Disciple of the Masses
It was a chilly February morning, a month after her no-ceremony graduation from high school, and a week after the subdued Chinese New Year holiday. It was not a normal year, as normality is not an attribute of revolution. Still, the air of her city was filled with the fragrance of Winter Plum, the only tree that blossomed in the frigid wind and forecast the return of spring. Soon all was left behind: the familiar fragrance of Winter Plum, the familiar port with the long flight of steps, the familiar school where her favorite math teacher lived. The parents in the square receded to black dots; the ship went upstream on the Yangtze River.
On the third afternoon the students disembarked at a desolate rural port where a bus picked up the "inserts". Two hours later, their bumpy country-road ride ended in a dirt field at the edge of a single-street town; they had arrived at their destination commune, "New Wonders." A group of peasants in homemade cotton jackets stood silently waiting; bamboo pipes in their teeth, arms folded, necks pulled into collars. Beside them, dirty-faced pre-school boys watched with curiosity.
Looking out the bus window, Shanzi's excitement was dashed for the waiting peasants' wooden faces showed no emotion. She remembered a wartime photo from the 1930s, in which Chinese onlookers crowded around and stared expressionless as a Japanese soldier beheaded a Chinese civilian. "My sleeping people," Lu Xun the great writer of the '30s had called his fellow Chinese with deep grief. Shanzi had thought the onlookers numbed by too many deaths during the Japanese invasion. But what numbed the people here, now?
She was surprised again when Secretary Xia, the number one leader of the commune, appeared at the door of the bus in a half-new, faux-fur-collared army coat and shook hands with each city youth. "Welcome, welcome," he repeated in local dialect. Handsome in his mid 30s, of clean, beardless face, he was in sharp contrast to the peasants, and totally different from newspaper images of sun-darkened, hard-working country cadres. She doubted he had ever worked in the fields.
As the winter sky started to gray, one after another the city youths were taken away by the peasants. Still no one came for Shanzi. She sat on one of her camphorwood suitcases, next to her quilt pack, to wait.
Accompanied by another young man, Secretary Xia approached and asked her name, age, and home city; and comforted her by saying, "They'll be here, don't worry. Who'd have eaten a leopard's gallbladder to dare disobey Chairman Mao's instructions, huh?" He laughed.
She grinned in return, thankful for his company; her eyes were on the empty trail leading to the Lily Village that would become her new home. A loud-speaker on an electricity pole in a corner of the field announced: "The sixth production team of Lily Village, the sixth production team of Lily Village, please hurry to receive your insert, please hurry to receive your insert . . ." The broadcast made her more uneasy. She looked around trying to find a familiar image. None. An evening fog fell, blending with the smoke from nearby chimneys. Her stomach made rambling sounds. This had never happened before in her seventeen years of life: she did not know where her supper was.
"Here they are!" shouted the tall, slim young man with Secretary Xia; he had been so quiet she'd scarcely noticed him until this moment. She gave him an acknowledging smile and he smiled back; his long narrow eyes curved into new moons; his expression somewhat bookish.
Two people emerged from the fog: a middle-aged peasant and a girl Shanzi's age. Each carried a shoulder pole. As they approached, Seceretay Xia's facial expression changed. "Head Chen," he called in a stern face, "You seem to have a habit of being late!"
Shanzi was surprised he could scold an older man. There was a term "father-mother official" in old stories. The older man merely hemmed and hawed something in village dialect.
The girl, a bit shorter than Shanzi, was round of face and body, like a ball of cotton in her floral cotten jacket. Ignoring the two men, she weighed one of Shanzi's suitcases in her hand. "Oyee! Did you put bricks in it?"
"Just books," Shanzi stood up with relief. "I brought books about scientific agriculture."
"Books are no different from bricks to me. I'm Zhou Zhifen. They all call me Zhou Sixth."
"Then it follows, you have at least five siblings?"
"What . . . follows what? I have an older brother; and a younger brother called Zhou Eighth."
The answer chilled Shanzi. So five of Zhou Sixth's siblings had died? She did not know what to say. Fortunately Zhou Sixth didn't seem to mind. She handed her shoulder-pole to Shanzi.
"Hey, what's that?" she asked as she noticed a flute sticking out of the quilt pack as she put it in her back-basket.
"My flute," Shanzi said.
"Can you blow it?"
"How about later? If you have bamboo, we can make a flute for you too," Shanzi said.
"Really? Deal! We have no shortage of bamboo." Zhou Sixth was quick. "Head! The wood boxes are yours!" she shouted. "C'mon," she said to Shanzi.
Shanzi glanced at Head Chen who was still listening to Secretary Xia's scolding, and hesitated: "The suitcases are heavy . . ."
"No worry about Head. He's got iron shoulders. Besides, what can your string-thin arms carry?" Her ringing laughter opened Shanzi's heart. Carrying the empty shoulder pole, she tried to keep pace with Zhou Sixth.
Zhou Sixth said she and Head Chen had been late because Head had to break up a fight between Jinling and his wife Chen Ying, newlyweds. "About their new baby."
"Something wrong with the baby?"
"Yeah, it’s a girl."
"What’s wrong with a girl? That’s old thought! Chairman Mao said women can hold half of the sky!" Shanzi said.
Zhou Sixth sighed. "That’s in your city. In our place a girl is just a dowry-debt."
Before Shanzi could reply, Head Chen overtook them with his shoulder-pole bowed from the weight of suitcases on each end. True to Zhou Sixth’s words, he was not even breathing heavily. Shanzi felt an urge to thank him, but his dark wrinkled face frightened her. She was no longer sure she had seen the obedient expression on his face earlier.
"What’s up, Head?" Zhou Sixth asked.
"Secretary Xia ordered a re-survey for our rice fields." Head Chen said.
Shanzi did not understand why these words silenced Zhou Sixth. She almost spoke before she remembered the advice of her math teacher, Mr. Tan.
"Live gingerly. Think three times before speaking," he had said, looking at the bouquet of Winter Plum she had given him as a farewell gift. The memory brought up a harmless question. "Why don’t I see any Winter Plum trees around here?"
"Winter Plum? Ah, the flowers opening in winter. I remember seeing those trees when I was a bare-buttock kid. Probably all cut down long ago in the Great Leap Forward."
"All cut? Winter Plum?"
Zhou Sixth threw her a disapproving glance. "What’s the fuss? Can flowers fill your belly?"
It was Shanzi’s turn to be silenced. For the rest of the half-hour walk to Lily Village no one spoke; each lost in thought.
Early the next morning Shanzi was awakened by the sudden thunder of "The East Is Red" from the loudspeaker on her wall. She reached for the string between her bed and the overhead light switch and found nothing. It took a while to remember she was in an adobe house without electricity. Although the wooden shutters let in no light, it must have been past 6:00 am because that was when the Central People’s Radio Station began the all-too-familiar music. Despite the anthem, she heard dogs bark, chickens crow, pigs oink, and the commotion of her neighbors next-door and in the courtyard.
She jumped out of her warm quilt, quickly dressed, walked out her new bedroom into the small space piled up with straw from last year’s rice plants, and opened the courtyard door. The cold wind sent shivers down her spine even with her thick jacket. In the glimmering dawn, she saw frost-whitened roofs and a frost-covered courtyard. Then she was stilled.
Just outside her doorsill, a brown chicken stood with one foot on the ground, the other cuddled under its wing. Its black eyeballs stared at Shanzi like dull pearls. After a few seconds, she probed it with a finger. The chicken fell to the ground like a rock. It was already frozen.
Shanzi’s scream brought Auntie Chen, Head Chen’s wife, and their youngest child, a 5-year-old girl. The bare-foot girl got there first and stared silently at the chicken. Shanzi had felt that stare the night before when Auntie Chen gave her a bowl of steaming noodles. Shanzi had been too hungry to wonder why she ate alone. She slurped without care for manners until Auntie Chen roared in, grabbed up the girl from a dark corner and struck the child’s palm with chopsticks. "You unworthy! Never seen anyone eat?" As the child broke free and ran out of the kitchen, she threw Shanzi a dark look.
As soon as Auntie Chen saw the frozen chicken, she clapped her hands and fell on Shanzi’s door-sill. "Oh heavens my heavens, don’t you want us to live? My last handful of noodles was fed to the insert, I have nothing left to please the cadres; now my last hen is gone, no more eggs to sell, Oh ho ho . . ."
Shanzi sensed the dead chicken had something to do with her. She couldn’t think what she had done wrong until Zhou Sixth walked into Shanzi’s faggot room, clicking her tongue. She pointed to a blocked dish-size hole on the outer wall and asked, "Did you do that?"
"Yes, but I was stopping the wind . . ." Shanzi said. Her new home had been an extra grain storage room, unused for a long time. Months before her arrival, under the Commune’s supervision, villagers had added an inside wall to give the insert assigned to them a faggot space like any proper house. She had never spent a night in an adobe house before. How could she know a sitting hen made its nest in this space and the hole in the wall was its doorway? And that the night the chicken was unable to shelter inside had been the coldest?
Head Chen returned. His wife’s loud cries quieted to sobs. He saw the chicken and muttered a curse, then yelled at his wife to get home and cook the chicken. The little girl’s dirty face brightened as she ran after her mother. Awaking from her daze, Shanzi caught up with Head Chen and handed him a two-Yuan bill, enough to buy a young chicken.
He pushed her hand away and said without a smile: "I have one more bowl of gruel for you this morning. You must cook your own lunch today."
"I want to help! Let me help!"
He paused for a moment. "Help? I’d thank heaven and earth if you didn’t make more trouble for me." He stepped over his high door-sill and disappeared.
She stared at the open door of his house, biting her lip to hold back tears.
"Head's not a bad guy, he just talks that way. You’ll learn fast; I swear to help you," Zhou Sixth whispered to her.
At this moment Shanzi sensed a stare from behind her. She turned around and saw a women in her early 20s quietly standing at the door on the left, watching with an expression like, yet unlike, a smile; an infant sleeping on her back. Shanzi intuitively knew she was Chen Ying, but couldn’t read the expression on her face, just as she was unable to read the expression of the 5-year-old girl next door on the right.
She wished someone would interpret those faces for her.
Back in her room, she unlocked one of her suitcases and fumbled inside. She quickly found the little red book of Chairman Mao’s quotations. Opening it at random, she read:
"Be the disciple of the masses first, then the sensei of them."
She knew that was what she should do.