Chapter 5 We are Even Less Than You Are
I don’t remember just when it started but sometime after the Lin Biao incident, our group was sent every afternoon to dig potatoes in the big Sixth Brigade potato field on the mountain slope. There some young people between 15 and 20 years old joined us. To judge by their accents, these children seemed to be local peasants.
Later, after talking with them, we found that they were middle school students from Meishan and Leshan. They had recently been sent down to the countryside here as educated youth to be “re-educated” by the poor and middle peasants. The slightly older ones were “old Red Guards” who had been caught up in the “great tumult” of the Cultural Revolution.
I didn’t detect among these older children, although they had travelled all over China during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, any of the bookishness of the middle school students of my day. They were still childish so they left me an impression that is hard to explain.
1 A Chance Meeting
On the plateau, once the sun reaches the horizon, it gets pitch black in just half an hour. That afternoon I hurriedly finished pulling up sod and then, since I was being hit by strong gusts, I hid from the afternoon winds deep in the mountain ravine where potatoes grew best. Not only would I be out of the wind there, I could also dig up potatoes. That afternoon I was lucky. In less than two hours I had dug up a half scoop full of potatoes.
- A scoop used in rural China Credit: 红动中国,
When the sun had begun to set behind Sanhaoliang, I knew that it was already late so I picked up my sod digging tool and put the potatoes in a small burlap sack and got ready to carry them back in wicker baskets tied to the pole slung over my shoulders.
From thirty meters away, a young fellow less than twenty years old turned to me and yelled, “Put your scoop in my basket”. I was uncomfortable because it sounded like he was giving me an order. I didn’t pay him any attention so I just took my “stuff” and headed straight down the mountain slope.
He huffed and puffed to catch up to me. He stopped me and in a different tone of voice, childish and asking for help, he said, “Uncle, I forgot to bring a bag. I picked so many potatoes that I would like to borrow your scoop. I promise to give it back to you here tomorrow at 3 in the afternoon.”
I saw the pleading in his eyes and the perspiration dripping off his sunburned face. From the windblown rags he was wearing I saw how poor he was. I looked all around. There was only the two us. It was getting dark and the wind was still blowing hard.
I thought of another 20 year old child busy trying to fill his stomach in the mountain ravines and felt sympathy for him. I stopped, put down my carrying pole, took the scoop out of the basket and handed it to him. I asked him, “What is your name? I think from your accent that you are not a commune member. How did you end up here?”
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As he took the scoop and put some of the potatoes he had just picked in it, he answered saying, “My name is Lengjun. I was a middle school student in Meishan. I graduated two years ago. I thought then that I could find a job after I graduated from middle school
The educated youth sent down to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants were from Meishan, a city due south of Chengdu. Kong Lingping met them near the county seat of Yanyuan County at bottom left.
with the help of recommendations from my school or work unit. Unexpectedly, the street committee notified me that I had to report to the committee within three days for resettlement in the countryside. Then they sent us here.”
From his simple answer filled with disappointment, I could see that he was different from the lawless Red Guard soldier thugs of the time.
During those years we often met many members of the new generation deeply marked by the “Cultural Revolution” including Shen Liangyu, Pan Yufang, and Meng Pingdeng. They were opinionated and scornful of everything and so very different from we humble, self-centered, timid and overcautious people formed in the Chinese Communist-run schools.
I thought a lot about what created such a big generation gap between us. I think it was because of our completely different positions in society. Our generation experienced one “revolutionary” movement after another. Students branded as capitalist class and so forever remained people to be struggled against. Mao Zedong trained the students of today to be his “power seizing foots oldiers”.
Naturally people with different social backgrounds were branded differently. The children of the black five categories — landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists — were all discriminated against. As for the children of the five red categories — poor and lower-middle peasants, workers, revolutionary soldiers, revolutionary cadres and revolutionary martyrs — after the revolution had won, just what would their social category be? Would they be the rulers or would they become slaves like us? Even they didn’t know.
This, however, did not affect their characters which were formed by their own personal experiences and by the social conditions under which they had lived. I decided to talk to one of these young people and listen to his story. I didn’t care how late it was. I put down my basket and sat down next to him. As I watched him dig potatoes, I started to talk with him.
I asked him, “Which production brigade do you belong to?” “The Third Plum Rain Brigade” he answered.
“Do you live in production brigade housing or do you belong to a commune family? Or did you live with other young intellectuals sent down to live here?” I continued.
“When we first came here, we were dispersed among different peasant families. Later the production brigade leader said. “It would be better if you all lived together and cooked your own food. The commune will give you a house. Those of us who had arrived together were put in the same house and we made our meals together.”
“How big is your grain ration? Are you paid a salary?” I asked. The young man nodded as if answering those questions would be difficult. I saw that he had already finishing digging his potatoes and had filled an entire wicker basket. Some of them, however, were sprouting or rotted, so he tossed those inedible potatoes away. Then he said, “These have poison in them and can’t be eaten.”
He was obviously very embarrassed. “I am not afraid if you laugh at me but we are even lower than you are. You get to eat three meals a day. We have to rely entirely upon ourselves. We don’t earn enough workpoints to eat. To be frank, we haven’t eaten our full for a year. During this spring season, when food is temporarily short, we have to rely on what we can find scrounging on the mountainsides!” He laughed bitterly.
It had already gotten dark. He picked up the muddy blue ragged clothes that he thrown on the ground, picked up his carrying pole and baskets of potatoes and nodded. Then he walked towards the northeast along the ridge and then down the slope.
The next day, he kept his word. He gave me back my scoop on time just as he had promised. There were two other children with him. The both looked like they were under twenty.
He had kept the promise he had made to me on our first meeting, so the social distance between us shortened considerably. After we had all finished picking potatoes, if it was still early, we sat together on stone blocks in a circle who he and his other classmates who had come together to settle here. We had lively discussions about how to succeed.
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“Do you know that we are convicts. Are you afraid to make friends with us?” I asked the youngest child. That child however gave a very sincere answer. He said, “No matter whether you are a convict or not, we are even worse off than you are. We never know where our next meal will come from.”
That was exactly what Lengjun had said to me the previous evening. That was the common lament of all the “educated youth” that we met. It was a heavy load for a young person just starting out in life to carry. Were they to seek those “broad horizons” right here?
Photo of Sleeping Quarters for Youth Sent Down to the Countryside from the collection of the Museum to the Youth Sent Down to the Countryside in Xichang, Liangshan Prefecture. Over 50,000 educated youth from Chengdu and other cities were sent to work in seven townships in the Xichang region. Yanyuan County is in the same Liangshan Prefecture but in a different region. Credit: Educated Youth Museum of Xichang, Liangshan
“Did you come here completely voluntarily as educated youth? Why would you choose to settle here?” I asked.
Lengjun replied immediately, “When we graduated from middle school there were no universities we could go to. Middle school graduation meant that our student days were over. If, by then our relatives couldn’t get us a job in a factory or in a government office, earning work points would be very hard. We couldn’t just stay at home and eat for free. Three days later, two people from the street committee came to my home and told me to sign up to go to work in the rural and mountain areas. They claimed that there were great opportunities for us in the countryside. We knew they were lying to us but we didn’t dare contradict them. Later they sent us blunt notices telling us that we would be sent down to the countryside!”
Even before Lengjun had finished speaking, the smallest child was even more blunt: “The people from the street committee exaggerated how good life was in the countryside. They said pork and beef were common dishes there. My father started to get suspicious. He asked the people from the street committee was there any limit to how long the educated youth would stay in the countryside? When they came back a year or two later, would they be assigned to a job? We never imagined that we would be sent to a place so desolate that even ghosts can’t lay eggs there. Two years went by in a flash. When we ask about returning home, it is like dropping a rock into a deep well. We don’t get any answer at all.”
I interrupted him, saying, “You were tricked but why didn’t you just return home? It can’t be too late now to return home.”
“It is not that easy. When we were sent here, our household registration moved along with us. If we were to move back, it would be impossible for us to get a household registration. We know that the police can grab people without registration at any time and put them in a detention camp. They would arrest us.” Lengjun said with bitter hatred in his voice.
I finally understood a little their situation. How could these young people have been tricked into coming here and then on top of that their household registrations changed so that they wouldn’t be able to return? Such a poor and desolate place would be enough to change any mischievous student into a criminal. How could these naive students play in the same league as those political scoundrels in Beijing?
“What is your ration now?” Four of the children started to argue about how to answer my question. Their conclusion was that they had had to wait from the last spring plowing season until October 1 National Day before they started getting rations.
Each person got about 150 pounds of workpoint grain. The grain ration had been all been consumed by the month of May. The rations given them in late autumn, a mix of potatoes and grain, came to over 90 pounds each. That would not be enough to pay back the commune for the grain that they had already eaten. So the only thing they could do was to “go out at night and look for food themselves” including gleaning crops that had been left behind scattered in the fields. No wonder that they kept saying to us, “We are worse off than you are.”
When we told them that our daily ration was just one pound plus 50 grams. If we had to pay for it ourselves we would be just living hand to mouth. That simple calculation broke down all the barriers between us.
Except our different political situation, we all lived in the same hell. We bore the terrifying label of “counter-revolutionary” and were kept under armed escort. These educated youth, though they wore the laurels of people who had been sent down to the countryside, were like us forced to suffer from hunger. We were as alike as patients in the same hospital ward. No wonder they said that being “sent down to the countryside” was just a disguised form of “reform through labor”.
Then I got the idea of visiting them in their quarters so I asked, “Do you all live together?” The four of them nodded all at once. They all welcomed my visit to their “home”. They told me where they lived and we agreed that I would meet them in their yard two days later at 4 PM.
As promised, I prepared a small sack of white rice and went to the agreed place, the courtyard of a peasant household. Lengjun was already waiting for me there.
When I got close, I realized that they lived along the route we had to take the previous autumn when we carried back some grass. At the time none of us realized that we were fated to meet again.
Coming into their courtyard brought back memories of when I had been banished to the home of the Zhaos in a Nantong village. As I thought back to that time, the sour stink of hog wash assailed my nose just as it had fifteen years before.
A twenty-square-meter room on the west wing of the compound was their “home”. The peasant family’s pigpen was just behind their room. That made me think back to that period with the Nantong Jiepai production brigade when we had all lived together.
Their environment was even worse than ours had been. Very little light got into the room. The only opening other than the door was a 20 centimeter long square window hole that had been bored into the wall.
From the dim rays of light in the room I could make out two upper and lower bunk bed with an old small table between them. That was where they “dined” and “studied”.
The small room was very crowded. The bedclothes were scattered on the bed. It was so dark it was impossible to see how dirty they might be.
I could tell at a glance that the potatoes piled in one corner of the room was the “grain ration” collected from our field at Third Ridge. Along the hallway was a small “oven” made from piling several big stones together.
My four hosts were busily washing the pots, the rice and the potatoes. They started a fire using some corn stalks and sunflower stalks piled up in the back of the courtyard. Half an hour later came the savory smells of rice and and pot of hot potatoes. The food was put on the table. They had no vegetables only a small dish with some salt and chili water. The five of us sat around the table and talked about our experiences.
Lengjun was the oldest of the four. What a complicated resume he had! We spent most of the time listening to his story. He talked about being a student, then about being a Red Guard. On his way back from a trip to establish ties with other Red Guard units, he had been involved in fighting. He talked about smashing the Four Olds — Old Thinking, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits — and about destroying some temples and cultural relics in western Sichuan province. He talked about the unbridled violence along with his own personal regrets. He spoke for over an hour. I felt that I had heard it before. Only the times and places were different.
It became pitch dark without me realizing it. The stove fire in the hallway had long since gone out. The potatoes left in the dishes on the small wooden table were all cold. I got up and put the skin from the potatoes lying next to the dishes and dropped them on the ground in front of the room. It was already quite late. I suddenly thought that the iron gates to the Sixth Brigade may have been already closed and whether when I entered the sentry would give me any trouble. So I hurriedly said my goodbyes and rushed back to Fifth Ridge. Their words “We are even worse off than you are” kept ringing in my ears.
Afterwards, we often caught sight of them, silhouetted on the hills, struggling to survive.
2 A Fortunate Encounter
During the later years of the Cultural Revolution, I got very interested in the erhu alto fiddle. That musical instrument was good at comforting the sad feelings we felt in our hearts. Nobody had ever given me pointers on how to play. When Li Kejia was sent to the Sixth Agricultural Brigade, a house that had originally belonged to the Fifth Agricultural Brigade was turned into a small prison. He was imprisoned a year after I was. The year after we were sent in 1964 under escort from Huanglianguan to Yanyuan, he was sent under prison escort from Chengdu to Yanyuan.
In 1966, he was transferred from the Fifth Agricultural Brigade to the Sixth Agricultural Brigade. Li was famous throughout the Farm for his frequent escapes from prison as the “foremost resister of remoulding”.
In summer 1968, when a prisoner who had escaped from solitary confinement was shot to death on the basketball court of the Sixth Agricultural Brigade, he was the one whom the guards sent for to see that evening’s “death scene”.
From about 1967 onwards, ever day after dinner, he would sit in the corridor in front of the prison cells and play gentle melodies on the erhu. When we heard him play the northeastern China folk tune “River Waters” 《江河水》 I had never heard, except for broadcasts of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra, tunes like his that brought tears to our eyes.
He also played the old tunes by Liu Tianhua. His hand on the strings of his instrument made tunes that gave us the feeling of “sounds of a murmurring spring flowing down to a beach” and tunes in which “its intermittent silences touched our hearts more deeply than the tune itself”. That fountain of emotion flowed right into the hearts of his listeners. It made people look upwards and sigh as they reflected on the griefs in their own lives.
I could hear in his playing how he so wanted to communicate with other people. Every tune and every note flying off those strings was the sound of weeping and cries from his heart!
I decided then that I would learn how to play this instrument that could so vividly express one’s feelings.
Erhu 二胡 Credit: Baidu Baike article 二胡
I thought that this peculiar environment would made it easier to converse with people using this instrument and could better express one’s deepest feelings.
Naturally, I knew that learning how to converse with people by erhu would be very difficult for someone like me who had no idea even of the basic fingering. To help me with that, Li Kejia gave me an old lower quality erhu to practice on. He gave me that eight-character mantra “Hearts willing to take hints find a way” [“心领神会，自己摸索”] but didn’t teach me anything.
At the same time, I asked Li Xianghua who was cutting down trees to bring back several pieces of boxwood and asked another person good at woodworking to make me a new erhu.
Everyone told me that I wasn’t making much progress with the erhu. They told me I needed to put a clip fastener on the erhu so the sound would spill out more vividly when I practiced. So I boldly put a fastener on the erhu so that everyone would be able to criticize the “killing chicken, killing duck” tunes that I made as I practiced.
The several “seasoned hujin” players in the Sixth Agricultural Brigade all played differently. Three months after I started playing, Chen Xiaolu said after hearing me played asked me in astonishment, “I never heard you playing the erhu before. I didn’t know that you could play too. He asked me when I had learned to play. I smiled a little and asked “How did I do?” “Not bad, but your playing is too sad and too inhibited.”
That was a matter of being “as majestic as Mount Tai while being as placid as a river”. Chen Xiaolu was someone who knew what a mountain stream sounded like. His praise showed I was using the erhu to express my sadness. He had heard it in my playing.
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That my listeners could hear the sadness in my playing showed that I had achieved my original goal in learning to speak through my instrument. The only people who could hear that sadness in my playing were just those whose empathy was aroused from sharing the same plight.
I wanted the feelings of oppression radiating from my strings to call out to people who had become morally benumbed. I wanted to shock them as if they had been suddenly jolted out of their drowsiness to face a new day. How could people who were not even aware of how miserable their situation really was even think about trying to change it!
The second half of the year before the autumn sowing the vegetable group was set to Maoniu Mountain to collect fertilizer. It was a virgin forest region composed mostly of pince and cypress trees. The Yi minority people who lived their used it for pasture.
Most of the fertilizer we gathered were years-old rotting pine needs and the scattered manure of cattle and sheep were most of the fertilizer that we gathered.
The day we went up to the mountain, I took not only my bedspread but also the erhu that Li Kejia had given me. The car took us into the virgin forest. We stopped after after an hour by the side of the road near a Chinese style mansion house.
That mansion would be our temporary residence. After entering the courtyard, we went into the left wind of the house and went up the stairway and put our bedding down on the wooden floor. That afternoon we went into the forest.
Living in the midst of the natural world gave us a temporary spiritual life after locked up behind iron bars for so long. Here there was no requirement that we constantly report to the sentry. Here the fear and gloom of prison was absent. It was late autumn. The free atmosphere of the forest comforted my long-oppressed soul.
2018 satellite photograph of Maoniu Mountain 牦牛山, Yanyuan County. On the improved roads of today, it is a three-hour bus ride from the Yanyuan county seat.
“The forest is very beautiful!” I exclaimed in a loud voice. Chen Xiaoyu called to us from far away in an astonished voice. “Look, there is a very big fungus here.” He held in his hand a half pound of mountain fungus that had alternative red and white coloring. We gathered all around him but none of us could name it.
As we kept collecting fertilizer we saw more of them, under trees and in mounds of grass. On the cliff there were yellow ones, red ones and white ones. Li Xianghua who had lived in the area for a long time, taught us which ones were not poisonous so we brought back some mountain fungus along with fertilizer we had gathered.
Several Yi girls were getting water from the well near the manor when we passed by. They put the water in a cloud white crockery vase and then put the vases on their heads and walked away barefoot down a stone mountain path and soon disappeared into the deep forest. I wasn’t able to talk with them as they got water at the well because of the language barrier. Even so, the sight of them moved me more than any picture could have. The feet and the faces of Yi girls were “decorated” but even so they were still beautiful.
We lit a fire in the hallway. We boiled the mushroom in an iron vat. I climbed up the stairway alone to get the erhu that I had hung on the wall. After tuning the tension on the strings, I wanted to play a tune that would fly into that deep forest and call out to the homeless spirits that dwelled there.
Suddenly, in the gloom of the stairway, I made out a man’s face. Then I heard a low voice calling to me “Lao Kong”.
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Astonished, I turned to face him. During my fifteen years in prison, people generally called me “Kong Lao’er”. Very few among the exiles called me “Lao Kong” especially in the vegetable group. Be called “Kong Lao’er” made me feel closer to the group. Be called “Lao Kong” was surprising, but the voice was very familiar. I soon recognized the voice and called out in astonishment “Lengjun!”
It was him. He quickly came up the stairs. It had already been quite a while since I had seen him on the mountain ridges of the Sixth Agricultural Brigade. I had never imagined that we would meet here. I put down my erhu and shook his hand. When I saw him standing there in the dim light, I thought it was a bit thinner than before. I didn’t know when he started wearing eyeglasses. There weren’t any seats upstairs so we sat on the floor.
After we sat down, I asked him, “How did you end up coming here too? Where are your other classmates?” He started to talk about the changes that had taken place over the past year. “Of we four banished classmates, only one was assigned to a job in the city. I heard that his parents found a connection to some influential person in the county employment office and so was called back to the city.”
“The three of us remaining planned to last winter to steal and kill one of the commune’s sick sheep. We were caught and beaten up by people’s militia soldiers and so we got into trouble with the commune and so returned to Meishan.”
“After my father died, my family was all gone. Fortunately I found a job repairing roads with the Yanyuan County Road Bureau. I reported for work and now earn 20 RMB per month. After money is deducted for food, I have four or five RMB left. Life is easier now than it was in the village. There I never knew where the next meal was coming from.” He continued to chatter away about his experiences that year.
“These past few days, our road repair group had been staying in the manor house. This afternoon at six we finished work and came back. Just as we were making supper, I saw your group in the forest. I could see you in the evening light. It was too dark so I wasn’t sure. After supper, I heard the sound of the erhu coming from the second floor. I followed the sound, climbed the stairs and found out that it was really you.”
3 Returning Home
As he spoke he felt the erhu that I had put on the bed. He said enviously, “I never imagined that you could play the erhu so well.”
After hearing his account about what had happened since we had last seen one another, I looked at this “educated youth” friend that I had met again by chance.
Temporary workers are on the job only for a short while. His wages are so low and in a short while he will be 24 years old. The time will come when he will want to start a family but who would want to share that misery with him? In those years, getting married and starting a family was too much to hope for. Life experience had made him see that our fates were linked.
We only spent two short weeks on the mountain. Every evening after supper he would come the stairs to my room to practice “killing chickens, killing ducks” on the erhu.
I told him that in my experience the erhu is the voice of the heart so one does not necessarily have to learn it the same way that others learn it. Once you have learned the basic fingerings, you will be able to make pleasant music according to your own ears and feelings.
After two weeks, when we left there he couldn’t bear to part with me. The day we left, he gave me a jar with his sugar ration inside. He had been stroking the erhu that I had brought with me to the mountains. I understood what he meant and so I gave the erhu to him as a parting gift and carved my name on the body of the erhu.
However, I never would have guessed that just a year later, in early 1975, I read posted on the wall of the Sixth Agricultural Brigade a “Strike Hard” notice from a court in a section of Chengdu. The notice listed a dozen odd names of people who had been executed. The third name, written in bright red type, was the name “Lengjun”. I was shocked. Many people have the same name. Could that Lengjun be the one that I knew?
When I read the details on the court notice, I saw that Lengjun had been a middle school student in Meishan and laster resided on the Meiyu Commune in Yanyuan County. As he appeared again before my eyes, I re-read the “evil deed” for which he had been executed. The notice read “One evening (of a certain day of the month in a certain year) he broken into a peasant home to steal 30 pounds of corn stored in a room. He was caught by a 60 year old woman. They fought in the dark as the old woman yelled for help. Lengjun used his carrying pole to beat the old woman and ran away with a bag full of corn.
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Unexpectedly, that old woman died on the spot. For the sake of stealing 30 pounds of corn, two lives, one young and one old, were lost. Tragedies like that happened every day amidst the misery and starvation of the Mao Zedong era.
I didn’t doubt that Lengjun had broken into the room. He had only meant to steal some corn and of course starvation had forced him to that extreme. Wasn’t it a sign of the decay of morals and the vanishing of all human feeling that a young person like Lengun would murder someone?
They were marked with the “fight to the death” scars of the Cultural Revolution. Long-term starvation in China had forced them to give up, as Lengjun had for 30 pounds of rice, their young lives far too early!
The sounds of his “kill chickens and kill ducks” playing on the erhu seemed to be playing in my ears. I thought of that “fight to the death” slogan popular during the Cultural Revolution and how it had destroyed moral values. Was he fated to lose his life so early?
I read in that notice the indictment of Mao Zedong for the “educated youth” for their tragic fates during those years. This “educated youth” I had met by chance in prison had jimped from the prison gate into that inferno from which there was no return.
Later, after my unjust sentence was overturned, I made more “educated youth” friends. Their fates had been much the same. Many of them when they reached middle or old age looked back, as I did, and agonized over the memories of those years that were so painful to recall.
The youth led astray during those years, were empty both morally and intellectually. The Cultural Revolution had made them empty-headed ignoramnuses.
I didn’t understand why that devil Mao, in his efforts to restore despotism, had so deceived and hurt those ignorant young students? Could the destruction he wrought on Chinese society be rooted in his own character?
Could it be that under the dictatorial rule of the Chinese Communist that many young ignorant students like Lengjun are led down a path that takes them to an early death?