Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Prodigal Son

Tian Shan is my childhood friend. His name copies the name of the famous mountains in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in the northwest of China. It means heavenly mountains. His father’s name is Qi Lian Shan, also that of a well-known mountain, one in Gansu province. So Qi Lian Shan gave all three of his children mountain names. The older sister is called Lin Shan, meaning forest mountain; and the younger brother is Xiao Shan, small mountain.

Tian Shan’s father was Editor-in-Chief of a local newspaper where both of my parents worked as an artist and a reporter. Tian Shan’s mother was a correspondent for the same newspaper. When my parents had been assigned to work for the newspaper, it was Tian Shan’s father who went to pick them up in the capital city. It took them ten days in a canvas-covered truck to go across the Tian Shan Mountains and Taklamakan Desert and got to the little town called Hetian (Khotan), a historically famous site on the Silk Road. We all lived in the newspaper agency’s compound. Our apartment houses were face to face, only 10-15 meters apart across a small yard with grape arbor and trellis. Whenever Tian Shan’s mother was out on assignment, the three children would be in my mother’s charge. And whenever my mother was on a business trip, my brother and I would be their mother's responsibility. We were just like a big family. Tian Shan’s sister is the oldest among us children. Tian Shan and my brother are the same age, two years younger; and his younger brother and I are the same age. We children played together, went to school together, and did homework together either at our house or theirs. We grew up together.

Tian Shan was very energetic and naughty. He often led us to pick up tomatoes and cucumbers in the field, or apricots, peaches, apples, etc. from the trees in the garden that belonged to the agency. He did not like me to follow them though, because I was a girl, too cowardly. Each time we were caught, my parents would urge my brother and I write an apology, but his mom or dad would spank them hard. And he never minded. He liked swimming. But there was no swimming pool except a reservoir far away which took two hours bicycling to reach. So, one day, Tian Shan swam in the small pond where all the residents of the newspaper got their daily drinking water. The maintenance person saw him but could not catch him, only angrily waved his fists and yelled: “I’ll tell your father!” Once, when his mother was on a business trip, he escaped from the noon nap and swam in a small narrow irrigation ditch in the grape arbor. Naked and splashing water with loud noise, neighbors complained. My mother, with a flyswatter in hand, warned him out, but only found it hopeless to get him out.

Tian Shan was good looking with big bright eyes and high straight nose like his mother. He also had a good voice and liked acting. Very often, after our homework or during the homework, he would act for us, either pretended to be somebody or making up his own characters. His favorite act was to recite some heroic poems, or to sing solos. Once he recited some poems from The Red Rocks (a novel about the Chinese Communist heroes in the prisons fighting against Guomindang – the National Party) so solemnly and touchingly that we were all moved. The poems read:

The door for man is shut tight
That for dog is open wide
Loudly shouts a voice:
Crawl out, freedom is thine!
I’m thirsty for freedom
Yet I know down deep
How can a man of honor
Crawl out like a dog

Today, we are put in jail
So what’s a big deal
To prevent suffering for our children
I will
I will sit in the cell through it all

Once I also heard him singing almost professionally with a recently turned man's thick voice a song called The Yili River. But this time, he was singing in his house, and I was hearing him through the windows of my house. Our two families had stopped visiting and even talking to each other for sometime. It was during the Great Cultural Revolution. Our parents had different opinions about the Revolution, and stood on different sides. The two sides soon became enemies. My parents' side took the position of supporting the old leaders. His parents' side agreed to overthrow "the leaders who follow the capitalist road". Both sides claimed that they fought for Chairman Mao. We children did not understand a thing. I was ten years old, and Tian Shan twelve, when all this started (1966). Ironically, Tian Shan's father himself was overthrown by the Red Guards for “following the capitalist road”. At one public meeting, they beat him so hard they broke one of his legs. By this time, schools and factories were paralyzed. Students went to school only to do revolutionary activities. Middle school and high school students joined Red Guard, and elementary school kids joined Little Red Guard. We studied Chairman Mao's theories and criticized our teachers' “Revisionist Attitude”. Because of his father's political problem, Tian Shan was not accepted to Little Red Guard. He was classified as the child of the "Five Black Types" (landlord, capitalist, counter-revolutionary, counter-party person, leaders who lead on capitalist road.) Those children of the "Five Black types" naturally gathered in groups.

Tian Shan became the leader of a gang, the most rebellious of all against everybody, everything. He and his gang members disturbed classes by breaking desks and chairs. They beat everyone in their way. Teachers were their main targets. They broke one teacher's leg, another teacher's arm. Almost once a week, he and his "brothers" would make a sensational event. Once they were making trouble in the class next door to mine. All my class went out to watch. One of my classmates who used to be a gang brother of theirs was found in the crowd. One of the "brothers", without saying a word, punched this classmate of mine and hit his nose so hard it was bleeding. Nobody dared to say a word. When I got there, the teacher in that class was trying to reason with them. Tian Shan went up to the front and fiercely slapped on the teacher's face. Immediately I saw five clear fingerprints on her face. I was so angry. Without fearing anything I yelled his name to stop him: "Tian Shan!" Everybody was shocked. The teacher tried to protect me despite her swelling face, the fellow students were afraid I would be beaten next. I looked straight into Tian Shan’s eyes, shaking with anger. Inside, I was hurting. I could not believe that it was he, my dear friend, who had become this bad. I always had a beautiful memory of his pure and sacred expression when he recited those heroic poems only three years earlier. This slap thoroughly destroyed my admiration and friendship for him. To everybody’s surprise, Tian Shan, avoiding my eyes, waved his gang to leave. Many years later, he confessed to me that he was afraid of my innocent eyes. He said he had actually managed to avoid my presence all the time. That day he did not realize I was so nearby.

When the real fights between the two opposite sides began, military weapons were used. Each side occupied a territory and built up fortresses. Everyday one could hear gunshots, and every night one could see signal flares. School closed. Stores closed. Work stopped. Daily routines no longer existed. One night, several people came to my house and talked with my parents in very low voices. I could not hear them, only saw that my mother looked worried. My father went out with the men and came back very late. He shook his head, and my mother sighed and worried even more. Early next morning, both mother and father went out. Around noon, they came back. Mother told me in a low and heavy voice that Tian Shan's mother had gone to her side's territory looking for her daughter who had been there with her Red Guard fighters. People of this side saw her getting into and leaving the fortress, but now she could not be found anywhere. People in the newspaper agency looked for her everywhere. The next day, the bad news came: she was dead. I saw Tian Shan's father, who had been in jail for his “political problems” and was just temporarily released to claim his wife’s body, with his crippled leg, pushing a flat board cart out to somewhere, and not long after coming back with the body covered with a white sheet. People helped to put the body in an office room. That afternoon when I passed by the office, through the open window, I saw Tian Shan, with tears and with one tight fist waving, swear loudly to his mother that he would seek revenge for her. That night, my mother cried for a long time. She asked me to go to see Tian Shan's mother for her when I had a chance, because she could not go. If she did, she would be criticized by her side as a traitor. In fact she was already criticized for shedding “worthless dog’s urine” (tears) for the opposition. So, the next day, when there was only one woman in the office, who was also our neighbor, I went in. The body was laid on two put-together desks. The woman uncovered and turned the body for me. It was naked. The hair looked dull and messy. The face had become so shrunken. One cheek was fallen in due to the broken bone. On the hips were a big piece of flipped skin and some large bruises. I was told that she had been raped many times by a group of guys who afterwards filled her vagina with stone pebbles. She was tortured to death. I suddenly felt sick and could not stand anymore, so I quickly ran away. I was too young to face such brutal reality. She was still a young and happy aunt to me. Tian Shan's mother and my mother were the only two career women in the newspaper agency. They got along with each other so well that we children always felt we were the same family. I asked my parents many times why such a thing could have happened. But nobody during that time could give me an answer. Months later I saw forty bodies who had been buried alive.

After his mother's death, Tian Shan’s father was sent back to prison. Tian Shan almost disappeared. Nobody knew where he was or how he lived. Occasionally we heard from here and there that he and his gang had robbed a store, or stolen from somebody's house, or had had a big fight with another gang, etc. Whenever he needed money, he came home to ask his sister and brother. His sister and brother tried to persuade him to stay home and refused to give him money. They did not have much, sixteen yuan (two US dollars) for each for a month from the agency. Often he beat them to get the things he wanted. When that happened, the sister and brother would helplessly hold their mother's photo and cry. Once my mother could not bear the situation anymore and went up to talk to him. He yelled at my mother: "It’s none of your business. Get out!" I noticed that whenever the sister and brother held their mother's picture and cried, Tian Shan would turn away his head and leave quickly. When he got to sixteen, he and several other gang members were sent to juvenile labor camp far away. We did not see or hear him after that.

Ten years later, when I was already studying in the university in the capital city of the Region, one weekend day I was walking down the street to visit my mother who happened to be in the city working on an art project. Suddenly, someone called my name. In no time, a guy in a black leather jacket riding on a bicycle halted in front of me. I faced a handsome young man. “Tian Shan!” I cried with surprise and joy. I wondered how, after ten years and in such crowded commercial street and on a racing bike, he could recognize me, and I could recognize him right away too. We both were so excited that neither could find a word at first. Then suddenly both burst out at the same time greeting each other. We acted like children, talking loudly and happily, like old friends back in the old days feeling so close to each other as if nothing had happened. He held my hands in his so tightly and for so long as if he would lose me forever if he loosed them. Suddenly, we stopped talking. We looked at each other and smiled at each other. What big changes we both had had! He looked handsome and mature, and still energetic.

“Let’s go somewhere. I have a lot to tell you”. “What? Your mom, my aunt is here in the city? Let’s go to her place then”. So we went to my mother’s temporary apartment. Before we went in, he said to me “Wait inside, I’ll be right back”, and disappeared. My mother was not home yet. So I waited. When he came back, he took out a bag full of lollipops and fruits. “Why lollipops? We are not kids any more.” I wondered. “You forgot!” he cried. “We liked them. We used to lick them when we played. And I often grabbed yours”. He unwrapped one for me and almost ordered: “Take one! It's sweet.” We talked and laughed, laughed and talked, recalling the silly and naughty things we had done together. I was amazed that he could remember so many little details, more than I could. When I mentioned it to him, he became quiet and serious: “You can’t understand. Those are the only beautiful things in my memory. Our childhood together is the best time in my life. I can never forget these things”. Then, he told me how often those playful and happy moments had appeared in his dreams when he worked in a coal mine at labor camp, and how he longed to have the normal life he had used to have. He told me how much he had missed our two families together, and how much he regretted the bad things and damage he had done. Not until now did I begin to ask about his life in those dark days, at the camp, and what he had become now. He told me that at first he had not felt treated fairly by the entire society, so he kept destroying things, making trouble with fierce energy. Until one day when he had a big fight with a local gang at the coal mine, and he beat two guys so severely that one mother came to kneel in front of him, begging him to stop. For the injuries he caused to the two fellows, he received severe punishment from the camp. He was sent to the lowest level in the mine to do the hardest work, and his salary was lowered two degrees. He was also separated in an isolation cell during the night. By chance, he was given some books to read in the cell, and one of them was a novel titled Mother written by a Russian author Maxim Gorky. “Mother has changed my life”, he said to me. He had read the book many times, thinking of his own mother, and the mother of the boy he had injured. He did not imagine Mother could be this powerful. He did change. A year later, he was dismissed from the camp. Now he was working in an electrical plant. He was once even awarded “Model Worker” of the plant.

“In those days I was not afraid of anything but one. Can you guess what it was?” he asked me with cunning smile. “No, I can’t” I answered honestly. “Your big beautiful but angry eyes!” He continued: “they were so innocent and sharp that I felt they could see through me. I dared not to face them. But later, I really missed them.”

“You owe me something, and I will never forgive you for it” he suddenly said to me. I was surprised. “What is it?” “My mother had treated you like a daughter, but you didn't even go to see her when she died.” “But I did. I went to say goodbye to her especially for my family.” So I explained to him how I went to see his mother on that day. He jumped in front of me, hands on my shoulders, shook me vehemently. “Is it true? Say it again! You did? Why didn’t you tell me before?” He almost shook me into his arms. I saw tears in his eyes. “I am sorry. I didn’t know you had done that. It was the only thing I couldn’t understand about you. I could not forgive you for that. Do you know, I've loved you all these years, since we were little?!” Realizing what he had just said and that he was still holding me so closely, he dropped his hands and stepped back and sat, shaking. I was shocked.

When my mother came back, she was so happy to see how much Tian Shan had changed. To her, he was like a prodigal son coming home. We talked and laughed again just like in old days. After that day, he joined my mother and me every weekend like a family. And when my mother left for home, he visited me at school every weekend.

I did not know how to tell him that I had found my love already. He had been hurt so deeply and so much. I could not hurt him again. A childhood scene constantly appeared in my memory. Once my mother took me to a wedding, on the way I asked mother what marriage meant, she said that if a man and a woman loved each other so much and would like to live together forever they got married. Then I asked: “Can I marry Tian Shan someday?” Mother laughed. Now I felt I had abandoned him, and indeed I had given up on him. One day he said to me: "You do not tell me everything. Is it that you have a boy friend already?" I nodded. "Is he good? Does he really love you?" I nodded again. He did not say a word for a long time. My heart was crying, and I knew his heart was bleeding. I wanted to shout to him that it was he who had destroyed our friendship and childhood love, although I knew it was not his fault. As if he read my mind, he said: "It's my fault. It's too late now. I cannot bring our childhood back. But don't worry. I won't bother you. I will always be your brother." I cried. He hugged me gently like a big brother. I realized he had become really mature and tough. His image of acting on the hero in The Red Rocks appeared in my mind again.

After I graduated from the university, I went to graduate school in Beijing. And after that I came to the States for further studies. Another ten years passed. Last time I visited my parents, I also visited Tian Shan's father and brother. They told me that Tian Shan had married and migrated to Australia. They showed me his family's photos. His wife looked pretty. They had had two beautiful daughters too. I called him from the States. We talked for a short while. He kept saying that he regretted that he had wasted his golden time without studying anything. He wished for me that I realize my highest goal and have a happy life. I also wished him a happy life.

Note: My dear friend Foster helped edit the writing. I give her my thanks.


  1. I am sitting at my computer reading Prodigal Son with tears streaming down my face. Family ties, life on-going, childhood games, political oppression and intra-population battle (mini civil wars), life, love, brutality, death in their most basic essence and manifestation.

    For all that is so riveting in this story, at its core is young love- unspoken and gone by. For anyone that has tasted the sweet-bitter fruit of such love, this story strikes one in the gut.

    Silkworm, This could certainly be a novel with extrapolation. Perhaps a sabbatical is needed. Although the medium is much less worthy, with taste and vision this story could be an extraordinary movie. Filmed on location in China, it would follow your and Tian Shan's lives with the fateful day of your meeting in Urumqi being the conclusion. Perhaps a wriiten epilogue describing where the author and Tian Shan reside and the most recent turn on the road of their lives.

    Thank you for this extraordinary story.

    In about 1975 or '76 I was at Colgate University taking a tremendous course on Chinese history. Our professor was Dr. Ho and he brought me my first exposure to the Cultural revolution. On a funny note, for weeks I wondered what he meant by the term "capitalist loader." I finally deduced that it was "capitalist roader" distorted by his accent.

    I never knew that there were intra-revolutionary struggles but always felt the period's horror and viciousness destroying those in society who should be most prized- elders and teachers.

    (How did Forest Mountain come to be a Red Guard but Tian Shan seen as a child on the black list?)

    As a Jew and only hearing of the stories of my "brothers and sisters" as well as direct family who suffered at the hands of brutal butchers,nazi beasts and torturers, I have always deeply felt the meaning of loss of freedom not to mention life itself.

    Long live liberty!!

    With great thanks and respect, SamuelWolf

  2. Dear Samuel Wolf:
    Thank you for liking my story and for your warm and sincere comments.
    I wrote the story at first as a way of practicing my English, but later realized I NEEDED to write it for myself, my friends, and my daughter and her generation.

    Your question about the sister who became a Red Guard -
    I am not clear about the criteria at that time, but I guess what happened was that at begining of the cultural revolution, people who had not had good family background were not allowed to get in, but later, when people were divided into two sides, each side had its own definition about, and decision on, who would be the capitalist leader. I think probably because Tianshan's father had stood on one side, and his side would allow his chidren to participate their activities. But Tianshan was still too young to be a real Red Guard.

    The story would be a good film. Thank you for seeing the potential. But, time, money ....

    About freedom, I agree with you. The only reason that made me stay in US is FREEDOM!

  3. its kinda overly typical and sweet if you read it over and over again...
    ur so dense mommy ^U^ hahahahahahaha
    this is really funny...
    i kno its supposed to be sad and all but it was ttly hilarious