desired to go further education. But the qualification to go to university did not permit students at my school year graduates. It was the then current country policy in university student enrollment that the students must have been selected from the workers, peasants and soldiers. The policy said that the high school graduate had to work with the workers, peasants or soldiers serving in the army for at least two years before he or she could apply for college or university study. The process of enrollment was first to apply by candidate, second to be recommended by the workers, peasants or soldiers who you had been working with, third to be approved by local government agent and forth to be accepted by the university. Therefore, you had to work very hard and to leave very good impression on the people whom you worked with.
I had to work hard and to make myself a popular and a good name in my village. If I could have failed to keep a good relation with everyone in my home village, I would have to receive objection that would disqualify me as a candidate for university study.
Farm work was a very tough physical labor. I prepared myself to work in the field as a full time peasant. Only when you experienced the life of the peasants, you started to know the real hardship. We really had to struggle with the heaven and the earth. I also looked at the bright part of working and living in hardships. The years I worked with my fellow peasants trained me to live in any difficult conditions. After I started working with the peasants, I began to know everyone of them and their children like me.
One of my friends Jiangang, the elder brother in the family of three boys, was a very good young man. At age 18 and well built, he was able to do any type of farm work. He, like me, disliked the place. But he got only three years of school education and his road in leaving the village was far narrower than mine.
Linmei was a very beautiful girl and five years older than I was. The oldest daughter of five, she refused to accept engagement even at age of twenty-three despite her parents' pressure to arrange her future life. She admired me having graduated from high school. Linmei's parents, being peasants from families for generations, never thought of sending their girls to school. Linmei attended school for two years and had to drop at the age of nine because she needed to take care of her four young sisters. Her parents once wanted to have a boy child but got five girls in the end. I had strong sympathy for Linmei's fate. She could have been a better and more beautiful girl if she could have gone through to high school education. She looked at me as if I was her little brother. I did not have to avoid her friendship since she was a lot older than I and people would not place us in an inappropriate match-up, like falling in love. Besides, I would never think of getting engaged with someone in the countryside. I had to wait for two years and to find a way to go to college.
It was in late summer of 1974. Our area was hit by a drought. We did not have rain for three months and the rivers were dried and no water was available to irrigate the rice fields and not even to provide drinking water. The peasants did everything to look for water. They dug deep wells and collect fog water but could not find enough drinking water. We were desperately struggling for water.
One day in mid autumn, it was burning hot. Every plant on the earth was facing death sentence by heat. There was nothing we could do besides waiting for water. Where could we find water? The government of several counties in our district was projecting a diversion of water from up level to our area. It would take a while to complete the project. It might be late to save the plants and the people. However, this project did help in later years to bring water to our county. We were living in a very long day. When the sun was set, the heat was still circulating in the air with millions of mosquito attacking our humans. The world really appeared coming to the end for the peasants.
The night was getting late. I could not sleep in my nets and therefore I got up. There was no water at home. I went out and walked in the field. I could hear the cracking sound of the earth and the burning smell of the rice plants. If praying would help to bring in water, I would pray. I would do anything to bring water, to my weak fellow peasants. I was breathing the burning air and came to a big pine tree. I sat down under the tree and quickly I fell asleep.
A flash thunder broke the quiet night and brought the southeast wind. Suddenly, large, thick and dark mass of clouds from the east covered the sky and rain started to pure down in a matter of a few minutes. I waked up by the chilly dropping rain. "It's raining." I was first shocked and then got up to make sure that I was not dreaming. I came away from the tree and it was clearly raining. "It's raining." I was shouting and started to run home in the darkness. When I rushed into our house and almost ran into mother.
"Ninan, where have you been?" Mother thought I was missing again.
"I could not sleep and went out for a walk."
Father was also up and looking for containers to catch water so it could be used at home. The rain came through our roof down to our house. When we looked outside our house and saw the down pouring of water, we realized that there was no need to catch and to save water. We could have sufficient water after this rain. I walked outside the house and heard the whole village that just waked up. People were celebrating by striking their water cans and yelling, "it's raining". The noises from these villagers, the thunders, the wind, the sounds of beating the drums, plates and the human voice yelling composed a piece of beautiful music that could be heard from only at this hour and this place. This music told us that this was the happiest moment that these folks had enjoined. It was relieve to the people of our province totaled over 30 million of population.
"Attention, comrades! Attention, comrades!" Suddenly, a voice came out from the wired broadcast speaker, "I have an urgent announcement. According to the county weather forecast station, there is a heavy storm coming down to our area. There will be very heavy rain. Comrades, we must be alerted and prepared to this storm, particularly in this drought season that a storm would be unexpectedly damaging."
It was completely dark outside except the flash lightening of the thunders. We celebrated for about an hour, watching the dark night and the rose-gold-like rain. The rest of the night was the best time for everyone in his/her life. It was cool and the people were so tired. Soundly sleep might be the best thing they could have.
The rain kept coming down for twenty-four hours and it brought enough water into our fields, rivers, wells and our houses. On the third day, the fields in fact got more than enough water and it had to be drained by motor pumps out of the rice fields. The rain continued for several days.
October 1, 1974 was the National Day of the People's Republic of China. It was the nation's twenty-fifth birthday. The government was celebrating the nation's birthday. Xinhua News Agency, the official media of China issued an editorial as it did on every year on national holiday to praise the socialist system and the progresses the country made in the past year. It would not forget to highly praise the Communist Party of China, the Party's political line established by Chairman Mao, who launched the current great culture revolution. This revolution was at the most inspiring stage, the nation's deadly dangerous moment in fact. The culture revolution had created a new ruling body in all government level. It was called revolutionary committee, from the province, the county down to the commune. Below, the commune revolutionary committee was still in charge of all the brigade party committees who were in charge of every village naturally formed and called production team. The organization of government was established when the People's Republic was founded on October 1, 1949.
Early in the morning when father was having breakfast at home, a peasant in his gray rain coat and rain hat with his trousers rolled up to his knees and on his bare feet, came to our house to see father. Father was appointed as the person in charge of water irrigation for our brigade at that time. Our brigade consisted of twelve team villages. That man was a team leader of the Yang village and his name was Yang Guiling. The land of the Yang Village was at the lowest elevation in our brigade. Father realized why he was here. There was too much water in his village. And water was threatening their young rice plants in the fields.
"Zhilin", without a moment of break he started to tell father his worries, "Our field is under water. If it continues to rain, our paddy field of rice crops will be drowned. We need to close the flood gates and to pump the water out to lower water level inside."
The problem was not that serious yet. But father of course saw the development of a serious flood that might be here if the rain did not stop in a day. Although the rice crops were able to stay alive in water for two days, we got to prepare for the worst.
Closing the water gates was a big decision. Father stopped his breakfast half way: "Guiling, I know that your rice crops are in danger. I am going to call for Shen Jiawen, (the brigade leader and party branch secretary). Since you are here, let's go together." Father found an umbrella, rolled up his trousers and bared his feet from the slippers, walking out of the house. Not to his surprise, Shen Jiawen was just met by father and Guiling at the front door of our house. He brought the other leaders of the brigade, the security leader, the education leader and the accountant, all of them were members of the party branch committee.
At the time of emergency, every brigade leader was supposed to be in the front line. They came to our house only because father was in charge of irrigation and our house was so close to the brigade office building.
"Zhilin," Shen Jiawen called father by his name and found Yang Guiling was also on the way out from our house, "Guling, you are here, too. That's good. Come in to the house and let's have a meeting here." He continued and led his way to our house. Everyone found a seat on our benches around the dining table.
"I got a notice from the commune," said Shen Jiawen, "the county weather forecast station reported that there is going to be continuous raining in the next several days. Therefore, a flood in our area is inevitable. We must get prepared to fight this forthcoming flood. The earlier we get prepared, the less loss we will suffer from."
"The problem with Yang Village is getting serious." Father followed. "Guiling and I were discussing a solution before you came in. Their fields are five percent of the whole land in our brigade. Half of the Yang Village land is currently under water and we should close the upper reach water gates. Water will run to lower level and it will maintain the current water level before more rain comes down."
"I agree," Shen Jiawen said. "When water level further arises, we close all gates and start our motor pumps to drain water out. We must notify the commune that we are going to close the river and no boat can go through effective immediately." Shen Jiawen appointed the education leader to notify the commune committee and also asked the security leader to notify all production teams and to assign three strong men from each team to form a fighting-the-flood team led by Shen Jiawen. Father was one of the members.
The meeting ended in rush. Yang Guiling did not say anything during the short meeting. In the end, he volunteered to provide three men with himself to join the flood team. He was concerned his crops that would affect the life of his villagers. However, he was satisfied by the quick decision to close the up reach water gates by the brigade leaders. As he walked with bare foot on the muddy road back to his fields, he was thinking of all possibilities, the good and the bad. He could no longer control and keep himself cool. Under his rain hat, his eye grew wet.
At late twenties and unmarried, Yang Guiling was the eldest brother in the family of three. He received short four years of school education and became the most literate peasant in the Yang village. Like his father who was in his late sixties now, Guiling was smart and always willing to help others. He became respected in the village for his wonderful personality. Everyone in the village tried to help him getting married, but he never took a serious consideration for his marriage. He wanted to see every family in the village having a happy life. A lot of times, he worked without getting paid. He was elected the team leader for the Yang Village when he was twenty-six years old after his father was retired at this position. After a few years as a team leader, he was well known for his brilliant deeds throughout the brigade. Hard work was his interest and belief. Since his village was at the lowest elevation and always threatened by flood, he made out a blueprint of five-year "land-lift" plan to move the soil of higher land onto the lower water field and to raise the elevation by one to two feet. In his words, this was to change the face of Yang Village for next generations. He got support by the brigade and the commune leaders. One fifth of this plan was completed in last winter. There were four more years to go to complete the whole project.
Now Guiling came back to the fields after the meeting with the brigade leaders. He stood still on the little pass on the rice paddy fields, with one hand holding his spade that was rested on the earth and the other hand on his hip. Facing the rising water on the field, he could not help thinking of the suffering of his villagers from starvation. "I must do everything possible for a good harvest. I can not let the rain to ruin our rice crops."
- To Be Continued