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I was born in a small city near the East Sea,
when the Great Cultural Revolution began.
My name is Xiao Qing, Little Green,
my country Zhong Guo, the Middle Kingdom.
When I was ten years old,
our leader died and the revolution ended.
And this is how I remember it.
The year was 1966,
I was told,
five o'clock on a late spring afternoon.
Mama had been in labor for eight hours.
Baba was pacing up and down in the hall,
having just come from
a mass political meeting in the city square.
The doctor held me up in the air;
I was a ten-pound girl,
screaming loud with a little red face.
Outside the world was changing,
a revolution was in the making for my country.
Darkening clouds gathering in the sky above,
smothering thunders rolling on the horizon afar.
Mama sat on Baba's bike, holding me tight in her arms;
Baba peddled toward home against the cold night wind.
Mama's face was as pale as paper;
she caught cold on the way home,
during the weakest time after her labor.
Little Green -- Xiao Qing --
was the name they gave me.
Qing, the green
of tree leaves in early spring,
of clear water in a deep pond,
my baba said;
of beautiful youth,
the evergreen of life,
my mama said;
and of precious jade worn close to the heart,
my nainai said.
Mama's Name Has a Phoenix
Mama still says, telling me the story,
luckily for the illness,
she escaped the first struggle meeting
in the school where she taught
just by a day.
The beginning of
the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
people waving red flags on the streets and
shouting loud the slogans on their red banners:
"Ten Thousand Years Chairman Mao!"
"Ten Thousand Years the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!"
Chairman Mao called to the country,
"Let's hold the large flags of
the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and
completely expose the reactionary position
of those so-called 'academic authorities.'"
The school where Mama taught was in the countryside,
but there was no escape even there.
It was declared to be "a revolutionary battlefield,"
like many other schools around the country.
The day before Mama went back,
in the school ceremony hall
the Red Guards stood on the stage,
the teachers were gathered around the stage,
and other students gathered around them.
The teachers picked
were denounced on the stage,
forced down on their knees and
beaten in front of the crowd.
They were asked to slap their own faces
while denouncing themselves aloud
until the Red Guards were satisfied.
Mama's name has a "phoenix."
The only child of our grandma and grandpa,
they called her Cheng-Feng,
which means "becoming a phoenix."
"You have no idea what trouble this could be,"
Mama told me.
"Phoenix is too traditional for the revolution."
Some said the old world needed to be destroyed
for the new world to come.
That's the idea of the revolution
I was born into.
around the country -- our Middle Kingdom --
so many people died,
I was told many years later.
An Uncle Teacher Became a Counterrevolutionary
"The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,"
Chairman Mao said,
"is a great revolution that will touch people's souls."
A year after the revolution started,
the other chairman of the country then,
besides Chairman Mao,
was "downed with" completely.
People used to call him respectfully
"Our comrade Liu Shao-Qi,"
but an uncle teacher used these words one day too late.
It was his turn to criticize
the denounced leader in a struggle meeting.
"Our comrade Liu Shao-Qi," he started with.
Just as he realized the mistake
and turned pale,
his head was already forced down.
"Down with the counterrevolutionary!"
throwing their arms up in the air,
trembling at this new discovery.
The uncle teacher slapped his own face,
calling himself one who "deserves to die."
He carried the label ever since I remembered.
A dream was the first thing I ever remembered.
Mama was holding me in her arms,
snakes hanging from a big hollow tree,
wolves and hyenas running on the ground.
Mama was standing among these things,
holding me tight in her arms.
Go Up to the Mountains and Go Down to the Country
I have a brother two years older,
who I called Gege.
Mama told me that
until the year I was two years old
and Gege was four,
the three of us had lived and traveled
between our home in the city where Baba worked
and the country school where Mama taught.
The city, like everywhere in the country,
had been deep in revolution.
The streets were filled with roaming Red Guards,
struggle meetings were held in every work unit,
and counterrevolutionaries were "downed with" every day.
A time of unpredictable changes,
a city of unrest.
Chairman Mao called to the whole country:
"Go up to the mountains and go down to the country,
to receive reeducation from poor and lower-middle-class peasants."
Baba was sent down from the city to labor
in a May Seventh Cadre School in the countryside.
We lost our home in the city.
My gege and I stayed with Mama
in the country school
after Baba was gone.
The Country Middle School
We lived in a long one-story house facing south
in the country middle school.
It had gray-blue tiles on the roof
with a brick wall of the same color.
Eleven other teachers' families
lived in the same building.
Eight of the families had children;
there were twelve of us altogether.
A river ran in front of the house.
Past the full-moon gate to the west of the house,
a brick bridge crossed the river.
On the other side of the river
was the school where Mama taught.
Between the house and the river was a long stretch of garden.
Right along the bank was the short bamboo bush
where wild red berries grew underneath.
Closer to the house were flowers mixed with vegetables:
daisy, tomato, and eggplant,
rose, pepper, and radish,
all between rows of cucumber frames.
Although Gege and I were too young to go to school,
our baba was sent away,
and our mama worked all the time,
we had many friends to play with.
We sometimes would sit in a circle and sing,
"Look, look, and look for a friend.
Find a good friend,
give a salute, shake a hand,
you are my good friend."
young girls and grandmas from the nearby villages,
would be clapping hands, laughing and singing along
with their country accents.
The river was running and murmuring slowly by,
fish boats floating and wandering on the water,
red dragonflies dancing and gathering like dusk clouds.
Rice fields around our house turned
from green to golden yellow,
rose bushes along the river bloomed and withered,
months of spring and summer passed.
At these times, for us children,
the revolution seemed to be far away.
People Called Mama Beauty Lu
People called Mama Beauty Lu.
Lu is her last name
and she was a born beauty.
Her face had a smooth oval shape.
Her short black hair glowed under the sun.
Her skin had a light olive color.
Under her eyebrows like willow leaves,
her eyes were bright and clear as the sky.
In them I never saw a trace of fear or doubt.
When Night Fell
"The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
must be carried on to the end,"
Chairman Mao said, and
"The class struggle
shall never be forgotten."
After the political meetings and teaching during the day,
every night Mama had to go back to work.
The party wanted her to study
Mao's Little Red Book.
When night fell, all of the children were locked up at home.
To save energy,
no lights were left on for any of us.
Mama would get Gege and me to bed;
we heard her walking to the door,
pulling the string attached to the lightbulb;
then in darkness, we could hear
the sound of her putting the lock on the door.
It was too early to fall asleep,
so we would call to each other,
checking if the other was asleep.
Our friend Maomao was four years old
and lived right next door.
Being left alone all by herself,
she cried loud every night,
with such a bright voice,
angry, stubborn, and sad.
The whole building of locked-up children
listened to Maomao's cries night after night.
Sometimes in the middle of the night
I woke up to the sound
of Mama unlocking the door.
I heard her come inside,
sit down on a wooden bench in the kitchen,
and sigh alone in the quietness of the night.
A Parade in the Middle of the Night
One night, deep in our sleep,
we were startled by a loud cry outside.
"Get up, all the teachers and staff.
We just got a new indication
from the Party and Chairman Mao.
Get up, let's form a parade to celebrate.
There were footsteps outside the door,
and a flashlight shone through our window.
Mama mumbled, getting up.
She scrambled to change to her day clothes.
I sat up on my bed,
and still half dreaming.
"Mama," I cried,
and Gege called too.
"Go back to sleep.
It's not morning yet.
Mama will be back soon,"
We heard doors opening
and footsteps hurrying.
Mama rushed out but quickly rushed back.
She grabbed her Little Red Book
and hurried out again.
It sounded like a group had formed
in front of our house.
Someone started shouting slogans outside:
"Ten Thousand Years Chairman Mao.
Ten Thousand Years the Great Cultural Revolution!
Ten Thousand, Ten Thousand, and Ten Ten Thousand!"
And the rest of the people followed with sleepy voices.
Through our window
I could see shadows of hands
holding and waving the Little Red Books.
Maomao started crying next door again,
her voice louder and brighter than the slogan shouting.
"Wake up! Show your respect to our Party and Chairman Mao!"
the slogan leader taunted the parade group.
My heart trembled and I woke up completely,
hoping he was not yelling at my mama.
Then the group started marching toward west.
The shouting grew weaker as they marched away.
After a long time Mama came back, dragging her steps.
She shut the door behind her and said to herself,
"We all must be crazy!"
Mama told us later that
they had marched through the rice fields in the darkness
to the nearby town,
where there was a single street --
the only street around that they could march on,
and so it would be called a parade.
Their slogans echoed on the empty dark street,
where everyone was asleep and no lights were on.
They went back and forth on the same street for a whole hour.
Nobody came out to watch the "parade."
"People," each time Mama told the story
she would sigh and laugh, "all must be crazy then."
Uncle Xie and the Enemy Station
Uncle Xie lived three doors to our left.
He was a chemistry teacher sent down from Shanghai,
leaving his wife and three children behind.
He had a strange habit of
turning his radio on loud,
so loud that the whole building could hear it;
soon we no longer needed our own radio.
He left his door open whenever his radio was on,
even during the coldest winter days.
One day Mama and I were passing by and
Uncle Xie had his radio blasting toward the door
with an army song broadcasted:
"Forward, forward, forward!
Our army is facing toward the sun,
their feet stepping on our grand motherland!"
Mama said hello and asked curiously
why he always had the volume so high.
Uncle Xie smiled and said:
"If everyone listens to the radio with me,
who can say that I am listening to the enemy station?"
Some years later Mama told me that
Uncle Xie was born in a capitalist's family.
When he was young,
he studied in Japan as a chemical engineer
and came back to New China to serve his motherland,
but only to become the kind most suspected to be a spy.
Nainai Came to Take Care of Us
My dear grandma,
my mama's mama, our waipo,
who we called Nainai,
came to take care of all of us.
So did many other grandparents.
My grandpa, our waigong, died a long time ago,
many years before I was born.
Nainai lived alone in the country,
close to her own baba and mama.
She was a petite little woman
who never stopped being busy.
Cooking, washing, sewing, and gardening
kept her busy all day long.
A Sphere of Light
Every day at six o'clock,
Mama came back to have dinner with us,
before she rushed back
to her political studies in her school.
At night things were quiet.
Nainai sat down under the dim yellow lamp,
sighing with great relief.
She liked smoking tobacco in a brass water pipe,
with water bubbling and
smoke surrounding her face.
Gege and I leaned next to her;
I loved the scent of tobacco and cooking on her clothes.
Often the electricity went out,
an oil lamp was all we had --
the light glowing only in a sphere --
beyond that, it was pure darkness.
I played the game of walking into the dark
with my eyes wide open.
At first I couldn't see anything;
my heart felt like it stopped beating for a second.
There was a temptation to turn back to the light.
But I stayed in the dark longer,
and the world started to take shape again.
Somewhere in the darkness, I thought,
Mama must be under another sphere of light
with Mao's Red Book in her hand.
Baba was too far away;
we couldn't imagine what his life was like
and whether he had a sphere of light too.
We Saw Baba Only Twice a Year
Chairman Mao said,
"All the bad things in the world
started from not laboring."
Baba lived in a May Seventh Cadre School,
where he was being reeducated.
The cadre school could only be reached by boat --
sometimes just a wooden boat,
slowly moved by a long bamboo stick.
It took a whole day each way.
We saw Baba only twice a year,
in the summertime
and Chinese New Year.
After not seeing him for a long time,
it felt so strange to call him "Baba" again.
The cadre school
was a big farm
with all sorts of grown-ups from the cities.
Intellectuals or people from wealthy families,
and also some people
who stood "on the wrong side" during the revolution.
Some of the grown-ups couldn't tell wheat from weed;
Chairman Mao thought it was good for them to know.
Those people were all sent to the country
to labor in the field and
to learn the life of the peasants
who were exploited in the "evil old society."
There was little I could remember about Baba.
When I was old enough to remember things,
he had already learned to work in the field.
To the Country
her own baba, mama,
brothers, and sisters
who still lived in her village,
where the house and the fields needed
to be tended,
where she was a production team member
in the People's commune.
She brought Gege and me to the country to visit --
sometimes both or one of us at a time.
We lived in an old house
she and our waigong had built many years ago.
It became a home for us all.
Like every old Chinese house,
Nainai's house faced south.
We lived in the west chamber,
where Nainai had her old red wooden wedding bed
with trees, flowers, and ancient beauties
carved on the red wood frame.
When springtime came,
the ground thawed,
softening, moistening underfoot.
We left the door open,
to the warm wind
and the swallows it brought from the south.
They made a nest on our long beam
and stayed for the whole spring,
busy carrying grass and worms in for their new babies,
who made little noises in the nest above our heads.
Taiye and Taitai
Nainai's baba, who we called Taiye,
and her mama, who we called Taitai,
lived close by
to the west in a small house
on a meandering creek
that connected to our pond.
The River, Riverbank, and Graveyard
Beyond the field behind our house
was a long riverbank
lined with Chinese scholar trees
heavy with white flowers in the spring and early summer.
Beyond the riverbank with the trees
was a river called the Ocean River,
running to the East Sea and the grand ocean far away.
Behind the riverbank and along the water
was a long long graveyard field
where everyone's ancestors were buried,
where Mama's baba, our waigong, was buried.
Snow white geese with red beaks,
crossing the green water in a long line,
hurdled idly by a farmer on a little boat with a small red flag.
Thin black dragonflies flew by,
gliding, and lingering ever so lightly
among the green grass and graves,
with wings like half-transparent black veils.
the villagers called them.
The Lotus Pond
We had a pond to the west of our house.
Midsummer in the country,
lotus bloomed in the pond.
Pink, white, and rosy flowers
standing among round big green leaves,
waving and reflecting colors on the water,
like beauties wearing jade in the wind,
next to the humble water chestnuts
shyly presenting little moon-white flowers.
The pond was full of scent,
floating through the air far beyond.
A wooden bathtub moving in the water
was my little boat for the summer,
where I napped in the afternoon
and played with my friends,
under the lotus
and in the chorus of cicadas.
The system in the countryside was a People's commune.
Under each commune were the production teams.
One village was one production team.
Nainai was made a member of the team,
which she reported to every morning,
and where they assigned her work through the day.
She came back for morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks.
From the house I could see her working in the field,
bending over to weed the field,
stretching up to wipe off sweat.
Breakfast with Taiye and Taitai
Every house in the village had a loudspeaker
installed by the production team.
In the morning about five o'clock
the loudspeaker in Nainai's bedroom
would start to play "The East Is Red."
"The east is red,
the sun is rising.
A person named Mao Ze-Dong has been born in China,
he seeks happiness for the people,
he is the great savior of the people."
Then Nainai got up first
and cooked breakfast in the kitchen.
A little later she would wake me up
as the loudspeaker echoed through our home
broadcasting commune news:
"Under leadership of Chairman Mao and the Party,
the situation in the country is great!
So many and so many tons
of summer season rice
and cotton were produced,
it was double the expected production.
When production is good,
we do not forget about class struggle;
every production team is studying Marxism and
the thoughts of Chairman Mao."
Sometimes Nainai would ask me
to invite Taiye and Taitai for breakfast,
especially if it was a warmer day,
so they would not catch morning cold
on their way.
The morning air was so fresh,
I started running fast
on the small dirt road.
Endless rice fields beside the road,
changing color during seasons --
from tender to dark green in the summer,
from dark green to golden yellow in the autumn.
Brushing against sesame plants and long weeds,
with morning dew splashing all over,
soon I would be in front of their house,
calling Taiye and Taitai to come to the breakfast.
As I was running back ahead of them,
Taiye and Taitai followed behind me.
Taiye had a long white beard
that he often let me braid.
It waved in the morning breeze
next to Taitai's white hair.
The gray-blue smoke was thinning
from the chimney on Nainai's house.
We knew breakfast must be ready --
rice soup, steamed buns, and pickles,
and maybe also a few boiled eggs
with shells still hot
to warm my hands.
Taiye and Taitai would ask Nainai
about her day before and her day ahead;
Nainai answered describing work in the fields.
The loudspeaker of the radio would keep on talking,
but after a while we didn't hear it anymore.
During the winter when I was four,
there were only Nainai and me
staying in the old house.
A few days before Chinese New Year,
we were looking at the moon one night.
It had a foggy ring around it,
like the smoke from Nainai's tobacco water pipe.
Nainai said thoughtfully,
"Spring fog, wild wind.
Winter fog, white snow.
promises a prosperous year."
We stood by the open door
as she spoke.
I smell the rich soil of the earth.
The next morning
the whole sky was covered
by a large cloud,
thick and heavy like a gray quilt.
By the time night was falling,
goose-feather snow was falling from the sky.
Nainai said that
she wanted to see her younger brother,
who lived on the other side of our pond.
She put a pair of red-and-yellow tiger shoes on my feet
and a red silk cape with a hood on my shoulders.
She lit an oil lamp and put it in my hand,
then lifted me from a bench onto her back.
She blew out the oil lamp on the table,
closed the wood doors behind us,
and started walking toward the pond,
carrying me on her back.
The air was fresh, the snow still falling.
Winter fields under the snow
stretched endlessly into the night.
Nainai stopped walking for a second,
pausing to listen to something.
The lamp waved gently and stopped in my hand.
I heard, for a long second,
the snowflakes falling from the sky,
delicate, gentle: a little whisper
as each one passed by my ear,
landing ever so lightly
on my shoulder.
this was Tian Lai,
the sound from heaven
that old folks in the village spoke of.
"Only a lucky one would hear,
and perhaps, only once
in a whole lifetime,"
Nainai told me.
That winter I stayed with Nainai
for the New Year.
Mama took Gege to visit Baba.
Nainai had two sisters.
During every New Year
they came to visit their baba, mama, sister, and brothers.
Since our house had the most room,
they always stayed with us,
until the first full moon of the year.
Late in the winter, before the spring,
the fields were still frozen and quiet.
A few firecrackers went off here and there,
echoing in the crisp air near and far.
We went around to visit relatives and neighbors
every day for lunch and dinner.
The rest of the time we stayed at home,
gathered around lit bronze hand and foot warmers.
I had my own little hand warmer
where I roasted peanuts and broad beans.
When I heard the popping sound
and smelled the roasted scent,
I knew they were ready to be eaten.
Nainai sat by the table
with her sisters,
brewing a pot of hot tea.
Cracking sunflower seeds and eating small crispy fried dough,
they were sharing old stories they remembered.
They giggled with sparkling eyes,
as if they were young girls.
They talked about songs they knew,
songs I had never heard before.
Holding my hand warmer,
I sat among them.
The first time I heard Nainai sing,
she sang a song called "Mengjiang Nu,"
a story from two thousand years ago
about a young girl whose husband was sent far away from home
to build the Great Wall in the north for the emperor.
He died while she was on a journey to find him.
It went like this, beginning in January:
"In January the new spring,
every home lighting red lanterns,
husbands and wives reuniting,
Mengjiang Nu's husband building the Great Wall.
In February warm outside,
swallows come to the south.
All of them in pairs, in couples,
Mengjiang Nu is alone without her husband.
In March the Qing Ming festival,
every family visiting ancestors' graves,
Mengjiang Nu's family graves deserted.
In April busy caring for silk worms,
Mengjiang Nu collecting mulberry leaves
to feed the worms.
The basket hanging on the tree,
a handful of tears, a handful of leaves.
In May the beautiful sun,
every family busy in the field.
Others planting young rice seedlings,
Mengjiang Nu's field full of weeds.
In June so very hot,
mosquitoes and bugs flying and biting.
I'd rather have thousands of bloody bites on myself,
please spare my husband Wan Xiliang.
In July autumn wind cold,
every family sewing new clothes,
only Mengjiang Nu's clothes old and worn.
In August the wild goose door open,
frost under feet of single swallows,
Mengjiang Nu as sad as the single swallow,
love birds forced to separate.
In September daisies blooming yellow,
scent of daisy wine fills the vat.
Others' wine, couples drink together,
Mengjiang Nu is all alone.
In October north wind blowing,
reed catkins flying in the air.
The weather cold and bitter in the Great Wall,
how could Mengjiang Nu's husband survive at all?
In November the snow flowers blooming,
Mengjiang Nu reunited with her husband in a dream.
Walking thousands of miles to bring him winter clothes,
where is my love, my dear husband?
In December busy for the New Year,
every family sacrificing pigs and sheep,
Mengjiang Nu is watching her mourning room full of white."
Nainai's voice wandering in the air
up around the beam and down to my ears,
just like when she spoke --
not too high and not too low,
and not in a hurry at all.
Her sisters joined her here and there.
As she was singing,
Nainai was looking through the open wooden door,
into the field stretching far away.
I saw my nainai being Mengjiang Nu herself,
with her long black hair in a shiny long braid,
standing alone in the open field, looking far away,
waiting for my waigong to come back,
from whatever Great Wall and emperor he had left for.
Seasons changed around her year after year,
and she was still waiting there.
A Long Rest
Just after the spring festival,
Taiye became very ill.
A bed was set up in his oldest son's home
in the large living room,
the center of everything.
The bed was set close to the floor
so he could move to the ground easily.
But he lay there quietly,
most of the time with his eyes shut,
as if he needed a long rest.
Nainai came whenever she had a break from the field,
helping Taitai to take care of Taiye.
She sat by him on a wooden bench,
with a bowl of porridge or soup in her hand.
She gave the food to Taiye by the spoonful.
He took a few spoonfuls each time,
then shook his head slowly from one side to the other.
She put the bowl down
and wiped his white beard carefully with a wet warm towel.
Summer came slowly that year.
Nainai's garden was full of green.
Nainai picked up a small watermelon,
and we went to see Taiye with the melon.
She cut the melon and said to me,
"Half for you and half for Taiye."
Then she gave me half the melon and a spoon.
I held it in my hand like a rice bowl,
and went to sit by Taiye.
"Taiye," I called.
He opened his eyes slowly,
as if waking up from a dream.
When he saw me sitting there,
a faint smile came to his face, as if from
somewhere far away.
I scooped the red melon,
and gave it to him.
He drank the juice and slowly chewed on the melon.
It was a hot late summer day
and the melon seemed to soothe him.
Nainai was sitting at the table
in the middle of the big empty room.
Taiye couldn't really see her from his bed,
but I saw her
from the corners of her eyes.
and the days were getting cooler.
One afternoon I was in front of the house
playing with my friends.
Suddenly all the adults looked serious,
and they told us to stop running and not to make any noise.
Then I heard crying like singing from the house.
It was my taitai, the wife of Taiye,
and my nainai, the oldest daughter of Taiye.
Nainai was telling Taiye something:
"My dear father,
without you how do you expect us
How tough your heart is,
to leave us like this.
Ever since I was a child,
you have been there for me."
Then I listened to Taitai and everyone else,
each of them singing their own stories.
I'd heard this kind of singing by women
in the country funerals,
where men usually cried silently.
Then I knew Taiye must have died.
In the country a funeral was called a white ceremony.
We had a white ceremony for Taiye that night.
They put him in a wooden coffin,
in the courtyard under the moonlight.
I went over to look at my taiye;
he was sleeping peacefully
with his white beard resting on his chest.
The neighbors all came over for the white ceremony banquet.
Each of them brought home a rice bowl for good luck.
The next morning they carried him,
crossing the golden wheat field of autumn behind our house,
and buried him under the Ocean River bank,
alongside my waigong.
A big sailboat with a tall white canvas sail
passed by soundlessly in front of my eyes.
I wondered if Waigong and Taiye were on the boat,
going somewhere else.
Perhaps they are going to the ocean,
where the river is running toward.
Perhaps they are going to cross the ocean,
where lies the unknown land.
Will I go there one day?
Will they all come to visit me on a big sailboat?
Little Sister Was Born
After Taiye passed away,
Nainai and I returned to the country school
where Gege and Mama were.
Baba was still in the cadre school.
Mama told me a baby was coming,
her belly was like a small mountain.
Every morning before going to work,
Mama went to the river to wash our clothes.
Gege and I followed her.
When we came back,
Mama had a basket of washed clothes in one hand
and a bucket of water in the other.
"Aiya! You shouldn't carry heavy things,"
the neighbor aunties and uncles
cried as they saw her,
trying to carry the basket
and bucket for her.
But she walked fast,
shaking her head "no" and thanking them.
One morning, after we came back from the river,
Mama didn't go to work.
A midwife from the nearby town
rushed into our apartment with two other teacher aunties.
Gege and I were kept outside.
After a short while we heard a baby crying.
Our meimei -- my little sister -- was born.
When Gege and I were allowed back home,
the midwife and the two other aunties
were taking care of Mama in her room.
In the living room
Nainai was wrapping the baby in a red cloth.
She gently tied the cloth around her
and hooked the wrap onto an old steelyard
made of red wood and yellow bronze.
Moving the sliding weight carefully to balance,
I smiled to myself,
knowing that I was still the biggest baby born to the family.
But my little sister was born the quickest.
"All that clothes washing and water carrying did it," Mama said.
Since the baby was the third child,
we called her Sansan, Little Three.
Baba could not come to see the new baby.
She cried often day and night.
"More than you and your gege ever did,"
Mama told me,
rocking Sansan gently back and forth in her arms.
On the Bridge to Mama's School
After Sansan was born,
for a while we all stayed together
in the country middle school --
except Baba, who was far away.
Nainai stayed home to take care of Sansan.
Mama was called back to school.
There were two political groups in Mama's school:
the "rebels" who wanted to
"down with" everything and
the "emperor protectors" who wanted to
"down with" only some things.
Mama didn't belong to either of them,
which made her life difficult.
The head of the rebellion group
was a young sports teacher.
Born into a family of three generations of peasants,
he proclaimed his roots were the most revolutionary of all.
Mama told me that
after the Cultural Revolution began,
instead of teaching, this man held struggle meetings,
calling teachers onto the stage and
deciding their fate according to his wishes.
He also organized a propaganda team.
With red bands on their arms
they performed "loyalty dances" to Chairman Mao every day.
They threw one arm up to Mao's picture;
with the other arm they held Mao's Little Red Book
pressed against their chests.
I couldn't help thinking that
the head of the rebellion group looked like a puppet,
not a man.
Like many teachers in the school,
my mama avoided him as much as she could.
One day after classes were over,
I was waiting for Mama on the bridge
while playing with my friends.
Mama came with some other teachers.
The rebellion group leader passed by Mama
and sneered her name,
which means "becoming a phoenix."
He said, "I guess your dead rich father was hoping
you would become a phoenix.
We received documents from your hometown.
Your background needs to be checked again;
there are suspicious things going on here.
Given the family you are from,
you could have counterrevolutionary motives."
My heart jumped to my throat.
I didn't understand what he was saying,
but I sensed that my mama was in trouble.
But Mama seemed to have been prepared for this.
She turned to face him.
"Comrade Li," she replied,
"I have been reading Chairman Mao's Red Book.
I am sure, being the rebellion group leader,
you study very hard too.
Could you point out on which page
our great leader said
the poorer you are, the more revolutionary you are?"
There was silence in the crowd.
Everyone was looking at him.
They knew that except for carrying and waving
the Red Book during slogan shouting,
this man had not read much at all.
Mama then continued calmly,
"If you cannot answer the question
about the Chairman's Red Book,
it's hard to say that you are more revolutionary
than the rest of us."
He flushed and yelled angrily,
"What is your attitude toward the revolution?"
No one had embarrassed him like this before.
"I don't have any attitude.
But these people were once your teachers.
They have taught you how to read
and bought you books when you could not afford them.
If you have not lost your conscience,
think about what you have done to them.
Did Chairman Mao tell you to destroy their lives?
You are probably the one that is blackening the revolution."
His face now looked like
a purple pig liver on a butcher's bench.
"We will inform your husband's work unit;
you could be a counterrevolutionary couple together!"
Mama had fire in her eyes.
Before anyone had time to react,
she gave Li a big slap right on his face.
The two uncle teachers standing next to Li
quickly grabbed him by his arms,
reciting loudly a quotation from Chairman Mao,
"No armed struggle, only literal struggle!"
Li yelled and screamed like a wild dog.
So many admiring eyes around Mama,
she took my hand and said,
"Mama will explain things when you grow up."
Her eyes were as clear as the sky again.
I was scared for the things she was to explain,
and suddenly was afraid to grow up,
but my heart was soaring to the sky,
full of admiration for my mama.
We walked out of the crowd toward home
and never looked back.
Copyright © 2005 by Chun Yu