A Child’s Story
I. The Leap of Faith
My grandmother was born in the Yan Family Hill Village on January 14th, 1953. It’s a small village of around a thousand people in Shandong Province, China.
Her earliest memory was eating at the “cafeteria” when she was five. In the “Production Team,” where farmers worked for little, albeit equal pay, as part of the government-mandated centralized planning, everyone was compelled to eat together, in a great mess hall, three meals a day.
The events that led up to this way of life for 500 million people was the Great Leap. In an effort to demonstrate the country’s might and improve international standings, Chairman Mao commanded that, starting in 1958, China was to ramp up its production efforts of iron and steel. Within two years’ time, a country just recovering from World War II and an unprecedented civil war was to surpass the iron and steel production of England. Using this outdated metric from the First Industrial Revolution to measure a country’s economic might was not doubted by anyone; the necessity became clear to all Chinese people through propagandist media. So it began, and, in the last four months of the year, the country had a single objective: to double its iron and steel output.
Every family sacrificed their pots, pans, bicycles, knives, and just about everything else with metal in it to the effort. No one had anything to cook with, hence, the “cafeteria.” When she was five, my grandmother used to walk down to it three times a day with her little pail, hold it out to ask for food and get a full bucket of it – dried sweet potatoes, boiled to be edible. They were leftovers from last year’s harvest, meant to serve as the one and only staple for an entire family, 365 days of the year. Tears welled in her eyes as she relayed how it was often so soggy, that water would collect at the bottom of the pail. One can only imagine the image of a five-year-old carrying food for the entire family, three times a day. Though perhaps it was more pitiful that a five-year-old alone was able to do it – that was how little they ate.
My grandmother was the oldest of four siblings; she had two younger brothers and a younger sister. Measures to prevent life were and still are deemed universally secondary to measures to sustain life. It was not uncommon for a family to have eight or nine children, as was the case with my grandfather. With no food and no clothes, the lack of contraceptives was not even a concern to a rural Chinese family such as my grandmother’s at the time. Their family’s meager pay was stretched thin among the children, etching lines of anxiety and worry permanently into my great-grandparents’ visages. They had to work hours every day – yet it was not as if any of that mattered. The goal was communism, after all, and when no one was paid for extra effort, no one gave extra effort. There were no promotions or appreciation. Everyone got the same amount of money no matter how much they worked. It did not help that, in an attempt to convince the higher-ups the Great Leap goals were, indeed, being met, the officials blew the agricultural and industrial production numbers way out of proportion in the Central Committee. Too little food and too much demand, coupled with overly ambitious production goals and a lack of inspections and management meant not enough food or money for anyone. Hence the outrageous offerings of the “cafeteria,” and the rationing of every life necessity. Hence the constant hunger and suffering of 500 million people, including my grandmother.
As soon as she could reach the kitchen counter – that was, at around five and a half years old – my grandmother was given the tasks of doing the dishes, assisting with cooking, taking care of her siblings, and retrieving water from the local well. It was a dreadful task. As the bourgeoisie around the world regulated the cold and heat of their water with simple movements of their fingers, the future of the proletariats was struggling with buckets up and down the road for it. In the winter, the edges of the well would freeze over, so that my grandmother had to squat down and use every muscle in her body to keep her balance lest she might slip on the ice and tumble into the well. The frigid water that she retrieved would sting her small fingers, and make washing extremely unpleasant. Coupled with the frostbite which frequently greeted the northerners every year since they had no spare clothes to keep warm, her skin would stay in pain for days, then itch for the rest of the winter, every winter. Just like hunger, cold, and the lack of necessities, the irksome red bumps became habitual.
I like to think that my grandmother’s generation took their own leap of faith when they were born. As children, they had no power – they were helpless in the face of hunger, fanaticism, and confusing change, and they fell hard. I supposed you could say that the adults failed to catch them with anything beyond empty faith. Make it generic, though. Let us not specify beyond just “the adults.” After all, no one likes people who disagree with faith.
2. The Revolutionary Revolution
My grandmother never received education beyond elementary school. This was no accident. My grandpa, a year older than she, was able to receive exactly one year of middle school education. That was because of the large-scale reform, named the “Cultural Revolution,” sweeping across China starting in 1966.
My grandmother’s generation called it “The 10-Year Calamity.” If it was as simple as not letting children go to school, the “revolution” might have been more innocent, more justifiable as a political movement – but no, it completely upended so many aspects of Chinese culture, and so many morals that are considered key to our identity were at once dissolved. Piety, respect, wisdom, education; such concepts that were once fundamental to our place in history became anti-revolutionary and incorrect.
Teachers, educators, scientists, artists, lawyers, and just about every occupation requiring higher education was deemed rightist and part of the oppression of the people. At schools, students beat up teachers. At home, neighbors tortured neighbors. Lynchings and mass condemnations of people were not infrequent; once in a while hundreds would gather in a crowd to shout for the death of a man or woman, whose existence was a crime. People would be ostracized for being related to someone who had traveled to Taiwan, where the Nationalists – the enemies of the party – had retreated to, or because they lived in a mansion or were relatives to businesspeople. Suicides were frequent, but other forms of escape were difficult. Passports didn’t exist back then; one had to be very rich or very well-connected to even travel abroad, much less to emigrate. Thus, millions were trapped inside their homeland, forced to endure punishments rendered by a single verdict of the Chairman.
Legal reforms supported fervent local enforcements. Universities were shut down, and the national standard examination in China, the Gao Kao, was terminated. The same people who were spat at, beaten, tortured, and ostracized for their jobs, soon lost those jobs and faced many livelihood problems that were compounded by the difficulty their children and relatives had, when seeking their own occupations and ways of life. Mandatory jobs were sometimes assigned, reducing former professors to degrading tasks like sweeping the streets, and former doctors to hospitals janitors.
It was a revolution! Those were the words passed around the streets. It is a revolution, we are making a revolution. My grandmother had often wanted to join the excitement in the streets, wave flags, and chant fiery words of rebellion with other children, but was forbidden to by my great-grandfather. Stay home, he would say. You are a girl, you can’t defend yourself if you get attacked. What if you get trampled? Don’t meddle with things you don’t understand. But even when she wasn’t at the center of the storm, my grandmother could not shut her eyes to everything that was going on. She recalled marveling at a group of youths parading around with an old lady, her hands tied behind her back and a large, white paper cone on top of her head, with words written on it. Though she could not read at the time, the words were probably “enemy of the people,” “take down anti-revolutionaries,” “nationalist relative,” “rightist sympathizer,” or something of the sort. Despite the rhetoric she had become accustomed to, my grandmother was bewildered by such parades. She understood that the old woman was the spouse of a former soldier, who wore a different-colored uniform, but she was kind and quiet – why were they pressing down on her back so hard? Why did they push her around, kick her down, and revel in her misery?
Across the nation, statues were torn down, centuries-old monuments ripped from their stands. If nationalism demanded a new identity, then so be it. But it couldn’t exist without those prior identities, those very same ideas it alienated. After the Cultural Revolution, restoration efforts were made at many sites, often extremely unsuccessfully. The same time the government used the country’s youth to account for its weak national standing, the central government boasted of China’s five-thousand-year-old civilization to amass patriotism. Such contradictions were often seen down to common people’s lives. The same doctors who were forced to become janitors or beggars by the revolution, were often called back to the hospital by panicked nurses to perform impromptu operations that were beyond the capabilities of the young, new “doctors.” They received no pay for doing so, of course, and were discarded back into the cold embrace of society as soon as they were done. Innovation and culture stagnated, first because all the creators were gone and secondly because people were afraid. This, needless to say, did not help with the famine or the shortage of necessities at all.
On September 9, 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an abrupt end with the death of Chairman Mao Ze Dong. Across the nation, people wept their hearts out – for different reasons, or perhaps the same. However, a curious observation could be made: as soon as the great leader closed his eyes forever, everyone reached the consensus that the rightists were of smaller concern.
3. Measured Hunger
At age thirteen, my grandmother weighed forty-seven pounds. She contracted hookworms in her intestines that fed on her already meager ration. The parasites were undoubtedly contracted through unsanitary living conditions caused by poverty and famine. Again, since the age of five, my grandmother, along with all other children of the village, dug wild vegetables and roots to survive. As a feeble young girl, she often cried many times a day, for her hard-won labor would often be stolen by older, stronger children before she had the ability to return them to her family. Everyone ate whatever they could, whenever they could. Sanitation was not the priority.
The hookworms cost her family thirty yuan, equivalent to roughly four dollars and sixty-five cents. The family lamented for months, for they could not spare even that. It would be nine years before my grandmother had the ability to repay the loan to the credit union, and by then the amount had already more than tripled to ninety-six yuan (fourteen dollars and eighty-seven cents) due to compound interest. She remembers returning the money without telling her parents, then coming home to face the angry censure of her mother, who had reserved the money for new clothes. The entire family got new clothes once a year, on Chinese New Year. But she had to repay it, my grandmother told me, or the interest would further accumulate. She didn’t know exactly how much it would be next year, though, for she had never had the opportunity to learn how interest worked. The government had simultaneously taken her education and simplified her task; there was no choosing between interest rates from the borrower. Everyone borrowed from one place, the credit union, and people were too grateful to spend money that was not their own to worry about the interest rate. There were no banks or privately owned financial institutions, but there was plenty of inflation and suffering to go around.
Many Chinese traditions died during that time. Amid calls for renovation and destruction of the “old society,” people, especially the youth, despised past traditions and embraced new norms. Although, fortunately, many abolished traditions were backwards and unnecessary, still many were valued identities of the Chinese culture. The northern Chinese tradition of eating longevity noodles at birthdays has carried to today, but at a cost. Every year, my grandmother recalled my great-grandmother lamenting over their meager ration: they received sixty kilograms, or 132.3 pounds, of grain per family of six per month. Thirty percent of that – a bit over thirty-nine pounds – was white flour. The rest were sweet potatoes and corn. It was never enough. In January, there were three birthdays – my grandmother, her brother, and her sister. Each child had been waiting for their bowl of plain noodles for a year, and each, my great-grandmother thought, deserved their share. But what to do? There was simply not enough food. So she would often dry the sweet potato, and grind it into a flour to mix with the white flour. My grandmother described the black, unappetizing powder as rough and unsatisfying compared to white flour – but it was a heavenly treat all the same. After all, Christmas is Christmas largely because it happens once a year.
While bourgeoise girls her age dreamed of princes, dresses, and parties, my grandmother dreamed of eating one bite of a plain, white steamed bun – just one bite. There was no need to check for monsters under the bed; everyone had one inside of them. The devil that is hunger took dreams, hopes, and lives. My grandmother remembers sitting still all day, for moving would make her feeble enough to pass out. Often, though, despite the hunger, she had to work. Her siblings were equally hungry and miserable; she needed to wash them, take care of them, and comfort them. Her parents were often exhausted as well.They would reprimand her for not cooking correctly, being slow with her chores and other tasks. She had no friends; and she had no time, no need for friends. She did not complain because that was how everyone lived. Friendless, moralless, foodless.
My great-grandfather was a woodsmith. For long periods of time he was confined to bed – not due to disease, but because of malnutrition. His legs swelled painfully, so he could neither walk nor perform daily functions. This phenomena was so widespread that the government rationed a pastry for everyone – made with red sugar (sugar left over from the process of making white sugar) and thatch roots. Lying on his bed, seeing his hungry children watch him eat, my great-grandfather could not bear to have the meager food alone – he often took just one, and passed the remaining three or four to his children.
Rations, rations, rations. Rations for years, rations for decades. Rations that took up my grandmother’s best years and robbed the lives of millions, the dreams of even more. The least I can do is to pass this story on, to use the destitution of the past to feed minds in the future – for history is known for repetition.
I mourn for my people.