Thursday, March 6, 2008

Part Thirty Six

With mom’s recent death,
I’ve been thinking more about her early life in Hebei province,
in the village of 安国市 (pinyin: Ānguó Shì ),
not far from the city of Baoding,
about 140 km southwest of Beijing.
(and coincidentally, the city
where my father went to school)

The color of dirt in that area is light yellow. When I first visited the family home, I remember it had mud brick walls, a dirt floor, and the windows were mounted with rice paper instead of glass. It was a summer, some of the paper was torn, and there were millions of flies buzzing around the windows. My great grandma was 95 at that time, and it was the same place where many generations of the family had lived. Water was fetched from a nearby well and then stored in a huge pottery jar by the kitchen. There was a wind box next to the stove, and you had to pull it back and forth whenever you put twigs or tree branches into the stove. ( I thought it was a lot of fun to do -- but after a little while my arm got very tired.) In my uncle’s bed room, there was a loom. Uncle told me that my grandma and mom used it everyday when they lived here. It was still being used by my aunt and cousins (this was 1967). I tried my hand –but it was not so easy -- you had to coordinate both hands and feet.

I also joined my cousins working in the cotton fields -- picking up the fluffy, white cotton from the cotton plants. It was a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, I realized how a little cotton I had picked compared with the other girls. The village credited you according to the weight of cotton. My bucket looked full but it weighed almost nothing. Later, my cousins showed me how they packed their buckets very tightly. They made fun of me as a city girl who would never be as fast as they were.

My country relatives were all fascinated by my Beijing accent, which they associated with singers from the the Beijing Opera. Most of them had never been to the great city, and I felt like a foreigner among them. I was 14 years old, and this was my first visit to the countryside. Growing up in the city, I could not imagine what a hard life my uncle, aunt, and cousins must have had. My uncle spent all day along working in the fields, while aunt stayed at home cooking all the family meals. Cooking was no easy matter, since you constantly had to feed the stove while pushing the wind box to keep the fire going. She also had to grind the grain and carry the water from the nearby well, as well as gathering and preparing food for the family pigs. It was a hard life indeed.

Mom had left this village back in the ‘40’s, but she still had some of her village accent until she died. Since that time, she only went back to the village twice – first, when she gave birth to my older brother, and then a second trip with my younger sister in the early 1960’s (this was when my sister caught the skin disease that kept her out of school for a while)

It’s not an especially wealthy area –but it’s not as remote and desperately poor as the villages to which city folk were sent during the cultural revolution, and my grandfather’s family was prosperous, at least by local standards. They did not have enough to be called landlords – but just enough to keep a few hired hands.

My grandmother had married the oldest of 5 sons – so this was a large family – and a lot was expected of her. She cooked for the entire family, and, of course, was expected to give birth to boys.

The family back then consisted of Mom’s great-grandmother; both her grandparents – and their family of 5 sons and 2 daughters (the youngest daughter died young)

The first son was Mom’s father. The second son became teacher and moved to Beijing . His first wife died, and later he married a Manchu woman who caused much strife with his step daughters. The third son remained in the village as a farmer. The fourth son went to college in Beijing, and became a high official. He divorced his country wife, and remarried a high official in Beijing. The fifth son died in the war.

Mom was the first child (born in 1919) of her generation – and there would have been serious trouble if grandmother had kept on having girls – like the women who had married her husband’s brothers.

The first two children of the second-brother’s wife were both girls – and one night, as they were sleeping on the kang, the baby girl was shoved up against the wall and smothered. In the morning, they found her dead. The baby’s grandmother gave the appropriate expressions of anger and sorrow --- but everyone knew it was not an accident – and the same thing happened again when another one of the wives had given birth to two daughters instead of sons.

But fortunately – Grandmother’s next child was a boy – and all her remaining children were boys – giving her three boys and one girl (almost the ideal Chinese family of 5 boys and 2 girls).

As told earlier – Mom’s father – too ill to work – had died when Mom was 15 ---so Grandmother and all her children were considered something of a burden to the rest of the family. They got fed last when food was put on the table, and if noodles were ever added to the vegetables, they never saw them.

With her father gone, and her mother working hard in the kitchen all day, Mom had to care for her infant brothers as soon as each was born – and had to provide her share of the family income. She was trained to spin yarn and weave cloth as soon as she could learn– and became quite skillful at an age when American children would be entering elementary school. She didn’t spend a lot of time in school – but everyone in the family was at least given the basics of literacy. She was a hardworking and serious little girl.

And then the Japanese came – followed by the civil wars that would embroil the country for the next 15 years, the years of her adolescence and young adulthood.

It seems as if every Chinese family has its stories of Japanese atrocities – and ours was no different.

As Japanese soldiers were approaching mom’s village, everyone fled to more remote areas – but Mom’s grandmother was too old and feeble to join them. She was 73 years old by then, and as family matriarch, had not been working the fields for a long time. What possible interest could young Japanese soldiers have with such a feeble old woman ? And yet – attack her they did -- shoving a wooden stick up her crotch and twisting it to torture her. Three days later, she died.

A group of soldiers also caught my mom and some other girls hiding in a barn – but this time the outcome was quite different.

One of the soldiers unpacked a small device that Mom recognized as a camera – and then told the girls to line up against the wall and smile as he took their pictures. Mom recognized the camera, and secretly told her cousins to close their eyes. Nobody got hurt – but I don’t think very good photographs got taken either.

After the Japanese had left, the civil wars began, and all the young males got recruited by one army or another. One of the Mom’s younger uncles (the 4th son of her grandparents) joined the staff of a top general in the PLA – and eventually he would rise to a high position in the financial ministry of the People’s Republic. (level 7 – where the first 13 levels were all considered to be “high officials”)

When land reform came to the village in 1947, this uncle tried, but failed to use his influence to protect the family – which although not rich – at least had some small property that could be taken away from them. Grandma’s mother-in-law was beaten and tortured to reveal where she had buried her wealth – even though there wasn’t any. Grandma was spared this abuse, however, because everyone knew she had a hard life living in that family without a husband.

After the revolution, a movie director, who had grown up in the village, made a propaganda film about bad officials who try to help their families instead of the revolution– and , though not identified by name, everyone in the village knew that it was the story of my mother’s fourth uncle.

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