That summer, the boundary between war and peace was blurred, sometimes eerily so, more than the line between land and water in foggy Chongqing. And yet everything seemed normal as I wandered the streets. I had no particular purpose, other than a vague expectation that something interesting might happen. The big round clock high up on Liberation Monument ticked soundlessly most of the time, and then tolled ceremoniously on the hour. Occasionally, another vague sense came upon me that I might one day become somebody.
Four main streets radiated outward from Liberation Monument like a poorly made cross, askew and bent. I walked up or down, up and down. This was our “mountain city”: no three feet of flat ground, not a single bicycle in sight. Jubilant pedestrians bumped each other’s elbows and heels as if at a festival; the deadly battles on the city’s periphery came and went like thunderstorms. Stores were all open, empty shelves notwithstanding. I paused here and there, at this wall or that. China was a book-free zone. Walls were places where I could find words to read, whatever they were about. Browsing walls was my favorite pastime, except when my big sister was around to tell us a story.
One day I was walking with my mother, just a block plus a turn from our house, when we heard gunshots. We’d reached a big intersection in the shape of a scalene triangle; major bus stops and long queues lined three sides, and buses rolled in and out at the vertices. The shots came from a traffic command tower above, or what used to be a traffic command tower—who’d need traffic control in a great revolution? In the center of the intersection, a lone man was running. He jerked and fell to the ground, then crawled forward. More bullets hit him, and he stopped moving. It was a sunny day; there was no wind. The bullets had hit with precision. The young man’s body absorbed the bullets like a sandbag. Mother dragged me by the hand to rush away from the scene, but others stood looking on, as if watching a sudden summer shower from under their own roof. They were not in danger, they knew; the shooting was not random. That man must have been from the wrong faction, which is to say, the faction my mother and I were in. This was a secret, our political affiliation, much like underground Communism in my mother’s youth.
“Is he dead?” I asked Mother, who grasped my wrist tight and strode hurriedly.
“Don’t know,” she said. I hoped this was an indication that he wasn’t, despite my belief in Chairman Mao’s teaching that “wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence….When we die for the people, it is the right death.” The neighborhood kids and I bellowed these words as a song every day, and I can still sing it now, the last clause a sonorous refrain:
“It is the right death, it is the right death!”
My secret identity was a source of thrill in my otherwise mundane life; it often made the twelve-year-old me feel like a hero carrying out a great mission in an enemy-occupied zone. Of course, I see the absurdity now, that we’d kill each other to compete for loyalty to the same god—Chairman Mao, that is—but this was not how I, or anybody around, viewed it then. Every adult or would-be adult, such as the middle school students, took sides. Righteously. Confidently. Courageously.
My big sister—and mentor—Ruo-Dan was in the opposite faction from the rest of our family. Strangely, this hardly registered with me in those days. Like her Red Guard comrades, Ruo-Dan was staying on their middle school campus “doing revolution.” Every school in the city was in the hands of one of the two factions at war over which was truly the “revolutionary rebellion,” both sides pledging to defend Chairman Mao with their blood and lives. My own taking of sides, however, was firmly grounded in righteous hatred, after I’d watched—helplessly and bewilderedly—both of my parents being publicly denounced and shamed at their separate work units by the faction in power, which happened to be the faction Ruo-Dan belonged to. Those incidents had nothing to do with my sister, though, nor was she around to witness them. In spite of her faction, I never heard Ruo-Dan argue with our parents. At any rate, we children didn’t talk politics when Ruo-Dan was home; Mother didn’t let us. But Ruo-Dan seldom came home that summer. On her occasional visits, she avoided the topic of safety that Mother always tried to raise with her.
Mother made up her mind in early July that my younger sister, Feng, and other older sister, Ping, would go with our grandmother, Gaga, to hide at Ginkgo Bay, our ancestral village down the Yangtze. The fitful supply of food, coal, and other daily necessities could stop completely any time now, Mother said. No one had any idea how long the “armed struggle” between the two factions would go on. She said she’d go through a backdoor to arrange ship tickets, as it was hard to buy anything without a connection.
She did not mention me. I did not ask. To this day, I don’t know why Mother kept me with her in the city. It did not become a question until long afterward. Neither the fights nor the supply shortage had planted worries in me then; it was Mother’s job to worry for us. In any case, I wouldn’t have easily left the city when my big sister did not.
In mid-July, Ruo-Dan returned home to see our three refugees off. Mother must have somehow sent her a message. The heavy rain might have already started, but I remember only the joy of seeing my big sister again, a memory revitalized over and over in the aftermath. I tailed her constantly. She showed me a sword dance she’d recently learned. She showed me how to jump up onto a table while keeping both feet together.
Gaga, delighted by the return of her favorite granddaughter, cooked spicy noodles, which delighted us all. Even in normal times, noodles, more costly than rice, were an infrequent treat; they became a luxury during times of shortage. Pork—the source of lard used in noodle seasoning—was heavily rationed (sesame oil unavailable). To get greens, Gaga or Mother had to stand in long lines and vie with neighbors. Sundried hot peppers, a must-have ingredient that used to be in all the shops, now came to us from Ginkgo Bay.
Ruo-Dan cut scallions and ginger. Gaga chopsticked noodles into our bowls, asking each of us, “Soup or not?”
“Dryish,” Ruo-Dan said.
“Dryish,” I eagerly copied.
“Soupy,” Ping said, taking the opposite stance, as she often did in Ruo-Dan’s presence.
Ruo-Dan was more talkative than usual at the dinner table, telling us anecdotes about her friends on campus. One of those friends, I noticed, was a boy. She blushed at the mention of his name. It was that boy who had taught her the table-jumping trick. I had never heard her talk about a boy before, or seen her so carried away with her words. It made me envious that, with books burned or seized and libraries sealed or smashed, I was bored at home with nothing to read and no school to attend while my big sister and her friends were frolicking around, as if there wasn’t a deadly war going on. I had seen the popular line “Revolution is a grand festival” on walls. Now Ruo-Dan was making it tangible.
Ping feigned nonchalance, but I knew she was paying attention because she twisted her lips in contempt, a signature gesture. My two older sisters, one sixteen and one fifteen, had been in the same grade at the same school before classes were ceased, so Ping knew all the names Ruo-Dan mentioned. Unlike me, Ping could not forget Ruo-Dan’s faction. More than once, Ping had avoided confrontation when Ruo-Dan came home by going miles away to spend the night with a friend of Mother’s. She only stayed this time because she had to catch a ship the next morning at the nearby port.
Ping abandoned her nonchalance that evening when Ruo-Dan began to tell us a thrilling tale. This was a great joy of being with my big sister: she always had a new story to share. This one was called “A Pair of Embroidered Shoes.” I had heard that a hand-copied edition was secretly circulating; I really wanted to get hold of it but hadn’t been lucky enough. A decade later, the story would cause a public sensation nationwide, and I’d discover that—to my utter surprise—the author was a friend of my parents. But at this time it remained an anonymous piece of underground literature.
“Bong, Bong, Bong! An old night watchman patrols the streets and hammers his gong,” Ruo-Dan began.
The story is set in our very city, Chongqing, in the 1940s, when it was under Nationalist rule. A handsome underground Communist worms his way into the heart of a beautiful woman to steal Nationalist military information from her father. Then, after the Communist victory, in the early 1950s, the handsome man becomes a police detective for the new government. Now he must catch the enemy woman who was once in love with him; this time she has gone underground to fight.
“Bong, Bong, Bong! It is a pitch-black night. On the second floor of a big empty house, a pair of embroidered shoes move soundlessly behind a cabinet . . .”
Ping and I held our breaths. Ruo-Dan’s forced nasal voice hinted at something very scary yet to come. A dim, fifteen-watt lightbulb hung above our heads; unknown danger lurked in the shadows, under the beds, behind the cupboard, outside our walls. As we listened, we were literally sitting on a stage. Our house had been built right in the center of it. A neighbor across the courtyard had explained it this way: During the great famine from 1959 to 1962, people were so starved they desperately needed distractions, so the local government built a dance club with a stage for its employees. (I never figured out how starving people could have the energy to dance, but later I heard from a middle school teacher that movies were free during the famine, and he’d sit in a movie theater all day trying to forget his hunger.) After the famine was finally over, the dance club was renovated into a residential compound and the stage preserved—our Courtyard 14. I had no clue why the only house built on the stage was assigned to my father when we’d moved here the previous fall. Perhaps it was so unlike a real house that nobody wanted it, and thus it went to a denounced man. My father had been leading a local government institute when the Cultural Revolution began. In this movement, unless you were Chairman Mao or his wife, anyone who had held a position, high or low, was entitled to be denounced, or—in a creatively imported verb made transitive—to be struggled, by the masses.
Wind and rain might have been raging outside as we listened to Ruo-Dan’s story, and it might have added to the hair-raising effect inside, but I have no memory of the start of the downpour, only its end, which was still a day or two in the future. The sound that night was entirely Ruo-Dan’s vibrant voice. It would be burned into not only my memory, but also Ping’s. The pinnacle of Ruo-Dan’s storytelling.
The next morning, Ping and our nearly seven-year-old baby sister, Feng, left the city with Gaga. I didn’t mind seeing Ping go; I was happy to have time alone with Ruo-Dan, but that turned out to be short. First, two children of Mother’s long-time friend from a neighboring city came to visit. The younger of the two, Gaang, was a boy my age, and his sister, Lan, was a good friend of my older sisters. Like many young people at the time, the siblings were making full use of the freedom bestowed by the revolution to travel around at their whim. Ruo-Dan was glad to see Lan, and chatted with her about Beijing and Chengdu, cities she had visited earlier in the year. Then, the next thing I knew, my big sister said she had to return to campus.
Ruo-Dan seemed to be in a hurry. I asked her if she’d be back the following weekend, and she said yes, she had photos to show me—a roll she’d taken the week before and sent out to be developed.
“Little Jia,” Mother called out, interrupting.
Jia was my big sister’s baby name. When she was born, Mother was alone in a riverside hospital looking out on the Jialing River. “Little Jia,” she had crooned to the wrinkle-faced infant in her arms.
“Little Jia,” Mother said, “with all this shooting going on, perhaps you should stay home—”
Ruo-Dan cut her short: “Ma, don’t worry. I’m not in the armed-fighting group.”
Mother looked at our two guests, as if expecting help from them. They seemed unsure what to say. Ruo-Dan put a pair of new shoes, which she treasured and wore sparingly, in her army-green shoulder bag. “I will bring them back this Saturday,” she told Mother. As Ruo-Dan was walking out, Mother again tried to keep her, saying Ruo-Dan needed to see her friends off a few days later. “I must go, I have things to do,” Ruo-Dan said. “I will be back again before they leave.”
I walked with Ruo-Dan to the No. 2 bus route near the triangular intersection. I waved to her as the bus pulled out. Neither Mother nor I paid attention to the date; with no school and no work, time had lost much of its importance. The only indisputable facts were that it had been raining heavily and that Ruo-Dan left right after seeing the first sign of clear sky.
I never saw her again, not even her body. The Tuesday of that week was July 16, the second anniversary of Chairman Mao’s famous swim in the Yangtze, the swim that signaled the high tide in the Cultural Revolution. This date has since been burned into my brain, too, but it went by without my notice then. I did not know that Ruo-Dan had firmly remembered the day’s significance.
A couple of days after Ruo-Dan left, three uninvited visitors showed up. I was alone at home when the teenage girls, schoolmates of Ruo-Dan’s, appeared at the door. They asked where my parents were, and I asked where my big sister was. Then they told me, hesitantly, that Ruo-Dan had a gunshot wound and was hospitalized.
“Nonsense,” I said. I told them my sister didn’t like the “armed struggle” and wouldn’t take part in it. They did not counter. A moment later, my father walked in for lunch. He greeted my sister’s friends warmly and sent me to buy food for them from his work unit’s canteen. When I returned with a pan of steaming rice and several vegetable dishes, my father was collapsed on a bamboo chaise, crying. I had never seen him cry; ever since I was little he would get angry when he saw me in tears.
The three girls were weeping, too. One told me, through her sobs, that Ruo-Dan had drowned.
“But you just said she’s in the hospital!” I said furiously.
Again, no one countered. No one touched the lunch I’d brought. In silence we all waited. My father could lead an entire agency but never was able to make a domestic decision without my mother. The clock ticked. Mother did not show up. Father could no longer bear it. He stood up and told me to wait for Mother. “Don’t leave the house,” he warned. Then they were gone.
I went to bed in daylight. On summer days, I’d usually take a nap after lunch. But lunch didn’t matter. What mattered was that, if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t need to think at all. I lay down on the bamboo mat and tossed and turned. The usually cool and soothing surface was uncharacteristically hot, and my sweat was darkening its smooth yellow weave. Each moment I was about to drift off, my churning head pulled me right back. I could not figure out what really happened. What does it mean that my big sister is dead? My anxiety centered on answering that question, on the logical connection between “my big sister” and “dead.” It felt only logical, perfectly logical, that if I still had a big sister, then she was not dead.
Ruo-Dan had told me this story: A long time ago, a hero warrior’s head was cut off by his enemy. On horseback, the headless man carried his head to a diviner, asking if he could still live. Ask a hundred passersby the same question on your way home, the diviner advised. If they all say “Yes,” you will come back to life. The hero set his severed head on his bleeding neck and rode his warhorse homeward. He was revered locally and lots of people knew him. Ninety-nine passersby gave him an emotional “Yes.” He ran into the hundredth person right before his door. That person was a coward frightened by the blood; without another look, he screamed “No!” and the hero fell off his horse. Immediately, in the moso-bamboo grove next to the house, a hundred thigh-thick bamboo trunks cracked down the middle, all but one containing a nearly formed miniature figure of the hero. The ending had surprised and shocked me, and I felt the impulse to rewrite it. Why did the hero have to ask one hundred passersby? Would it work for him to ask ninety-nine? For that matter, couldn’t he ask just one?
Could I ask just one? A few streets away from our home lived a woman in her twenties who was dating a cousin of mine. My siblings and I called her Third Sister Li, and she had become very close to our family, like a big-big sister to me. Only a few days earlier, after Gaga’s departure, Third Sister Li had come to help cook meals for us and our two guests, and she’d had an intimate chat with Ruo-Dan.
With the thought of Third Sister Li, I got up. I drifted off the stage, out of Courtyard 14, and trotted along the dusty streets, my jumbled mind caught between knowing and oblivion. The air was hot and humid, the hair on my forehead wet with sweat. No matter. One thought followed me all the way: If she says yes, then nothing will be wrong anymore.
I was relieved to find Third Sister Li at home. Standing at the door, I said, “You will be my big sister, right? She’s not dead.”
Third Sister Li dropped whatever was in her hand and rushed to me, her face so close that I could see all the light of alarm in her eyes. “What did you say? What happened?”
I was taken aback by her rapid questions overlapping one another. This was not the response I had expected. I took her questions to indicate more interest in hearing a story than in transforming into my big sister. I turned around and left.
Until then, death to me had largely been a romantic notion in revolutionary books and movies and, when there were no longer books and movies, leaflets. Only months earlier I had read a story supposedly told by Premier Zhou Enlai: An engaged young couple, both Communists in the 1920s, stand facing the enemy firing squad; the fiancé pronounces the moment of execution as their wedding, and the fiancée tells her executioners that the exploding bullets will be the wedding’s celebratory fireworks. I had read the story in a mimeographed leaflet. It echoed another of Chairman Mao’s quotations, which he’d in turn cited from an ancient historian: “Though death is intrinsic to man, it can be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a goose feather.” It was one of Mao’s teachings that could fall off our tongues at any time, like an overripe melon tumbling from the vine.
That was how we were taught to discriminate deaths. The idea was not Mao’s invention, but it was through his emphatic teaching that we learned it, and then to aspire to the weight of Mount Tai.
A year and a half earlier, Ruo-Dan had written in her diary:
Today is my birthday. I have turned fifteen. Fifteen, this is an age no longer small. Liu Wenxue, Liu Hulan, Cai Yongxiang, Ou Yanghai…all sacrificed their lives for revolution in their teens.
Compared to them, I’m too far behind. Fifteen, how many fifteens can one have in life? Looking back, how many good things have I done for the people? How much progress have I made? Can I be like Pavel Korchagin, “not tormented by regret for the years frittered away, not shamed by a mediocre and pointless life”?
Yet that day when I was looking for my sister’s transformation, it was the ancient myths rather than the lofty concepts of revolution and sacrifice that grabbed my mind.
When I got home from Third Sister Li’s, there was still no trace of Mother. I decided to go look for her. I remembered that she had taken Gaang and Lan to buy their train tickets; they had to be at the station, waiting in a long line. Father’s order about not leaving the house flashed in my mind, but Mother was the only one who could help me sort things out, or confirm my suspicion that Ruo-Dan was not dead.
I must have walked an hour through the bus roads under the scorching sun. Numerous long lines packed the big yard outside the train station’s ticketing windows; hundreds or thousands of heads bobbled in front of my eyes like black waves. I measured each line, one at a time, from head to tail, from tail to head, but they were not there.
At dusk, I returned home exhausted, soaked in sweat and empty-handed. The door I had locked had been pried open, and Gaang was alone inside, waiting for me. He was reading a book when I walked in, which puzzled and upset me. Where did he get a book? How could he read when my family was turned upside down?
They had not gone to the train station at all, Gaang said, but to visit a friend of my mother’s who could get them train tickets from a backdoor connection. When they returned, someone had stopped my mother at the door and told her Ruo-Dan had drowned. My mother and Gaang’s sister, without coming inside, left in a rush to the Third Middle School.
I was very mad. I was mad at myself for screwing up the chance to go with my mother, mad that my father was right that I shouldn’t have left the house, mad that I wasted the whole afternoon at the train station. I was so mad I almost grabbed Gaang’s book and hurled it out the window.
“We are going to catch up with my mother,” I told Gaang. “Now!” The boy hid his book and followed me out. Concerned neighbors had gathered in the courtyard, nearly all of them ideologically opposed to us, though they might or might not have known our secret loyalty.
A woman I called Aunt Zhang stopped us on the stage. I knew she was “one of us,” and she knew I would not loathe her words as I might another neighbor’s. “It’s getting late, buses have stopped running, go tomorrow morning,” Aunt Zhang said. She spoke softly and gently. She told me she was the one who broke the news to my mother. The neighbors had convened and decided on that. Someone at the Third Middle School had called my father’s work unit late that morning; everyone in the office building, except my father, had learned about the phone call before my sister’s schoolmates showed up. “I told your mama, ‘You must be strong!’” Aunt Zhang said, shaking her head and letting out a sigh, “but she fell down right there.”
I would later learn that my mother and Lan found no bus and had to walk for hours, crying all the way. The journey was more than ten miles. Many times they tried to hitchhike, but the vehicles just roared past. Eventually a truck driver, softened by my mother’s teary begging, gave them a ride to my sister’s school.
Gaang and I took a bus to Ruo-Dan’s school the next morning. Too late.
Even after so many years, I can still hear my own screams echoing in that sorrow-soaked school room: Where is my big sister? I want to see her! I want to see her!
But they had buried her. They did not wait for me to see her.
My parents sat there motionless after crying through the night. They were not expecting me. In their unbearable grief, they had forgotten about the existence of another daughter.
Attempting to console me, one of my sister’s friends said that Ruo-Dan was a hero. I stared at her, upset and confused. Why did she say that? What’s that to do with me wanting my sister? And still, it would be years before I came to understand that no –ism is comparable to a life. Any teaching otherwise is unnatural and inhumane. That day marked an unconscious beginning of this understanding.
Over time, what had happened became clearer: the Red Guards from several schools in the Sha’Ping district had been organizing a mass swimming activity in the Jialing River to commemorate the second anniversary of Chairman Mao’s famous swim, but their plan was delayed by the heavy rain. On the afternoon of the rescheduled activity, Ruo-Dan and three classmates—I don’t know if they were the same three who’d come to my house afterward—went to the river right after lunch, ahead of the planned time. The water had been rising for days. The girls hesitated. Ruo-Dan entered the river first and disappeared into the brown waves. The three other girls sat on the dirt bank, crying and calling her name for more than half an hour before walking another half an hour back to campus to get help. The searchers rushed to the river but did not find her until the next morning.
But that day at the Third Middle School, I learned only bits of this. In my muddled mind, I pictured Ruo-Dan asleep after her friends found her. I don’t know where that image came from, only that it wasn’t true. Decades later Lan told me that Ruo-Dan’s face was purple-blue from asphyxia and her eyes were open wide. Lan had been with my mother in a small room where Ruo-Dan, in a swimsuit suddenly squeezed too tight, lay still. My mother had screeched, “Little Jia! Little Jia!” and massaged her eyelids. “Please close your eyes, my little Jia! It’s Mama here . . .” Ever so slowly, my sister’s eyes closed.
After her disappearance, Ruo-Dan came to me in the darkness of night—I refused to use the word “death” because it was not real to me. After all, I had not seen a body, and her schoolmates had lied to me before. The same kind of dream would recur even in my adulthood: my big sister comes home and I ask where she has been. She is always vague about it, and I never get a clear answer. At times, the dream reinforced the suspicion, deep in my subconscious, that she’d been rescued from the river by some good-hearted people—this kind of thing often happened in the stories she told me. She just needed time to recover before returning.
During the day, Mother stayed in bed most of the time. In the moments she was out of bed, struggling to take care of my daily needs or my father’s, any little thing could trigger her tears; a letter from a relative saying hello to Ruo-Dan would make her cry very hard. I tried to keep her from crying by doing every household chore: washing dishes, clothing, even my quilt, things I wouldn’t do before, all in the hope of keeping my mother on her feet. But she’d fall into her bed again, and I felt the roof above my head could collapse at any moment.
If her presence was required outside our home, Mother would send me in her stead. A few weeks after Ruo-Dan’s accident, my father’s closest relative, Great Aunt, had a stroke and lay dying in a suburban hospital. She wished to see my parents one last time, but my father, who was still under Rebellion surveillance, was not allowed to leave the city and my mother was unwilling to go anywhere in her grief. She sent twelve-year-old me, alone. After two hours on the bus and an hour of wandering around, I finally found the hospital. When I reached her deathbed, Great Aunt could no longer speak. Tears streamed from the corners of her elderly eyes, and her shriveled fingers grabbed my hand so tight that it frightened me. I tried to pull away, but that only made her grip tighter, as if my hands were the final thread of life. I gathered all my strength to leave; when I finally succeeded, I ran out of the hospital and got on the next bus home.
The first thing Mother wanted to know was whether I expressed solicitude to Great Aunt as I’d been coached to. No, I said, she scared me, I ran away. “How could you do that? How could you do that to an old person who’s dying?” Mother sobbed, and her sobs turned into another fit of crying. Mother didn’t seem to understand that a dying person was exactly what spooked me, but I did not argue. How could you argue with a mother who was constantly crying?
In mid-August, Mother received a letter from Ping and called me to her bedside.
“Gaga has to come home soon,” Mother said. “What’s to be done? We can’t let her know! It’ll kill her . . .” Tears swelled in her eyes. This was not the first time the question of their return had come up, but the intense urgency was new: Ping described in her letter a scary fire in Ginkgo Bay and asked to come back. Mother wanted my help creating a believable story to explain Ruo-Dan’s disappearance.
In retrospect, I was the one who needed the story, and it had to foretell Ruo-Dan’s eventual return. In an odd way, the fantasy I came up with did give me a modicum of comfort and hope.
“Big Sister has joined the army,” I said to Mother as a memory resurfaced.
One day, months earlier, Ruo-Dan had come home to find me standing before a hand-made “battle map” on the wall, a red pencil in my hand, like a war commander. I had draped a faded army uniform over my shoulders the way a handsome officer wore his overcoat in a movie.
“So you want to join the army,” my big sister said pensively.
Of course I did. It was the dream of every boy and girl I knew to join the People’s Liberation Army, a name synonymous with heroes. We all knew the quotation of Chairman Mao: “Marx said that the proletariat must emancipate not only itself but all mankind. Without emancipating all mankind the proletariat cannot achieve its own final emancipation.” We also knew—from the People’s Daily and posters on walls—that only one-third of the world’s population lived happily in Communist countries, while the suffering two-thirds still awaited liberation, and it was our revolutionary duty to smash their shackles.
Ruo-Dan had wanted to join the army herself, though she could not figure out how. She even asked for help from our cousin—the one Third Sister Li was dating—a soldier stationed in Guangxi Province, but all he could offer was his own used uniform, cap, and belt, which my sisters and I eagerly accepted.
The idea that came to Ruo-Dan that day was to change my name. When my siblings and I arrived in this world, my parents gave each of us a baby name. It was informal and arbitrary, a quick effort meant for the family only. Our formal names waited until a significant hero sacrificed him- or herself, or was posthumously made into a legend. The slogan, “The Mao Zedong era is an era of never-ending heroes,” appeared ceaselessly in newspapers throughout my childhood. Sure enough, we were never disappointed by the frequency. Sometime before I reached school age, a young woman named Xiang Xiu-Li burned to death. Xiang was at work in a chemical factory when volatile material caught fire, and she hurled herself onto the burning chemicals in an attempt to prevent an explosion, to “protect State property,” the newspaper reported. The explosion was unpreventable, her life sacrificed for the State. My parents thus found the ideal name for me: Ruo-Li, meaning “just like Li.” They had overlooked one thing, though: the literal meaning of the ideograph “Li” (丽) is “pretty.” It looked bourgeois in writing.
Somehow, that inconsistency between the ideograph and intended veneration of a hero did not exist in Ruo-Dan’s name. Not only was hers the (transliterated) name of a Soviet heroine, Dan Niang, but also the ideograph of “Dan” (丹) means red, bright red, the color of revolution, the color of Communism.
The name Ruo-Dan chose for me embodied our shared wish to become soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army: “Jun” (军)—army, military, trooper. I was not alone. Many were so stamped, and with that character in our names, we were unmistakably children of the Cultural Revolution.
I have no recollection of where our parents were that day; in any case, Ruo-Dan did not bother to run her idea by them. At the nearby police station, a uniformed officer in charge of resident registration asked Ruo-Dan’s age and told us parental authorization was required to change a minor’s name. Ruo-Dan insisted. The policeman glanced at her Red Guard armband and fetched our family’s residency booklet from a drawer. It had cardboard covers and was bound together by a bit of string (a shoestring, it seemed). The man flipped through the pages and found the one listing all four of us kids. I watched curiously as he scratched out “Ruo-Li” with an eraser that roughened the paper, and then, in ugly slanted handwriting, put down the character “Jun” with a black-ink fountain pen. It was that easy to erase and change that by which I was known.
Mother accepted my story that Ruo-Dan had joined the army, and chose the place for her to be stationed: Xinjiang, the western-most province, far from Chongqing, where no one we knew had been. Still, Mother was uncertain whether she would be able to keep her composure in front of Gaga. When Ping again sent a letter begging to return, Mother replied with the good news about Ruo-Dan joining the army, telling my sisters to come home but asking Gaga to stay in the countryside a little longer.
Ping and Feng returned in early September. Mother sent me to meet them at the river port.
The day was humid, but the sun had lost its devastating power. The streets were full of hustle and bustle despite people’s monochrome dress. I walked to the port with two young sisters who were visiting us then. The sisters had unusual names, homophones with the words that mean “wind” and “rain,” respectively, and that was what I thought they were. Their parents were in exile, driven out by their enemy faction; Wind was my age, and I was impressed by her ability to take care of the younger Rain. For the past two years, I had grown used to the fact that my home was never short of other people’s children. Even in her insufferable grief, Mother never refused any friend’s request to let their children take refuge in our house.
The three of us met a jubilant Ping and sun-darkened little Feng at the Chaotianmen Port. My sisters looked tired after spending two full days on the passenger ship. Walking with me, Ping talked about how much she missed home, how thrilled she was to be back. She would later say that I looked stony, showing no joy in our reunion after nearly two months of separation, and that my manner poured a basin of cold water on her excitement. For my part, I simply felt older. I had been a talkative girl before; I’d aged by several years after, and become taciturn, one way to make up to my big sister. When Ruo-Dan was home, I was always so happy to see her that I’d ramble garrulously about whatever random thoughts I had in my mind, things my busy parents never had the time to listen to, but that my big sister always did. Two years before, Ruo-Dan had admonished me, saying, “You shouldn’t say everything you are thinking.” For the first time, at the age of ten, I was made aware of the line between thoughts and words, and the social requirements for acceptable speech. Despite my willingness to practice Ruo-Dan’s advice, however, I was never able to. Not until after she was gone.
I quickened my pace, needing to create a safe distance from Feng. At first Ping held Feng’s hand and tried to keep up, but I walked too fast, and she let go of Feng, who fell behind with Wind and Rain. Ping asked why Mother didn’t come to meet them. I didn’t answer. On the noisy streets, pedestrians passed us in all directions, and Ping kept chattering like a blissful bird. It annoyed me.
“Isn’t it great that Older Sister joined the army,” Ping said. That she wouldn’t call Ruo-Dan “Big Sister” further annoyed me.
I glanced back at our baby sister who dillydallied behind. Ruo-Dan’s accident had to be concealed from Feng as well, because you can’t prevent a seven-year-old from telling everyone the emperor is naked.
“No,” I said to Ping in a quiet voice. “She didn’t.”
Ping’s face blanched. “Huh?” She stopped walking, staring at me. Alarm contorted her face.
“She drowned,” I said tersely—“coldly” was the term Ping would later use. It was the first time I’d made such a statement, and it weighed like a lump of iron on my tongue, stifling any further words. My two cerebral hemispheres had been constantly warring; they reconciled at times, but more often took turns winning or failing. The moment I made the statement, the more rational side might have been at work, but the words also felt like revenge, as if Ping were the one to blame for the whole thing.
Ping’s entire body shrank into a ball. Before I knew it, she’d squatted down in the middle of the street, head between knees, knees in hands. Pedestrians cursed as they were forced to detour around her coiled body. She began to wail. Her grief caught me off guard. I had always viewed Ping as Ruo-Dan’s rival, and I didn’t expect sadness—such was the logic of my twelve-year-old mind.
I stood silently by Ping, not knowing what to say or do, except to stare back at those who stared as they passed by. Little Feng, along with Wind and Rain, caught up with us and was stunned to see Ping inconsolable, having never seen her cry before.
Mother wasn’t in when we got home. As soon as we entered, Ping saw Ruo-Dan’s little suitcase on a stack of quilts and went to open it. A framed photo of a smiling Ruo-Dan wearing her red scarf lay on top. Mother had enlarged the photo after returning from the Third Middle School. At first she hung it on the wall, but anticipating Gaga’s return, she took it down and hid it in the suitcase.
Ping held the photo in her hands and started to cry again. A little later, Mother returned—I don’t know where she’d been, perhaps simply trying to delay the miserable moment of reunion—and I panicked. Mother’s tears had become my biggest fear. “Stop crying,” I told Ping. It didn’t work. Mother and Ping just cried into each other. Little Feng was so frightened she hid behind a door.
It was too much. The inexplicable world sustaining my hopes collapsed. I now knew Ruo-Dan was really dead. In the months and years that followed, I’d engage in numerous scuffles with neighbors and visitors to keep Gaga from learning the truth, and I’d become a fierce hater of the many people who relish talking about someone else’s death. But on that day, the only thing I could do was run away. I ran out of the house, past Wind and Rain, who stood waiting silently on the stage.
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)