By the time middle schools finally resumed classes, three years of complete freedom had turned my cohort—who’d last sat in a fourth-grade classroom—into a herd of wild things. There was never a moment of quiet when we sat down at our desks. High-pitched talking mingled in the air with the low burr of voices, but a careful observer could see two parallel streams not crossing, as no dialogue took place between the girls and the boys.
The Cultural Revolution was entering its fourth year. Rampant violence had crested a year earlier, but there were still no books to read. Boys I didn’t much care about (not yet); they were just a species with shorter hair. But the dearth of books—that was like roasting my brain in a hot wok.
We had textbooks, of course; they were filled with Chairman Mao’s quotations. Even physics and chemistry lessons began with words of Mao, remotely relevant or not. (I had nothing against Mao then, but the endless repetition bored me to death.) Actually, those two subjects were renamed “industrial basics” and “agricultural basics,” respectively. All the old names belonged to one of three categories of evil: feudalist, bourgeois, or revisionist. The first was a domestic evil five thousand years old, while the other two had foreign origins, one from the West and one from our northern neighbor, the gone-bad Soviets. Obviously, being imported from the West, the bourgeois subjects of physics and chemistry warranted correction. The evergreen subject name was math, endorsed by good and evil alike. Or perhaps no one had been clever enough to figure out a word to replace it.
And that was it. Library doors were still sealed, bookstore shelves empty. Once or twice I managed to sneak into a shuttered library and steal a book. But those were rare circumstances, and not enough to slake my thirst.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say there was no entertainment at all: there were the “eight model plays” portraying Communist heroes, created and performed under the guidance of Chairman Mao’s wife. Eight plays to entertain eight hundred million people: it was quite effective. For several years, everyone, myself included, bellowed the tunes from those plays. The heroes were all single—something I never questioned or felt was the least bit odd. Then, at some point, three domestic-made, anti-Japanese movies, Tunnel Warfare, Landmine Warfare, and Plains Warfare, as well as a couple of Soviet movies (made before the Soviets had gone bad, I suppose), Lenin in 1918 and Lenin in October, were mercifully added to the scant list. They circulated in cinemas and on outdoor cloth screens, greatly enriching our daily dialogue. Intrigued by the deliberate guttural sound of the Chinese voice-over for the Soviet actor, we mimed Lenin’s words without irony: “Milk we will have, bread we will have, everything we will have.” I never made a connection between the scarcity caused by the Soviet revolution and our own bleak reality. The bare shelves in grocery stores and insufficient monthly ration tickets for food and fabric bruised my mother’s forehead, not mine. She kept me sheltered and fed, three meager meals a day, but enough that I hungered for other, less tangible things.
One day, the boredom was interrupted. “All students must come to school this evening. There will be a presentation of a negative case,” the campus broadcast announced. Evening activities were rare, so the announcement stirred up both excitement and discontent.
“What is it about?” I asked a girl in my class who always seemed to know things.
“They caught a ‘Big Sis Wang,’” she told me with a mysterious glee.
I knew “Big Sis Wang” was slang for a teenage girl who did very dirty things. What very dirty things? Around this time, we had been warned that a hand-copied “yellow book” titled A Young Girl’s Heart was secretly circulating, and if anyone saw it, we were to turn in both the student and the book. I hadn’t seen the book (though the title tickled me and I wouldn’t have minded a read), but I knew that “yellow” meant obscene, that no crime was more disgusting. Perhaps the “Big Sis Wang” had been caught reading that hand-copied yellow book. What else?
Evening came, and we walked quietly in line into a classroom-turned-exhibit area. We slowly circled a table set in the middle of the room, in front of which a teenage girl stood, head drooping, face hidden behind dense, messy, long hair. A notebook lay open on the table beside a sign reading Yellow Diary. These were the objects on display: a girl our age and her diary.
When it was my turn to approach the table, I stared at the faceless girl, wanting to see how she looked and how ashamed she was. Except for the long hair, she appeared no different from us, wearing the same colorless long-sleeved shirt, tightly buttoned. Perhaps sensing my wish, she tossed her head, clearing strands of hair from her cheeks. For a moment I saw a pretty oval face with an indifferent expression, as if all of us, the viewers, were not of her species. She threw me a glance, and in that split second I felt the dagger of her stubbornness, blunted by numerous shaming displays maybe, but unbending. I averted my eyes, looking down at the open page of the diary as a gust of wind chilled the hot summer night. The night was dark, the wind was melancholic; in a corner of a park, a lone girl waits for her love, and he has not come . . .
Before I could read more, I was pushed on by students behind me. Everyone was eager to see the girl and her yellow diary, like watching an exotic animal newly arrived at the zoo.
It was not the words but the sensual image that stayed with me. The girl’s public shaming was frightening, but her longing for love was more startling, at a time when the word “love”—“ardent love,” in fact—was reserved for Chairman Mao and the Party only. At fourteen, I did not understand why those poetic lines in her diary were “yellow,” and it did not occur to me to ask my mother or any adult.
In an attempt to fend off boredom, I wrote poems, mimicking the grandiose style of the Communist poet He Jingzhi. His was the style most imitated—even as the stylist himself was being denounced—by the Red Guards, who wrote poetry in factional tabloids over the three years we were freed of school and everything, and so was familiar to me. For example, one of He Jingzhi’s poems starts like this (in my faithful translation):
The boundless sea raging with breakers . . .
Oh, the boundless
The waves of life rolling boiled . . .
Oh, the waves
Oh oh! What a magnificent sight—
Million flowers blooming
And one of my own poems opened in the same hilarious style:
Oh on the Gele Mountain
Wind whistling and clouds turning
Oh at the Martyrs tomb
Pines and cypresses are evergreen . . .
In my classroom, there was a girl surnamed Yuan who lived a block away from my home at Courtyard 14. Her parents worked as cleaning staff in a hospital, and she often needed to help them with their jobs and housework. She did not give a damn about studying or books, she took pleasure in vulgar language, and her grades in every subject were the lowest in our class. Once I asked her why, since she had two older brothers, she seemed to be the one doing all the labor. She simply said, “’Cause I want to,” and turned her back on me. I never thought she and I could be close, but that changed one day: she confided that her big brother was a writer and poet. I beseeched her to let me read his poems, and she brought some to school. (“Did you read them?” I asked her. “No,” she said.) She then let me visit her brother at their home. We had a short talk, and by the time I left, he had become my idol. The next week, at my request, he critiqued one of my poems titled “Farewell, Dear Mountains,” his sister as our messenger. He said the word “dear” in my title was redundant. “If you are saying farewell to something, that thing must have been held dear to you and you don’t need to repeat the same meaning. Poetry’s language should be succinct,” he wrote in his comments to me. It made me salute him.
But my indirect association with him was cut short when he joined the army, to work as a writer in the war-analysis office. I got his new address from Yuan and wrote him a long letter, expressing my sincere wish to have him as my mentor. I was so happy that I was going to have a mentor again.
I mailed the letter with a palpitating heart, and anxiously awaited my prospective mentor’s reply. A week or so later, my letter was returned by the post office, with a stamp on the envelope saying “no such address.” I realized with rage that my classmate had fooled me. When I confronted her, she was neither apologetic nor willing to explain. From another girl I heard that Yuan suspected I was “pursuing” her brother. I was astounded. It was a big insult; for girls our age, the words “pursuing a boy” implied “yellow.” I stopped talking to Yuan.
Sometime after that, I ran into Yuan’s second brother on my way home from school. The teenage boy, two or three years my senior, stopped me and said enigmatically, “Come with me, I have something for you.” I had never spoken to him before and knew nothing about him, but he looked serious and sincere. I followed him to his home on the riverside and he gave me a package rolled up in newspaper. “Don’t show anyone! For you only,” he warned me.
When I got home, I peeled away the many layers of paper. Inside was a large book published before the Cultural Revolution, with detailed interpretations of selected poems by several great Tang dynasty poets, including Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi. I did not see Yuan’s second brother again and never figured out why he gave me the book, which, needless to say, became my secret treasure. I recited the poems again and again. My writing began to show subtle changes from the grandiose fashion of the time.
That was when I started to suspect the existence of an omnipresent underground book-exchange network, not organized, but spontaneous. If you were an eager reader, you never knew when an interesting volume might happen upon you.
One day a teacher, Fu, took a few of us book-thirsty students to see a friend of his, thus initiating our weekly visits to a crammed attic room under a slanted ceiling. We called Teacher Fu’s friend Teacher Li. Teacher Li and his fiancée taught workers’ children at an elementary school located inside a steel factory. They both had small heads and thick glasses. It seemed to me that their faces, expressions even, looked very much alike, a consequence of reading and talking about books head-to-head every day, I figured. Teacher Li would sit on a stool while his fiancée, also surnamed Li, relaxed on a bamboo lounge. Around them—my heavens!—were shelves and boxes of books, almost no space to set down a toe. It seemed the attic belonged to the fiancée, because she acted more authoritatively than Teacher Li. Under promise of secrecy, she let us each borrow one book a week, with a strict proviso: If you don’t return it on time, your welcome is spent. She also requested that, when we returned the book the following week, we should tell her our thoughts on it. Teacher Li was less demanding. He seemed touched by our eagerness.
“Nowadays where can you see students who want to read books?” he said.
We knew better than to ask where they had obtained such contraband. Who knows? Perhaps they had been Red Guards like my big sister, and when they took part in raiding libraries or houses, they hid away some of the books.
My eyes were mostly on translated novels, and one book I borrowed was a Chinese translation of Anna Karenina. As usual, I was given one week, and I read it greedily. The next week I asked Teacher Li (I was a bit afraid of his fiancée), “If Vronsky no longer loved Anna, why did he have so much sorrow after Anna threw herself under the train?” Teacher Li replied, “Only when you lose something can you truly realize its preciousness_._”
I’ve since forgotten almost everything Teacher Li said, but not this. It had been more than two years since my big sister drowned. I had lost a beloved sibling and a mentor.
Books were still hard to find by the time I got into high school, which had taken five years to reopen. China had been resolutely “digging holes deeply, storing grains extensively.” Those were Chairman Mao’s words alluding to some ancient saying, as he foresaw a Third World War against the People’s Republic that could be waged at any moment by American imperialists or Soviet revisionists, or both. The urgent prospect of nuclear war loomed over my first high school year, which began with a rumor that—to my utter delight—our campus would be relocated to the mountains. The authority’s purpose was to hide us from a nuclear attack. My own craving was for a pastoral retreat where “bright moonlight creates false sounds / wind is mistaken for rain,” far away from the dusty, noisy city. I didn’t know any better. I thought the city was what I wanted to escape from. Who cared if a Third World War was coming? That might make life more interesting.
I’m quoting a Tang dynasty poem above. At the time, I had just made a new discovery: one day I snuck into my mother’s bedroom and found, hidden in a bottom drawer stuffed with Party documents, the four-volume History of Chinese Literature. Who’d have thought after the revolutionary storms swept away all the “bad books,” after my mother’s thorough selling-off of her books as paper waste, after the Red Guards’ raiding of our house, there still survived those precious volumes? I quickly checked the table of contents and snatched the second volume, which covered literature from the Tang and Song dynasties. My appetite for this particular period had been whetted by the book from Yuan’s second brother.
Or perhaps it was my teenage melancholy, covertly coursing beneath mischievousness and mindlessness, that found the perfect sustenance in the mood of the Tang dynasty, as reflected in the “ pastoral” and “fortress” schools of its poetry. I was instantly infatuated by the ancient verses. The moonlight shedding on a pine forest trail, the setting sun lingering on a mossy rock, the cool air after new rain in desolate mountains—what had enamored the pastoral poets enamored me. A lone and thin wisp of cooking smoke rising up from the vast, bleak desert, the Qin dynasty moon shining on a Han dynasty border post, a warrior’s sad flute intoning homesickness—what had touched the fortress poets touched me.
It was an unfit mood for the sixth year of the ongoing, though waning, Cultural Revolution, and I was criticized by school authorities and fellow students. No matter. In the middle of autumn, I, along with teachers and a couple hundred other students, walked down a long flight of stone steps to the Yangtze River and boarded a ship, destined for the mountains.
The mountain campus wasn’t a campus at all, just three isolated stone buildings standing against the wind. All of crude construction with barely finished interiors, they became our dorms (girls and boys in separate buildings) and classrooms. Teachers warned us not to go beyond the campus boundaries, but what marked the boundaries? An envelope of thin air circling the three buildings. Just by penetrating the invisible boundary, you’d find yourself in another world.
And that was what I and six other girls did one Sunday.
We were a hungry and adventurous bunch, the seven of us, and that separated us from the other dozen or so girls in our big dorm room. We craved meat dishes but the campus canteen infrequently supplied them—not a surprise, given each person’s tiny monthly ration—so from rocky streams and paddy fields around the campus we gathered large field snails. Then, at night, when the lights were out and teachers asleep, we broke out forbidden kerosene stoves, brought from home by those more practical and visionary among us, and stewed the snails with soy sauce and broad-bean paste. I ate so many snails that year, to this day I never want to see another. On weekends, I alone tailed along behind a bunch of teachers who used pellet guns to shoot sparrows, hoping they would let me play with their guns. Occasionally one or two of them did, and I would contribute a couple of birds to a night of snail cooking.
We became bolder, and one Sunday ventured out in daylight to picnic in the wild. We carried sauce pans, noodles, spice bottles, and a small kerosene stove, and marched away from campus. Yes, we marched, while beating pans and bowls like percussion instruments, knowing that our teachers had gone either to the farmers’ markets or sparrow-hunting. We were in the mood to sing something melodious, but the songs we collectively knew were mostly slogan-bellowing, such as “The Cultural Revolution is good, is just good, is just good!” so we resolved to recite a Qing dynasty essay, titled “Sanyuanli Fighting the British Invaders,” recently taught in our Chinese literature class. The gingerly return of ancient verses to our classroom was something new, and teachers chose the least risky themes such as patriotism. To us, it was not so much because the essay involves a nineteen-year-old heroine, but rather the terse and sonorous archaic language that was exotic, and thus enticing.
Half an hour later, the mountain trail brought us to the edge of a large body of water, the Wuhua reservoir. All around were beautiful hilly meadows, dotted white with flitting wild geese and ducks. We decided this was the ideal spot for a picnic, and one girl lit up the kerosene stove. The little blue flame wavered erratically in the lakeshore wind. It took forever to cook seven bowls of noodles, which we ate half-raw, but the fresh air, blue sky, and garrulous birds made the food more delicious than any canteen meal.
I was lying in the grass watching clouds when a small wooden boat appeared on the water’s wide surface. A rural boy and a man who didn’t look very rural rowed the boat leisurely, apparently having fun. When the boat got closer, we saw that the man wore a pair of white sporty shoes, so white they were blinding under the sun. “What a dandy!” another girl murmured in disdain. All of us were wearing dark shoes—black, blue, gray, or military green—as white was too bright and non-revolutionary a color to be considered proper. We stared at his shoes, because how could we stare at a man’s face?
The boat turned around and was going away. One of my classmates abruptly shouted, “Hey! Could you carry us across?” The other girls were excited. A boat ride meant a shortcut back to campus, and it would be fun.
The boat hesitated, but it did come back. The white-shod man said that only two girls could get on at a time, so they’d need to make four trips for the seven of us.
I dilly-dallied, not wanting to get on the boat first. My fear of water had not subsided since my big sister’s drowning. It was a fear I would not acknowledge because I had a reputation for being brave.
When the boat came back the third time, there were still three of us remaining. The sun was going down, and time was running out. One of my friends asked if we could all board; the man considered, talked to his young companion, and agreed. He told us to squat low and not to move. I was behind my two friends, toward the rear. At the head of the boat, the tall man rowed double oars; at the tail the farm boy steered the rudder.
We slowly crossed the reservoir. When the destination shore seemed to be within arm’s reach, and the cheers from our other friends were loud and close, cold water suddenly streamed in from a spot at the bottom of the boat, near my feet. The man rowed faster; the boy let go of his rudder, fetched a big bowl, and hastily scooped the water out. But he could not keep up with the incoming flow. The boat began to sink.
In a panic, I tried to stand up—or was it another girl who did that? A thunder-like yell scared us back to our squatting position. The boat tilted some more; my fabric shoes and pant legs were soaked. The man gave up his oars and leapt into the water. He’s going to abandon us, I thought. I don’t know how to swim! I wanted to scream, but couldn’t. On the shore was dead silence.
But the man’s head emerged from the water right away, and the boat rose a bit instead of sinking. It seemed the back of the boat was balanced on his shoulders. We continued to move toward the shore.
I don’t remember what happened to his brand-new, superbly smart white shoes. Did he take them off before jumping into the water? All I remember is his livid face, wet and ashen. After we got off, he glumly anchored the leaking boat before walking away with the boy, no words for us.
Later he would tell us that one of his buddies, who came together with him from our city to the countryside, drowned in the reservoir during their first summer. “His grave is right there,” he said, pointing outside his window, where tall grasses waved.
The week following the accident was filled with furtive excitement and anticipation, as a sense of shared conspiracy glued the seven of us tightly together. We threw knowing glances at each other during class, and convened after school like underground revolutionaries, out of sight of teachers and other classmates. We relived every detail of the accident, talked with exclamation marks, and endlessly inflated the direness of the situation. “Oh! What if one of us ended up . . . ,” we imagined, sighed, and relished the relief of an inconsequential accident laced with aftershock. To extend the drama in our otherwise bland lives, we decided that a letter to our savior was called for, and I was elected to be the one to pen it, a task I accepted as a righteous duty.
What my friends wanted to exaggerate was drama; what I wanted to exaggerate was distress, the mood I saw pervading Tang dynasty poetry and Song dynasty verse. That was the sentiment that tinted the letter I composed.
My friends and I snuck off campus a few more times that week to find out the man’s name and address, and by happenstance ran into the farm boy who had been on the boat that day.
The following Sunday, the seven of us showed up at the man’s door. If he was surprised, he did not show it. The first thing—you could say the only thing—that came into sight on entering the inner room of his dirt-walled farmhouse was an unlikely piece of furniture for a countryside hovel: a painted reading desk with two wide drawers. At that moment I didn’t think about what might be in the drawers; my eyes were drawn to the envelope lying open on top of the desk. It had our host’s name and address in my handwriting. So he had gotten the letter.
He was a tall, handsome man, older than us by perhaps seven or eight years. Or maybe less. It was hard to tell from a face constantly toasted by sun and showered by rain. He stood there, arms folded in front, with his backside jauntily pressing into the desk. He considered each of us, seven sixteen-year-old girls, with quiet curiosity, as if he were seeing us for the first time. We sat on benches, chairs, and stools, things he had carried in from his courtyard or the neighboring farmhouses. We were ill at ease, not sure what to say or what to do. He waited for us to speak first.
A quick-lipped girl broke the nervous air: “We came to thank you.”
“Yes, thank you for saving our lives,” another followed suit.
He asked how we found him and then, unexpectedly: “Who penned this?” Now he had the one-page letter in his hand, pulled out of the envelope. The letter was signed by all seven of us.
All eyes turned to me. I wanted to say, “Yes, me! Is it good or bad?” but balked at the last second.
He squinted at my unremarkable face, nodding slightly, as if to say, Hmm, who’d have thought?
I had begun the letter with two lines of the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s poem, “Song of the Lute Player”:
You and I are both ill-starred, drifting to the end of the earth
Does it matter if we were strangers before the encounter
Days earlier, when I’d shown the draft letter to the other girls for approval and signatures, none of them knew the poem or understood the lines I’d quoted. In any period before or after our time, the poem would have been common knowledge, but this was 1972, and the Cultural Revolution was ongoing.
I could tell that our host liked my—our—letter, though he said nothing. For the rest of the conversation, which moved arbitrarily from topic to topic, we learned that he had been sent down to the countryside after graduating from high school in 1965.
I felt his glance fall on me more than once.
It was getting late and we needed to slip back before suppertime to avoid discipline. As we began to file out, the man said to me, “You got my name wrong.”
The farm boy who told me the man’s name was illiterate, and I had to guess the characters by the way the boy pronounced them in his local dialect. As it turned out, I had written every part of the name wrong. His surname was Tan and I had written it as Tang; it was amazing that he even received the letter.
I apologized profusely but Tan’s mind had already gone somewhere else. I was the last one to leave his house, in time to hear him say, “Will you come again next Sunday?”
Despite all the excitement concerning that initial letter, after our first visit to Tan the collective enthusiasm folded in half. We went as a septet only once more before four girls withdrew, all with sound excuses. Tan thus became the unwitting wedge that split a fleeting teenage friendship—this despite the fact that, during our second visit, Tan had emptied his pockets to buy a basket of eggs from his farmer neighbors, and cooked a full wok of egg-fried rice for us. Of course, we all wolfed down the delicious rare treat while, not eating himself, he watched with an expression of half contempt and half pity. But his generosity might also have sounded the alarm to those more socially adept girls. It’s also possible they heard something that slipped by me unnoticed. I don’t know. But at least they promised not to leak our shared secrets.
The third Sunday, I went with just two other girls. They were the two who had been on the boat with me when the accident occurred, so we were true comrades in that sense. One of them was the daughter of a teacher in our school surnamed Ma, the other her inseparable buddy Liu. I felt sorry for Tan, as though the sudden reduction of his admirers were my fault. But he showed no trace of disappointment; instead, he did something new: he opened the drawers of his handsomely painted desk to us.
Hidden under a layer of clutter were all kinds of books. I saw Ma’s eyes light up behind her thick glasses, and realized that I’d brought a competitor, a bookworm like myself. Liu was less interested; she stood, tall and thin, watching with an amused smile as the two of us vied over who should have which books.
Tan advised us to take just a couple, and to come again next week to borrow more, but Ma and I wouldn’t listen: when it came to books, we treated every chance as our last. We squeezed into our bags as many books as we could. I still remember three of the titles I got: Balzac’s La Cousine Bette, translated to Chinese by the great translator Fu Lei, who committed suicide with his wife at the violent beginnings of the Cultural Revolution; a volume of Lu Xun’s satirical essays; and The Gadfly, a nineteenth-century novel written by Irish author Ethel Lilian Voynich, translated by Li Liangmin. The last title rang a bell.
When the warmth of the new spring took hold and our young souls became increasingly restless, the school announced an unprecedented class: swimming. Our mountain campus did not have a real playground other than a bumpy dirt yard, nor was there any gym equipment besides a few basketballs. On the other hand, our main campus in the city did not have a pool. The swimming class, which would take place at the Wuhua reservoir, excited everyone but me. At the rational level, I saw the need to acquire the skill if I were to avoid repeating my big sister’s tragic end (the incident in the reservoir with Tan had once again reminded me of such necessity). Emotionally, however, I wanted never to have anything to do with swimming.
I made excuses (female trouble, for example) to avoid one or two of the lessons, and went to one or two as well. The class site was chosen by a physical education teacher who knew how to swim, and marked out with rope a safe area where the water was shallow and the shore a slow slope. I stayed as close to the shore as I could and barely got wet, watching with envy and fear as others frolicked.
It was around this time that I opened The Gadfly. I had finished the other books, one by one, taking my time to relish the pleasure of unorthodox reading as long as I could. Needless to say, banned books are always more tasty. I saved the best for last, as I had heard about The Gadfly from my mother. The book had been a big hit in China before the Cultural Revolution, and won the hearts of millions of readers like her. I’d also read about it in the popular Soviet novel How the Steel Was Tempered, another of my mother’s favorites.
I read The Gadfly away from the eyes of others, alone in the woods or hiding in my yellowing mosquito tent made of cheap gauze, with its flap drawn closed. We slept on bunk beds and mine was the upper bunk. It gave me a big advantage for secret reading. My favorite time was after lights out, before my flashlight eventually ran out of batteries. The rhythmic breathing and occasional snores of my sleeping classmates chorused with the deep-night insects singing in the fields outside; it was tranquil.
Instantly, I had a crush on the Gadfly, the namesake hero of the novel. He was exactly my type of guy: a scar on his cheek and an acrimonious tongue; a complicated and heartbroken love life; an indomitable will to endure suffering; a heroic sacrifice for a great cause . . .
Other things about the Gadfly bewildered me—for instance, he has a mistress. I wasn’t sure what qualified as a mistress, but it was a bad word for sure. How could a revolutionary hero live with a mistress? Yet I was moved by Zita’s desperate and unappreciated love for him; it was a love she and I shared.
I don’t know what happened, whether it was my hormones or the writing, but the novel lit my insides like a torch set to dry kindling. My whole body became a raging fire; I could almost hear the flame whistling. If I didn’t put out the fire I might burn to ashes, and if I wanted to put out the fire, I would have to—literally—jump into water, the thing I feared most.
As if in response, the swimming class abruptly stopped. A boy my age, surnamed Wang, drowned in front of my eyes in what turned out to be our final lesson, though I saw nothing at the time other than bobbing heads, swaying arms, and kicking legs. Wang was a student in the classroom led by my favorite math teacher, Tian. No one knew when Wang had slid beyond the warning rope and disappeared into deep water. It was only after the swimming lesson was over, and Teacher Tian counted heads as usual, that he realized one was missing. He thought perhaps Wang had left early, but failed to find him in the dorm or classroom. After some back-and-forth searching on land, the able swimmers among teachers and students returned to the reservoir. The rest of us were driven away from the site, as though drowning were a contagious disease. We waited nervously in our dorms for the verdict and did not get it until dusk, when Wang’s body was found underwater, much like my sister’s had been.
Wang had been an only child. His father was called from the city, but his mother did not come, I don’t recall why—either she was sick or had passed away. A memorial gathering was held on campus, during which the father gave a sobbing speech about how the last hope of his life was gone. I was surprised that he could even talk; my parents couldn’t when my sister drowned. After his speech, one of Wang’s classmates stumbled onto the stage like a drunken duck and pledged to be a new son for the grief-stricken father. The boy looked as inconsolable as the father, but immediately the rumor went around that he did it for membership in the Communist Youth League, a prestige bestowed on select students whom the majority of us could only envy from a distance.
The earthly tragedy of one schoolmate and the near-comic stage act of another ruined my poetic distress. In those dark moments, The Gadfly was my only consoler.
We were told the swimming class would take a hiatus and resume in a few weeks, but it never did. We were forbidden to go near the accident site again.
Meanwhile, the fire in me lit by The Gadfly would not stop burning. One sunny afternoon I decided to go to the reservoir by myself. I did try to persuade a roommate or two to come along, but no one dared. The girls were scared by my action, and called my best friend Yasu from another dorm room. “Only Yasu can stop her,” they said.
Yasu arrived quickly and frowned at me. “Are you crazy?” she said, blocking my way out. “You already knew that,” I said. She and I had opposite personalities, a stable soul versus a wild one. Though never classmates or roommates, the two of us had been very close since middle school, when we were both editing the campus wall-journal. I can still remember our ecstasy the day we learned that each of us had been chosen as the sole member of our respective middle-school classrooms to ascend to high school. Our friendship was destined.
I had not told Yasu of my secret acquaintance with Tan and my possession of The Gadfly. Yasu was used to my odd behavior; because of her exceedingly tolerant nature she usually did not try to stop me doing things just because she didn’t like them. I think that was the true bond of our friendship. But this time she was firm. “Please don’t go,” she said. She might well have reminded me of my sister if I hadn’t pushed her aside and run out of the dorm.
The water was cool and soothing, as if nothing terrible had ever happened under it. I did not have a swimsuit, and entered the reservoir in a tank top and shorts. The tank top I wore that day was white, and I hadn’t expected it to be so transparent when wet. I could see through it to my own embarrassing, underdeveloped breasts. Fortunately no one else was around.
I held a spot on the shore with both hands and kicked my legs, but no matter how hard I tried, my clumsy body would not float. In the middle of my struggle, Yasu suddenly appeared on the dirt road, panting.
“Teacher Wu is coming!” she said.
“Did you tell on me?” I yelled at her from the water.
“No, it wasn’t me!” she said.
I dragged my body out of the water, grabbed my shirt and pants from the shore, and ran up the hill, each step fighting the weight of my wet shorts. Hiding in the tall grass, I watched Teacher Wu, the head teacher of my classroom, arrive with several of my roommates. They looked around the empty water, where ripples were still expanding. Baffled, they asked Yasu something and she shook her head. I could see my slightly overweight teacher breathing heavily, sweat darkening his dress shirt, a bald spot glistening on his head. He seemed to have come in a hurry, with no time to find a hat, only to be further infuriated by my playing hide-and-seek with him. Slowly he turned around and walked back along the same dirt path he had taken from campus, empty-handed and bareheaded. I felt sorry for him.
When I showed up in my dorm room half an hour later, I was told that Teacher Wu had come to search my bed, because he’d heard it was a book I was reading that led to my erratic behavior. My heart jumped: I had hidden The Gadfly under my bamboo mattress. “He lifted up your mattress and dropped it back right away,” a girl told me as she imitated Teacher Wu’s flustered expression, covering her mouth to titter. I hauled up the nearest corner of the mattress and my cheeks burned: an opened pack of sanitary napkins was immediately exposed. How embarrassing to let a male teacher see them!
Just a foot away, The Gadfly lay intact, saved by an unconscious accomplice.
I received a letter from Tan the following week. It was the first time—there had been no need for him to write. His house was only half an hour’s walk from us, and my two friends and I had visited him nearly every Sunday. If we showed up at lunchtime, he’d cook egg-fried rice for us. We talked for hours, at first about the books we’d read. He had graduated from high school before the Cultural Revolution, which meant he’d had a much higher-quality education than we were receiving and, not surprisingly, had read much more extensively. Adding to his qualifications was the fact that his father had been a professor of Chinese literature at the Southwest Normal College, located in the northern suburbs of Chongqing. So Tan became our interpreter of the books he gave us.
As we got better acquainted, he began to talk about his life as a “zhi-qing”—educated urban youth sent down to the countryside. With only three of us present, the originally reticent Tan opened up and became a chatterbox. I asked questions occasionally, and my friends Ma and Liu quietly listened to the conversation. He described the initial years after he and his fellow zhi-qings first arrived in the mountains—the romantic bonfires, the high-spirited singing of “The Song of Expedition,” the lofty aspiration to change the world—and then how the harsh reality extinguished their enthusiasm and idealism: the poverty and ignorance endemic to a backwater, the drowning of a friend, the hard labor, the thought-suppression . . . It was the seventh year he’d lived here, and he and his fellow zhi-qings had lost the ability to talk civilly with one other, like he was now doing with us. “Whenever we open our mouths, our language is thorny,” he said.
Sometimes he would hum a few lyrics of “The Song of Expedition”:
It’s the valley’s wind
That flutters our red flag
It’s the violent rain
That washes our tent . . .
And he would momentarily fall into reminiscent longing, but not for very long.
We listened, but I was more interested in talking about books than his life. I was too naive, too ignorant to understand him. Experience can’t be taught. I don’t think he knew that he was actually more remote from us than the characters in the novels he gave us. We were curious about him, but nothing more. His distress was real, but exactly because it was real, it lacked the romance of literature. The Gadfly’s heroic spirit, to endure suffering without complaint, was much more attractive to me.
Over the weeks, we had returned a few books to Tan and picked up a few more, but I kept The Gadfly. Each time, when we were leaving, Tan would stand on his doorsill and ask, “What topic would you like to discuss next Sunday?” like we were equal partners in the discourse.
Once, one of his fellow zhi-qings came about for some farm business in the middle of our chat on Balzac’s La Cousine Bette. Tan introduced us and said with a sly smile that his acquaintance had read the book as well. I asked the other man what he thought of La Cousine Bette, and he said, “So-so.” The comment displeased me; I had hand-copied so many aphorisms from it! In fact I still remember some of them today—“Life can’t go on without vast forgetting,” for one (in Chinese of course). After the other man left, Tan told us that his friend was a Party member who liked to spy around. I realized that Tan had wanted to indict him for reading forbidden books as well.
Now I looked at the envelope in my hand. We were planning to visit Tan the following Sunday, so why had he written to me?
I opened the letter. Tan’s handwriting was neat and delicate, almost feminine. There were only a few lines on a thin piece of low-quality paper. Please don’t visit again, he wrote. You can keep all the books.
I stood holding the letter, not knowing what to make of it.
Teacher Wu had a serious and enigmatic talk with me a day or two later. He said the school had investigated Tan and discovered he had a problematic background. No student was allowed to have any contact with him anymore (though of course it was never allowed to begin with). My head teacher would not elaborate on what kind of “problematic background” Tan had, nor how the school had found out about our association. Did my other classmates betray our secret? Or had the zhi-qing Party member told on us? I had no way of knowing.
If my rebellious spirit was not completely tamed by this prohibition, the next thing Teacher Wu said fettered it like the most effective curse. The school was concerned that Tan might have had an improper relationship with me, my teacher hinted. I had no idea why I was the only one indicted when my friends and I had always gone as three. At sixteen I didn’t have any understanding of sexuality, and it would still be years before I comprehended lust for the flesh of men; the social atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution only further obscured that kind of knowledge. Yet I knew perfectly that nothing would be more shameful than an “improper relationship” with the opposite sex. If a girl’s reputation was stained like that, she wouldn’t be able to wash herself clean even if she jumped into the Yellow River. This was the catastrophe of being a girl at the time: no one needed to provide any factual evidence; I already felt guilty as sin.
I could not tell whether Teacher Wu believed my innocence or not when I defended myself; he seemed deliberately not to make his position clear. What I feared most was that he might tell my mother about the “improper relationship.” Those words, regardless of the truth, would ignite my mother’s fury. I begged the teacher not to tell her. My face must have paled considerably because Teacher Wu’s eyes softened. He did not say yes or no; he just looked at me for a moment or two and said gently, “Don’t go there again, okay?” I nodded repeatedly like a chicken pecking rice.
Then, much to my surprise, Teacher Wu said that The Gadfly was a good book. “You can read it,” he said. “Just don’t let it distract you from study.”
Weeks passed. When the handle of the Big Dipper again pointed south, on an afternoon before the summer break in July, I wandered with my friends Ma and Liu along the unpaved bus road outside our mountain campus gate. The three of us felt lonelier than ever. The sun was about to set, its remaining glow shining on the boggy surface of harvested paddy fields across the road. In one of those empty fields, a bare-shouldered peasant wearing a straw hat was bending down, dragging a net in the mud. As we got closer, the man straightened up and we were all startled. It was Tan. I had always seen him properly dressed before, and now his naked upper body made me feel utterly uncomfortable. Ma and Liu simply turned their heads. Tan quickly climbed out of the mud and put on a shirt. He explained what he was doing in the mud, but his words passed by my ear like wind as I kept my head low. Finally I heard him say:
“Is it true your school is moving back to the city?”
I nodded, eyes on the ground, not daring to look into his eyes.
“Would you write me? You have my correct address, right?”
I nodded again. I wasn’t sure if I would write him, but nodding was the only polite thing to do. My two friends had turned around and were walking quickly toward campus. I ran after them. At the campus entrance I looked back and saw that Tan was still standing in the setting sun, watching us. Perhaps he had been waiting for days for this “accidental” encounter, before we would permanently disappear from his life.
I thought that was the last time we’d see each other.
My friends and I had been a lucky bunch until then. Roughly one in every thirty to forty of our middle school classmates were selected to advance to high school; the majority were sent down to the countryside to toil in the farm fields. From the start, the inside information was that we few would go to university directly upon graduation—that was the plan Premier Zhou Enlai had for us, we heard. When graduation time came in January 1974, however, universities remained closed to the public for the eighth year, and Premier Zhou was in the hospital battling bladder cancer. Just when we thought the Cultural Revolution was more or less over, another political campaign to criticize Confucius began. Rumors went around that Premier Zhou was implicated as the modern Confucius, and the campaign was really against him. The political air was thick again, and we departed our high school without any ceremony.
What was next soon became clear: we too would be zhi-qings and go to the countryside, following the path of Tan and our middle school classmates. The same fate had been awaiting us all along; it was only delayed for two and a half years.
While my friends were miserable, I was elated. I was eager to leave home and start a real life. Ever since my big sister’s drowning, my home had lost the warmth of a family. My mother was always dispirited; she used to have a really loud and contagious laugh, but now things were only chaotic and wretched.
And once again, I saw in the countryside a romance my cohorts didn’t, just as when our high school campus had been relocated to the mountains.
Mother was not happy to see me go, but she had no choice. You could be granted an exception if you were an only child, or had a doctor’s diagnosis of some terrible disease. Neither applied to me. If you dilly-dallied, and many of my schoolmates did, people would come to your house, eat your family’s meager food, drink your boiled water, and talk sense at you until you were “mobilized” to go.
I didn’t need any mobilization. I wanted to go, and go early. Prepared to live in the countryside for the rest of my life, I stuffed a big suitcase made of camphor wood with clothing and utility articles, including a haircutting kit I’d bought to serve the peasants and their children, a thin volume of Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty (also from Tan if I remember correctly), and the only novel I had room for: The Gadfly.
At dawn, from Chaotianmen port, a passenger ship sucked in a herd of teenagers. The whistle blew, and the ship chugged downstream, leaving our city and teary parents behind. Beside me, a few girls sobbed; others looked preoccupied and gloomy. At eighteen I was terribly naive and upbeat. I sat on the dirty metal floor by my camphor suitcase and quilt roll, imagining my new thatch-roofed home in the mountains, but the pungent human sweat inside the packed cabin made it hard to daydream. The hot May sun steamed every odor into the turbid air. Outside, the Yangtze’s brown waves rumbled against the sides of the ship. A few melancholic thoughts briefly clouded my head, but the knowledge of my beautiful wooden sword with its red-tasseled hilt lying securely in the camphor suitcase roused my spirit. Along with the handmade sword was a piece of black-and-white block print titled Today. That artwork was a gift from renowned artist Wu Fan, a friend of my parents. It pictures a dreamy young woman writing in her diary; on the wall behind her hangs a straw hat, a sickle, and a stalk of wheat. The image of an urban girl writing in a rural setting was utterly poetic to me.
The ship thrummed along the Yangtze nearly all day. In the late afternoon, it anchored at a barren spot. A rusty long-distance bus collected us and our multifarious belongings. After two hours, the bus stopped at a dirt playground before a few low buildings, the town center of the People’s Commune we’d been assigned to. A loudspeaker startled me: “Welcome educated urban youths up to the mountains and down to the countryside!”
A man holding several sheets of paper in his hand divided us like sheep, a few for each village belonging to the Commune. Two other girls and I were picked up by a middle-aged peasant with a wrinkled, somber face. On the undulating mountain trails, against the setting sun, the three of us quietly followed Chief Chen and his men, who carried our luggage. Half an hour later we arrived at a courtyard set in the hills surrounded by terraced paddy fields. A hen and a flock of chicks leisurely strolled around. A dirty-faced, bare-buttocked boy, five or six years old, stood in the middle of the stone-paved yard, silently staring at the incoming crowd. I would soon learn that the boy was Chief Chen’s youngest child, fittingly called Chen Seventh, and the next year the chief ’s fertile wife would give birth to Chen Eighth, a girl this time. There were three or four missing numbers in the sequence of Chief Chen’s existing children, but no one ever talked about those. I never saw Chen Seventh wearing shoes, even in the coldest winter.
Instead of thatch roofs, the five or six houses enfolding the courtyard had dark-gray tiles, a coarse version of those in the city. The walls were made of a mud-and-straw mix instead of bricks. Chief Chen pointed to a room between his house and another, across the yard and facing the rice paddies, and said it was ours. I learned the next day that it had been used for grain storage.
Our courtyard was one of four in Baihe Village. Our new home, which had been emptied of grain to accommodate us, was large but crude, with a dirt floor and one small glassless shuttered window. The mud walls, we were told, make a house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But the following winter, cold winds would pierce the numerous invisible cracks and harden our quilts in the night. One morning during that snowless but relentlessly frigid first winter, I would open my door to see my gray hen, which had been dutifully producing fresh eggs for me through the fall, standing motionless outside the foot-high doorsill. It had one foot on the ground, and the other drawn up under its wing. Startled, I probed the hen with a finger. It dropped like a rock. I had forgotten to let it in the night before.
But that May, the frozen hen, which I would write into a short story decades later, was still to come. Our first afternoon in the village, I was more than pleased by the ease with which I could drive a nail into the dirt wall and hang my block print.
Within days of our arrival, white, smoky rain washed over the mountains, fields, and courtyards. I jumped outside with a bamboo hat and a hoe, both borrowed from a neighbor; I could feel the other two girls’ baffled stares on my back. The bamboo hat was unable to ward off the rain and, by the time I reached the hill, I was drenched. At the edge of the field was a pine forest, from which I dug up a young pine tree half my height and transplanted it to a spot near my new home. Here you go, I told myself. You are rooted like the beautiful pine! I danced in the rain around this new symbol of my determination.
Each day after that, I went to see how my pine was doing. No sooner had the rain stopped than the little tree began to turn brown. In less than a week, it became pretty obvious it was done for. A neighbor laughed at the sight of it and said, “Who told you to transplant a tree in the rain?”
I was not deterred, and attributed the failure to my inexperience, sure that I would learn everything given time.
Several years later, after the Cultural Revolution ended, I learned the truth about the movement that took so many urban students like me to the countryside. It was not because we were needed for “constructing a new socialist rurality,” or because we ourselves needed to be “re-educated by poor peasants,” as the propaganda stated and I had believed. It was because the Cultural Revolution paralyzed China, and there were neither jobs nor universities in the city for us. The sixteen million urban youths that poured into rural villages were a burden transferred to the already heavily taxed peasants, who did not receive any subsidies or benefits for feeding the huge number of extra—young and hungry—mouths.
I came to understand this long after I saw a young man, the tallest peasant in Baihe Village, lying listlessly on his bed without a single grain of rice left in his house, while his pretty wife made an unsuccessful attempt to kill their infant daughter by faking a fall off a cliff; it was long after I jumped into a mound of human and pig excrement topped with wood ashes—the best fertilizer when well mixed, I was told—and stirred it with my bare feet, which became infected by what the villagers called “shit poison,” and festered; it was long after I lost my treasured wooden sword with the red tassels, because I was playing with it one day while waiting in line at the Commune’s grain station and the man in charge of rice supply took a fancy to it and wanted it before he would sell me rice; it was long after I begged Chongqing’s Institute of Agricultural Science to mail me a small bag of “superior variety” rice seeds, only to have them eaten by chickens before sowing; it was long after my two roommates found back doors to return to the city, and my first love, with a local school teacher (The Gadfly as our matchmaker), turned into a heartbreaking drama; it was long after I should have known that all the model zhi-qings publicized in newspapers were lies.
In the fall of my third year toiling in the paddy fields, I was hired as a substitute teacher at the Commune’s middle school, located in a different village. The school was a twenty-minute walk from the little town center at which I’d arrived the first day. Late one afternoon, a colleague who had just returned from town told me a man he did not know was looking for me.
Puzzled, I began walking the winding mountain path toward town. Halfway there, I saw a slightly hunched man stumbling toward me, probably too old to walk normally. His eyes were on the road, but as we crossed ways, he threw me a look. It stopped both of us cold, transfixed. It was Tan. It had been four or five years since our association during my high school days, so he would have been in his early thirties by now. Yet he looked so old and beaten; life had certainly taken a toll on him. I took him to the teachers’ lounge and bought him supper from the school’s canteen, a simple meal with a bit of fried pork and cabbage topping the rice. All the while, as Tan and I were sitting by my desk, my colleagues went in and out. We did not talk much, and he ate incredibly slowly. After half an hour or so, his bowl was still quite full. Noticing my watching eyes, he explained that almost all his teeth had fallen out. I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing soft enough from the canteen for his condition. But he changed topics. He told me he had married a peasant woman in his village, and I congratulated him. We talked about the most mundane things in life, as if that were normal conversation for us. His bowl of rice now cold, he put down his chopsticks; he had eaten less than half. There was not much left to say in a public space. I remembered a verse by the Song dynasty poet Xin Qiji—
When young I did not know the taste of sorrow
But loved to climb towers
Loved to climb towers
And drag sorrow into each new verse I composed
Now I know well the taste of sorrow
It is on the tip of my tongue
On the tip of my tongue
Instead I say, What a cool, fine autumn day
The Chinese poems and songs quoted in this piece are in Xujun Eberlein’s translation except: (1) the translation of Bai Juyi’s lines is Eberlein’s adaptation of a version by Yang Xianyi (1915–2009) and Gladys Yang (1919–1999), and (2) the translation of Xin Qiji’s poem is Eberlein’s slight modification of a beautiful rendering by Yang Xianyi.
Xujun Eberlein, an immigrant from Chongqing, China, is the author of the story collection Apologies Forthcoming (Livingston Press, 2008), winner of the Tartt Fiction Award. Other honors include an artist fellowship in fiction/creative nonfiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Ledge Fiction Award, and recognition in The Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Asia Literary Review, AGNI, New England Review, Stand, StoryQuarterly, Walrus, and in several anthologies, such as Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land. She holds a PhD in Transportation Science from MIT. More information can be found at xujuneberlein.com. (updated 4/2020)