The first home I can remember (I was about 3 or 4) was one of those old Beijing mansions — with a moon gate and courtyard surrounded by small, connecting rooms ( for the previous owner’s many wives, no doubt!) — and I can still see its beautiful red tile floor -- spreading out just like a Persian carpet. There were large windows with colored glass and big red pillars along the front corridor. Large bricks paved the courtyard, and as soon as we moved in, mother removed some of them to make a vegetable and flower garden – right in the middle.
( Forty years later – that garden was still there – but fifty years later, the entire neighborhood was demolished to make room for larger streets and modern buildings.
And let’s not forget the that huge date tree ! – just east of the courtyard. Every fall my two brothers joined other neighborhood children in climbing up the tree to shake those big, sweet dates down from the branches.
It was the Beijing house of a rich man—but, of course, the rich man was gone — all the rich men were gone — and now it was home for several families — all of whom, like my parents, worked for the government.
It was 1953 — and my parents had worked for the Communist government ever since it was the Army of Liberation against the Japanese.
They had gotten married in 1945 and the Communist party was the matchmaker!
My mother’s first assignment, upon graduating from military school — was to marry an officer— (that was every female graduate’s first assignment) and that lucky PLA officer was the man who would become my father – but I’m not sure that she felt so lucky herself at the time.
She was a tall, attractive woman from a prosperous peasant family (just like Mao’s) — while my father was a short man whose his education had gotten him assigned to making paperwork behind the lines, instead of heroically leading soldiers into combat. But an order was an order ! And since they went on to have five children and live together the rest of their lives— I guess it wasn’t such a bad match after all.
Both of my parents came from villages in
— only about 10 miles from each other. Hebei Province
My father’s family was Christian and poor—his grandfather had been adopted —and if you read the book of poetry he later wrote from prison, his childhood was very sad. On the first page, he remembers himself as a little boy collecting dung for fuel — but his parents knew he was smart — so they sent him to as much school as they could afford — and learning how to read — he taught himself the rest. He couldn’t afford to finish high school —but while he was still a teenager, he went to Tian Jin and got a job clerking for a very famous lawyer. (who must have also been a very smart lawyer — because he survived all the twists and turns of war and revolution — living into his nineties , happy and prosperous).
But by 1937, his father (my grandfather) was desperate for help in the fields—all of his sons had moved away or been recruited by the army — so my father had to move back to the village to help out — which was a real problem, since my father had never been a farmer. But he managed to trade places with a younger brother who was in the army — so my uncle returned to the farm, and my father entered the liberation army led by Chiang Kai-shek.
Yes ! My father first served the Guomindang —- but soon after, when his unit converted to Communist control ,nobody held it against them — and he was a loyal Community ever since. He worked for a top general who had quite a career all the way to the Cultural Revolution.
My mother’s family was better off — and one of her uncles was the only person in their county to have a university degree. There was even foot-binding —- my poor grandmother had it done — but my grandfather was firmly opposed to binding the feet of his proud daughters — and threatened to cut off my grandmother’s hair if she ever tried to do it !
My mother and her female cousins stayed in their village all the way until 1944, when for their protection, one of the uncles enrolled them all in military school. Her father had studied at
’s top officer school (where Chiang Kai Shek and Zhou En Lai had once been principals) - but he suffered from stomach cancer and would not live much longer. China
After marriage, both my parents served in the PLA — though my father had a much higher position. One year later, my oldest brother was born, and at the end of the war, a man who knew my father in the army offered him a civilian position in Beijing , which, much to my mother’s dismay, he accepted without consultation. You see, she had a job too, and now both of them had to resign their army commissions and move into the city. (and you know what -- she never forgave him)
But let’s face it — when my parents moved to the city — my father’s position afforded them a pretty good life.
He worked in the ministry of public security — in
it would be called the FBI or CIA — and the party gave them everything: the house, the food, the maids, wet nurse, even a cook. There was no salary for government workers back in those days (before the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958) — just a very complete package of benefits. As my mother remembered —many years and many tears later — they never had it so good — a big fish for dinner — every night — whack ! — off came the head — whack ! — off came the tail — and then the family, which eventually had 5 children — would sit down for dinner. Often my father ate at the special dining room for high officials (while my mother recalls, in contrast, the small, hard cornbread with salted vegetables that ordinary workers brought with them for lunch. America
And there was a premium for having children.
The more children — the more benefits (at least for this special class of government workers).
My pregnancy (her fourth) was very hard on mother. She was sick every day — and finally I was delivered premature — spending my first 12 days in an incubator.
But when my mother became pregnant again and applied to authorities for an abortion — she was turned down. “You’ve only have four children” they told her — come back to us when you’ve had six or seven ”
(A professor at Beijing university in the early 1950’s had recommended family planning - showing that Mao’s idea of making more children to have more laborers was short sighted, since more people needed more food. But Mao still wanted to follow the example of the
Soviet Union, whose population, at that time, was in decline. )