A tribute to a father’s love in chaotic times – by Jianguo Wu
Ed: 元旦快乐 and a happy 2017 to all readers in the colony! We have some great nonfiction stories lined up for the first months of the new year, like this touching, untold true tale from the Cultural Revolution. If you'd like to see more like it, please donate to keep the hill alive
It was in the early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. Meat was very rare at that time; everyone had only half a kilogram of meat ration each month. Even if you had the ration ticket, there was still no guarantee that there was meat to buy with it.
My father worked as a labourer in a steel factory. At lunchtime one day, the factory’s canteen offered a bowl of ‘twice-cooked pork’ (huiguorou) to each worker – extra meat without need for a ration ticket. My father didn’t eat it but kept it in a round metal bowl. In the afternoon when he finished work, he brought it home to share with the whole family – my mother, me and two younger sisters.
For many years, I have wondered how my father brought that bowl of meat back home on his bicycle – a bicycle so old that it was hard to decipher its trademark. It was five kilometres from the factory to his home, on bumpy roads. He had neither plastic bag nor food box, only a round metal bowl without a lid. He held the bowl on the rear bike rack with a cheap clamp. But he managed to ride home without losing a single piece of pork. I have always wondered how.
In 1962, just a few months after he married my mother, my father was sacked by the state-owned railway company where he worked. Because of the terrible economic conditions during the Great Leap Forward, there were no new railways built and the authorities sacked many railway workers. Some cried and pleaded for the company to keep them on. But my father simply packed his bags and left. He was tired of carrying the heavy cross of his class status within the company, and was not sad to go.
The communist authorities had divided everyone into different classes based on what they or their parents did before the new government came to power in 1949. My father’s class status was classified as ‘landlord’, an enemy of communism, because his grandmother used to be a landlord. He was discriminated against because of it, but he worked quietly and his silence helped him to avoid any serious persecution. When he was sacked, though, he tore up all the landlord class status documents that the company had given him.
These documents were necessary to register for a residence card wherever he went. In Communist China during the Mao years, everyone was required to get a residence card from their local neighborhood committee and local police station. Without it a person could not get food rations or apply for jobs in the district, and would eventually be driven away by the police.
My father didn’t live with my mother, as his work had been wherever the railway was being built. After a journey of hundreds of kilometres, my father arrived back in Zhaojia Town, Sichuan province, to join his wife. The first thing he did was try to register for his residence card. However, the head of the neighborhood committee, Xu, refused.
‘Where are your class status documents?’ Xu asked.
‘I lost them along the way,’ my father answered.
‘I can't register you without your documents,’ Xu repeated.
In fact, Xu believed that my father had been given severance pay by his company, and wanted to take a portion of the payment.
‘You must have been paid good money after you were sacked,’ Xu said. ‘Can you lend me some money?’
My father was willing to give him some money if it meant that he could get his registration. But Xu was so greedy that he wanted my father to ‘lend’ him two hundred yuan. The total severance was just one hundred yuan, and my father didn’t have the money to pay him.
Later, my father heard that Xu had left the neighborhood committee and been replaced. So he went to try and register again. The new head of the committee was less greedy than Xu and only asked my father to ‘lend’ him twenty yuan. My father gave the money over and finally got his residence registration.
At the local police station, a police official called Niu was writing out the residence card for my father. His birth date, birth place and class status were all included.
‘What is your class status?’ Niu asked.
‘I was a worker at a railway company,’ answered my father.
Niu did not ask what he or his parents did before 1949 and just wrote ‘worker’. That was how my father’s class status changed to ‘worker’, who were regarded as allies of the Communists.
Xu was very angry when he found out that his replacement had given my father a residence card. He always suspected that my father’s class status must have been landlord.
Although my father was able to get registered, he still could not find a job in town. He decided to go to the countryside where he might find work as a farmer. A farmer's life was hard, but at least they would earn an income and it was better than nothing. He contacted several villagers, but wasn’t offered work by any of them.
On the road, he saw a man repairing a millstone. He thought he could do that, as he had done some stone repair work on the railway. So he bought some second-hand chisels, sharpened them and in 1963 my father started work repairing millstones for farmers.
My family rented a room in an old house – fifteen square metres with shabby bamboo walls and a leaking tile roof. Every morning, at about 5:30, my father would get up and make breakfast for the whole family. By the time the rest of the family was up, he was already out walking between the villages with his box of tools, calling out his daily chant: ‘Millstone repairing, millstone repairing...’
Sometimes it was easy to find work, at other times difficult. When he repaired a millstone in a farmer's home he would have lunch with the famer, but sometimes he couldn't find a job in the morning and had to go without lunch. Sometimes he had to walk twenty kilometres until he found work. Often he stayed in a farmer's home overnight and returned to our home after several days.
Most of the time the farmers didn't have rice to eat, only mixed grains and vegetables. They rarely had cash so they paid my father in grain, usually corn. Without this corn our family would not have had enough to eat.
My father had to be satisfied with this life. It was hard, but at least he could use his hands to earn a living. He dared not have any extravagant hopes. Although he was educated, he dared not admit it because educated people were persecuted. It was better to pretend to be illiterate, as long as the family could survive. So he would do strange things like hold a newspaper upside down, as if he were an illiterate peasant trying to show that he was educated.
Sometimes, though, he couldn’t control himself and would show off. Once the house owner's wife, Mrs Jiang, came to our home holding a sheet of paper. ‘Could you help me write a letter to my brother?’ she asked.
‘No problem.’ My father stopped grinding his millstone, removed the mess from the small table, and took out his writing brush and glasses, which were hidden under the bed. He preferred the brush over the pen, to show off his calligraphy.
‘What beautiful handwriting you have!’ Mrs Jiang praised.
My father showed a moment of pride, but his smile faded. ‘Don't tell anyone,' he said. 'Remember, I'm illiterate.’
Mrs Jiang winked. No one else in town knew his real status. The Jiang’s friendship was important because it wasn't easy to find a room to rent.
Since he had changed his status to ‘worker’, he didn't have to keep reporting to the Neighborhood Committee, nor was he ordered to do volunteer work like other people with a bad class background. However, the ‘good’ times did not last long. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution began.
In those early years, rebel organisations formed among factory workers and staff at government offices, each calling themselves revolutionaries in the name of Chairman Mao. They fought each other with guns in the countryside, and my father tried to avoid them when he walked out to work. One day, he was captured by a rebel organisation. They said that he must be a spy. He had to ask farmers to vouch that he had been working as a millstone repairman for many years and that he was not a spy. Finally, they freed him.
The violence became ever fiercer. My father had no choice but to stay at home. He bought a second-hand bicycle, and planned to ride it to look for work when the violence ended. At that time, a bicycle had to be registered by the authorities and the name transferred when it was sold.
Some of the rebel organisations had became the local authorities, and they often went into peoples' homes to check their residence cards in the middle of the night. Usually a family had one residence card which covered all the family members’ names. During their search, if these rebels found anybody whose name was not on a family’s residence card, they would take them to the nearest police station.
The day my father bought his bicycle, they came in the night to check residence cards. As soon as they saw the bicycle, they asked my father to show the registration card for it. My father explained that he had just bought the bicycle and hadn't had time to register it. The head of the group, a man named Zhao who used to be a cook, refused to hear my father's explanation and took the bicycle away.
After a couple of days getting the bicycle registered, my father eventually got his bicycle back.
One day, a 'big character poster' appeared on a public wall near my grandmother’s home. It said that all those who worked on their own, like my father did, were regarded as capitalists and must report to the authorities. Over the evening meal at my grandmother’s place, my parents and grandmother discussed the meaning.
‘It shouldn't be a problem,’ my father said, ‘I'm just working to earn a living. I asked them to give me a job before but they didn't.’
‘But the poster says clearly that if you are working on your own, that makes you a capitalist,’ my mother said.
The next day, my father and other private workers went to the office to report. Zhao, the cook who had confiscated my father's bicycle, was in charge of the operation. It was an interrogation like they were prisoners, sometimes involving torture. My father explained to Zhao that he used to be a railway worker but was dismissed.
‘Is that true?’ Zhao asked him.
This question made my father nervous. If he asked the railway company to prove that he had been a worker there, they might find out his old landlord class status. But if he didn’t, nothing could prove that he used to be a railway worker. Zhao changed the topic.
‘What are you doing?’ Zhao shouted at my father, ‘It's many years since you left the railway company but you're still working on your own!’
‘No one offered me a job,’ said my father.
‘You're a speculator!’ shouted the cook, his voice getting louder. Speculators were regarded as capitalists.
When my grandmother told me that some people said my father is a speculator, I was four years old and I didn't know what a speculator was. In Chinese the word for speculator, touji, sounds like 'stealing a chicken'. I thought some people must have accused my father of stealing a chicken.
From that time, my father and others who worked by themselves had to go to the office every day for re-education. Fortunately, because my father’s class status was 'worker', they didn't torture him. One day a shoe repairman and some others burst into Zhao's office saying they were unable to bear their re-education.
‘What's wrong with us?’ they asked. ‘We just want to earn a living.’
At the end of the programme, Zhao declared that all private workers must go to the countryside to work as farmers, to prevent them from becoming capitalists.
My father knew how hard the farmer's life was and he thought his family wouldn't survive. So he refused to go. When Zhao asked him to hand over his residence card he always made excuses.
In the end, a steel factory was built just outside town and needed some casual labourers. So the authorities organised for the remaining private workers to work at the factory.
The work was hard. My father didn't care, because it was so much better than going to the countryside.
At that time, the Neighborhood Committee organised political study almost every evening, to learn communist theory and Mao Zedong’s instructions for moving the Cultural Revolution forward. Every resident had to be there.
During the classes I stood behind my father, who sat among the illiterate residents. The chair of the meeting was reading from communism’s bible – the manifesto of the USSR Communist Party. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre …’
‘Dad, whats a spectre?’ I asked on the way home.
‘It's a monster,’ answered my father.
'Will the monster would eat us?’
‘It won't just eat you. It will torment you first, then eat you.’ He turned to me seriously. ‘Don’t tell anybody about this. Humans can't fight it. You can't even call it a monster.’
Seeing I was frightened, he added, ‘You can still be safe if you keep silent. By using your wisdom, you can escape its torment.’
But my father’s silence didn’t bring him safety. He thought he had successfully changed his class status, but one day Xu, the old head of the Neighborhood Committee, revealed that he knew the secret. Although Xu didn’t make it clear what he was going to do – whether reporting it to the authorities or blackmailing him – it made my father nervous.
Nor could my father keep his silence all the time. One day, I remember how he suddenly burst out in anger and resentment, ‘What a dog-fucked world!’ He was squeezed between the two beds in our cramped room, where he took out some dry noodles for dinner from where they were stores. He shouted as he struggled to get out from between the beds, ‘I just want to say some anti-revolutionary words!’
Fortunately, no strangers heard him. When he turned his face to his children, he was relieved of his anger. By the time the noodles spat in the wok and the hotpot rumbled, the family appeared at our small round table to eat.
‘Dad, tell us a story!’ my two sisters and I asked.
‘Let your father finish his dinner first,’ my mother interrupted.
‘Come on, Dad,’ we echoed. ‘Please.’
‘All right, all right. Go outside and wait for me.’
We dragged our small bamboo chairs excitedly into the yard that we shared with Jiangs, to wait for our father. I realise now that he had only one goal in life – to protect his children from the monster, no matter what he suffered himself.
Perhaps it was because of this extraordinary love that managed to bring that bowl of twice-pooked pork back home from the steel factory on his bicycle without dropping any. This is the only explanation I can find for that magic, but I believe it with all my heart.
Jianguo Wu is a survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and a freelance writer living in Australia. He has published short stories including 'Pure Land’, a novel ‘Meandering Stream’ and a play ‘Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace’. Also read Jianguo’s previous story for the Anthill, Red Mark, about his childhood during the Cultural Revolution