Story of Prof. Hou’s Angel
“You remind me of somebody.” Prof. Hou came directly to me right after class and I was surprised. It was my first day in the university, and I was still lost in the fray. During this particular English class, the professor had called me up to have a short English dialog practice with him in front of the whole class. The exercise was so simple and dull that it seemed silly to me. The drill went like this:
What is this?
It is a book.
Is this a book?
Yes, it is a book.
Is this a pencil?
No, it is not a pencil. It is a book.
Now he seemed to start another dialog.
“You look very much like an old friend of mine, also in temperament and personality.” He continued. I suddenly became suspicious. What did he mean? Temperament and personality? How could he possibly know that much about me! We had only had that silly English practice! And this professor of mine, whom I met for the first time, was telling me that he had caught the essence of me!? Ridiculous!
“Well, she died a long time ago.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you believe in any religion?” He changed subject suddenly. “I get the sense that you are a very religious person. Have you ever heard of Christianity?”
Another surprise. “Does he live on this planet or not?” I wondered. It was an unusual question to ask of a student of my age, now at a time when the Cultural Revolution had just ended. For about thirty years, since the 1949 Liberation, all religions had been, if not banned, harshly attacked by the authorities in order to promote Communist Atheism and Marxist Materialism in China. And during the Cultural Revolution, almost all religious practices were wiped out physically and ideologically. Nobody would talk to a person of my age about religion. It was not out of fear, but simply because most young people had no idea of any religion at all. We were born in the years after the Liberation.
I burst into a laugh. “You are crazy, aren’t you, Prof. Hou? You must know better than I do that religion is spiritual opium, Communism is what we young people should fight for.”
Prof. Hou laughed too.
Suddenly I felt touched by his recognition of my nearly religious-natured persistence and the way he talked to me, as if I would understand whatever he would say despite our generational gap. I wondered how he could see through me.
“No, I don’t believe in any religion. Nobody has dared, right? But I do know a little about Christianity. My grandparents on both sides were Christians. One of my grandfathers was even a minister for his church. My parents were baptized when they were little, but they abandoned it long time ago. However, I learned biblical stories from them and they kept reminding me that I should read the Bible as literature and history rather than a religious doctrine.”
After a moment of hesitation I added, “Actually my great grandparents on my father’s side were beheaded simply for being Christians by the Boxers during the Rebellion time at the turn of the century. They were martyred for their Christ.”
I did not know why I let it out. It had been our family’s big secret since the 1949 Liberation. It could have caused us a lot of trouble if people had known.
It was his turn now to be surprised. After all, it was a rare topic between our two generations, especially in this remote place far from central China. And I did know something about a religion, a foreign religion, and even had some personal relations!
“No wonder I feel you are so much like my friend.”
“What happened to her?” I asked cautiously.
The classroom was almost empty now, only a couple of students were still in their seats chatting. Prof. H reached a chair near me and sat down. He was in his late forties, tall and thin. Behind glasses were two big deep eyes.
“It was such a long time ago! I met her when I was still in high school in Beijing. One day I rode a bicycle to school and on the way I came across a girl who was also riding a bicycle. She was wearing a white dress, white socks, and white tennis shoes, like a flying angel. I found her so attractive that I followed her. I paid so much attention to her that I almost fell from the bike. Well, you know, boys at that age. We rode on the same street for a while and then went in different directions. Joyfully, I saw her again the next day, and the day after, and the next, and next. For a whole semester, I managed to go out in time to see her in the street. But I never dared to talk to her. She must have noticed my presence. Occasionally, when our eyes met, she would smile at me, and I would revel in that smile for the rest of the day. The next semester, she did not appear. Later I found she had transferred to a different school. For a long time, I felt lost. I regretted so much that I had not had the courage to talk to her. I had not even known her name! How stupid I was!
“Two years later, I was admitted to the Department of English Language and Literature at Yanjing (Yenching) University (later became part of Beijing University). To my great surprise and joy, I found that she was also there. My heart almost jumped out when I realized that we were in the same class. From then on we became close friends. I knew I fell in love with her, but I did not dare to tell her, simply because I was afraid I would scare her away. She seemed so pure and so innocent, like a real angel, that I felt that any mundane idea would disgrace her. I found myself going to the classroom earlier every morning to have more time with her before the class began. She was always the first there to study. We studied together, and spent our spare time together. One early morning, when I got to the classroom as usual, I saw her leaning her entire body against the blackboard with face buried in the board and two arms stretching out, like Christ on the Cross, in deep grief. It frightened me. I sensed she had some difficult dilemma. When I tried to ask, she shook her head. So I stopped. A few weeks later, one Monday morning I did not see her. And for the whole week she did not show up. Then the news came: she had committed suicide.
“It shocked me greatly. For many days, I was sick with fevers and dreams of her. Why? Why? I asked infinite times. When I recovered and went back to school, I found that the school had launched a university-wide study of Communist theories and group discussions on her suicide as “self-isolation from the revolutionaries and the Communist Party”. She was criticized for holding blind belief in a religion – spiritual opium as described by Karl Marx, and as an ignorant in realizing the greatness of Communism and the Party. The university Party and Youth League leaders called on everyone in the university to not follow her poor example.
“I began to put the pieces together.
“She had been a faithful Christian all her short life. When we got into the university it was just the year of Liberation. The Communist Party and the Communist Youth League had been calling students to learn Communist theories and Marxist Materialism, and to actively join the League and Party. At least twice a week there was a one-hour political study at school. Most students quickly accepted the theories, and many first joined the Youth League and then the Party. If a person did not catch up soon enough, he or she would be considered backwards. I remembered that at those discussions, she had been always serious and conscientious, honestly wanting to learn and understand. Once she had mentioned to me that she had wanted to join the Youth League but felt it difficult to give up her Christian beliefs. It had not occurred to me that it could become a fatal dilemma for her. She was too honest and serious to abandon her former faith, and too fragile to accept the revolutionary ideology under political pressure.
“I had to go to all of the meetings criticizing her foolish reaction to the Party. I felt that an extreme injustice had been laid on her. Those attacks on her made me furious, so I stood on her side and spoke out for her, but only once or twice.
“After graduation I was hired by the Department of English Language & Literature as an assistant professor in Beijing University. A couple years later in 1957, when the “Fight against Right Opportunism” movement began, my sympathy for the girl was brought out as a typical Right-wing problem. I was taken off the job and sent to a farm in the Takalamakan Desert and remained a farmer for seventeen years before they found me useful to teach English to the Worker-Peasant-Soldier students in the university a few years ago.
“I was such a coward that I could not finish myself like she had. She died for her beliefs, yet I lived like a dog begging for a senseless and meaningless life. How shameful I am!”
A long silence fell.
It was a beautiful and sad story. I felt sorry for the girl and for the Professor.
“I’m sorry for putting such heavy load on you. You may not understand it, But for some strange reason, I feel that you may understand it better than anybody else,” he apologized, recovering from his deep memory.
But wasn’t he right! I was indeed much like the girl in the way that we were both idealistically and naively devoted to our beliefs. I was so seriously prepared to sacrifice my own life for my belief - the exact opposite of her belief – Communism, when I was at her age.
Story of My Childhood: “Communist Successors”
“We are the Communist successors
Taking on the revolutionary forerunners’ glorious traditions
Love our country, love people
Young Pioneer is our proud name
Humming the song, some of my schoolmates and I were practicing how to tie a Red Scarf and how to salute the flag of the Young Pioneer. Miss Wu, a young and pretty teacher, and an advisor of ours was loudly explaining to us over our humming:
“The Red Scarf represents a corner of the Red Flag; it was dyed with our revolutionary martyrs’ blood.”
“Keep fingers tight on your right hand and raise the hand above your head. It means the people’s interest is above all.”
Everything sung and said was so fresh and exciting. It was the preparation for the elementary pupils to join the Communist Young Pioneers.
For every child in China in the 1950s and 60s, there was a single life goal set in three stages, Communist Young Pioneers at age 7-12, Communist Youth League at 15-28, and Communist Party when 18 above. One would vow all of one’s life to fight for the Communist Ideal each time to be accepted by the Pioneers, League, and Party.
On June 1, International Children’s Day, 1963, I participated in the oath-taking ceremony and became a member of the Chinese Communist Young Pioneers. My father, an artist and photographer for the local newspaper captured the exciting moment:
We raised our right fist, following Miss Wu:
“I, a member of the Chinese Communist Young Pioneers, swear under the Flag of the Pioneers: I love the Chinese Communist Party, love the Motherland, and love all people; study well, exercise well; be prepared to fight for the cause of Communism!”
The new members put the right hand above the head, calling out:
“Always be prepared!”
I was so moved by our oath.
I was seven then, and was the first and only one in my first grade class to be accepted into the Young Pioneers. I was very proud.
When I got home that day, I asked my parents, who were the editor and artist for the newspaper, what Communism meant. The two intellectuals found it difficult to explain it to a seven year old.
“It means an ideal society where there is no exploitation and oppression. There is sufficient material supply for everybody to share. There is no difference between the rich and the poor. Everybody is equal.” Looking at my bewildered face, mother said: “Oh, well, you just want to be a good kid.”
With absolutely no understanding to the concept, I only knew that from now on, I was a child of the Party, must always listen to the calls of the Party; my mission was to fight all my life (but what did fight mean?) for the liberation of the three-fourths of poor people and their children outside China from poverty and suffering. I believed that we, who were born in New China and grew up under the Five-Star Red Flag, were the luckiest and happiest kids on earth. Children outside the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were suffering from the capitalists’ and landlords’ oppression and exploitation. They did not have enough food, or chance to go to school. It was our Chinese Young Pioneers’ responsibility to help them when we grew up. Therefore we should study hard and get ourselves ready. And it was a sacred and lofty cause for us to seek.
It had never occurred to me, of course, that when I had only two boiled eggs as a special treat for my birthday and my brother had one, and it was the vice versa for his birthday, whether we were really the luckiest and happiest children on earth. I did not know that just a couple of years earlier, several millions people had died of hunger in the country. But we were convinced we were the luckiest, so we were. Many years later, when my daughter had her birthday party in our American home with many boxes of presents, I told guests how I spent my birthdays, and they all looked at me as if I was just coming back from Hell!
When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, our devotion to the Communist Party became specific to Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line versus Vice Chairman Liu’s Revisionist Line. The high school and college students organized Red Guards. They also helped elementary school kids organize the Little Red Guards. So I became a Little Red Guard. While the Red Guards did their revolutionary activities, we Little Red Guards studied Chairman Mao’s books, recited his Quotations, sang them in songs, danced “loyalty” dances, and did physical exercises while chanting his famous sayings. We tried every way to demonstrate our devotion. We painted the character “Loyalty” on walls everywhere in very large size, in the school and on the streets. We made paper-cuts of the word “Loyalty” in many different fashions and sizes and pasted them on our doors, desks, books, etc. Some bigger kids cut their fingers to write “Loyalty” with blood, some tattooed the character on their chests. Some Red Guards even tied themselves up and let others whip them so hard as to test whether they were faithful enough not to betray in future. The revolution became a religious frenzy.
During this crazy time, schools were paralyzed. We still went to school, but only to study Chairman Mao’s books and to criticize our teachers. When there were no classes, especially during the summer and winter breaks, my parents had locked up my brother and me at home practicing calligraphy and reading books. As artists, my parents had been severely criticized as “Bourgeois Black” artists ever since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. They were so hurt that they decided not to make their children artists as they had wished before. So they had stopped teaching us drawing and painting ever since.
In high school during a summer vacation, I had buried myself in a book titled How the Steel Was Tempered written by Nikolai Ostrovsky, a Soviet Ukrainian writer in the 1930s, one of a few novels allowed to be read in China at the time. Based on the author’s own life, the book was about a Soviet soldier, Pavel, who struggled hard to fight against enemies in wars with Austrian and German invaders, battles with the White Army, battles establishing the Soviet Union, political struggles within the Communist Party, and his physical wounds and diseases, and how he miraculously survived death four times. Pavel’s extraordinarily tough and heroic spirit moved me so much that I had read the book several times. Both the author and his character in the book proved their lives worthy and meaningful. In my diary I copied Pavel’s words:
“Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world- the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.”
I wrote an essay about the book for the summer writing assignment and handed it in. The writing teacher graded it 98 points. Both my writing and the score caused a little sensation. All teachers in the Chinese department thought it was really a good paper, except that the Chair thought that 95 points would be proper since nobody had gained 98 from this department. So they argued about the grade. Finally they all agreed to give me 98. The paper was passed to every student in the entire 12th grade as a writing sample. I knew it was good, because I wrote it with my heart, not with technical skills.
The heroism in the story inspired and encouraged two entire generations – those of my parents and mine. In the novel, Pavel mentioned the Gadfly, who was obviously the role model for him. I quickly found the book The Gadfly which was still forbidden at the time. It was written by Irish writer E. L. Voynich about an Italian revolutionary of the 1830s and 40s. The main character, Arthur, nick-named Gadfly, was also a tough, tragic, and heroic guy, who fought fiercely against his former religion – Catholicism and Austrian rule for a free and independent Italy.
Unlike the Steel book, which demonstrates a straight battle between black and white, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, The Gadfly is more complex. It shows a gray area that involves religion, romance, and a father and son on the opposite sides of the revolution. Both Arthur, the illegitimate son of a Cardinal, and Montanelli, the Cardinal, touched me so much. The father, with his deeply hidden love to his son and his final consent to the death, the execution of his son, looked to me like God sacrificing his beloved son for the sake of mankind, so sublime and holy. And Arthur, from a naïve youth to a tough fighter, endured the extreme emotional sufferings of love to his father and his childhood love, as well as physical sufferings of disease and injuries, still gave his life to the cause of liberating his country. To me, Arthur’s cause and character were even higher and greater than those of the Cardinal’s. I was not only very moved by this character, but I also completely accepted Arthur’s abandonment of his former Catholic belief and his choice of revolutionary belief. The Gadfly’s criticism of religion as being hypocritical and cruel made me believe that religion was indeed the opium of spirit, and reinforced my belief in Communism. I swore to myself that I would devote all my life to the cause of the Communist Ideal.
Soon after the essay, I submitted an application to join the Communist Youth League.
My Family’s Secrets
One day, in the middle of a class, a fellow student, our class monitor, was called out. The classmate next to me whispered to me that the monitor might be called to have an interview to join the Youth League. I instantly felt insulted. How come I did not know the news! If anybody in this class would be accepted to the League, the first person should be me. I had been the best in all subjects in school, except physical education, and everybody knew it. It was not only that I had the top grades for school, but also that I was active in all school activities. But now, obviously, I was being ignored. I went home crying. It was so unfair to me. Is it because I did not get an A in Physical Education? I knew I had never jumped over the vaulting box.
My parents responded calmly. “It’s not your fault, child. It is our family background.” “What are you talking about?!” I exclaimed, startled.
My parents finally thought it was time to tell me everything. Mother explained: “Neither my family nor your father’s is of ‘the poor and lower-middle class’ of peasants or workers. My grandfather is classified as a landlord, so I have to claim my family background as landlord. Both my father and your father’s father are classified as ‘officials from the old regime’. So you have to claim your family background as such. And these will not help you to join the League.” Yes, I remembered I had filled the application form with sections of family background for three generations above me. But I had not realized it would be that relevant.
Mother continued: “Your father and I have been applying for the Party for nearly twenty years. Once a year we submit our applications, and each time we are told that we have not been through enough tests. Neither of us has been accepted yet. And that would affect your joining the League and later the Party, too. We are sorry about the situation. But we cannot change our family background. We were born into it. So were you. You have to be prepared.”
Mother said after a little hesitation: “What’s more, your grandparents on both sides were Christians. One of my uncles used to be a priest who committed suicide at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Your father’s father was the head of a Christian church. And, your paternal great grandparents were even decapitated by the patriotic Yi He Tuan (the Boxers). These circumstances are very bad for all of us.”
Wasn’t Yi He Tuan an anti-Imperialism anti-foreign-religion, and patriotic organization? Didn’t being their enemies, mean that they were traitors to the country? I was shocked by my sudden understanding. Now I realized how bad the problem was.
Father started to explain: “Your great grandparents were martyred. They sacrificed their lives for their belief in Christ.” Mother said: “Their sacrifice is of foolish loyalty. Between the country and nation’s interest, and personal belief, they did not know what to choose, and so became victims of their blindness. But their sincerities and dedication should be respected.” Father and mother continued to explain to me that although the Boxers were patriotic, they did over-react to both the foreign missionaries and fellow Chinese Christians. Later many of them were also brutally killed by the Qing Empress and foreign allies.
From then on, I never complained about my family background. On the contrary, I started to make my parents tell me more about our families.
My maternal grandfather was another “dirty stain” of the family.
This grandpa came from a better-off peasant family, also Christian, in the mountains of Shanxi Province. He went to the Shanxi Institute of Political Science and Law to earn a degree in political economy. After graduation, he joined a social work team organized by the National Party, and was sent to be trained in Huangpu Military Academy, the very first and best known military school in modern Chinese history founded by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sien). During six months of study and training he listened to speeches and lectures by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) the president of the Academy, and Zhou Enlai the political commissar of the Academy. He admired Zhou Enlai so much although Zhou was the Communist representative. This was the time when the Chinese National Party and Communist Party were united to fight together against the warlords, and to bring a unified and democratic government to China. This time was a hopeful and promising period in the nation’s history. Grandfather was proud to be part of it. But it also became a disastrous lifelong burden to him.
Grandpa was an idealist and nice man. Mother often had a hard time explaining to me why a good man like him was considered a bad guy. Although he studied political science and participated in the nation’s most complex political struggles, he was, ironically, never good at politics. Instead, he turned out to be a victim of politics. Because he had been a member of the Guomin Dang (the National Party founded by Sun Yatsen and later led by Chiang Kaishek), after the Liberation he was labeled as a “historical counter-revolutionary” and sentenced to jail, but later the sentence was changed to work on a goat herding farm.
So he became herdsman. However, it did not help him escape his troubles. Each time there was a political movement, he was the target. He sincerely criticized his political mistakes and wrong class standpoint, and swore he would work hard to study Chairman Mao’s theories and understand them. But still, when the next movement came, he had to “dig deeper into the soul” to find more bad thoughts. At those meetings, some people would jump on the stage to beat and kick grandpa to show clearly their appropriate and fierce attitudes as against this counter-revolutionary.
After the Cultural Revolution, grandpa was finally set free. Not until then did we learn that he had survived those terrible ordeals by practicing an ancient tai-chi exercise.
I did not know how much he was tortured and distorted on the inside until he was dying. The day before his death, after several days in a coma, he started talking and waving hands in the air as if writing something. My mother and uncle could not understand his words, so they called grandma. Grandma bent down and listened. “He said he needs a pen and paper to write his self-criticizing report”, grandma announced. I burst into tears when mother told me the story. I suddenly hated the Communist Party and its inhumane policy. How can a Party and its government torture a person’s soul to this degree? A conversation with grandpa came to my memory. Once he and I talked about ideologies and political systems in the world, he said: “I still think the Three People’s Principles - Nationalism, Democracy, and People’s Livelihood, is better.”
Grandfather died of cancer. When he was on his sick bed, he left words on the tape recorder to me and a cousin of mine, who was also in the States: “Come back as soon as possible. Do not sell yourself for the American Imperialists.” I did not know whether I wanted to laugh or cry.
I have never met my paternal grandfather. Not even my mother had seen her near-legendary father-in-law. He died young, a little over fifty. I remember the first time I saw his photograph hanging in grandma’s living room when I was little, I thought him funny. He was wearing a long Chinese traditional robe, typical Western glasses, kind of small and round with thin golden frames, shining black leather shoes, with short hair, and he was so young. How weird! I laughed. I had known that he had had been the Chief of the Post-Office of the capital city of Shanxi Province, a high official position. He looked handsome and rigorous. But why not a white suit, like the ones I saw in the movies, that suited his look and social status? It was strange.
Grandma told me that there used to be a painting of Jesus hanging on the wall, painted by Grandpa. Jesus had big deep eyes, long curly hair to the shoulders, but weirdly, also a Chinese goatee on his chin. When people asked why Jesus looked half foreigner half Chinese, grandpa always said: “This is Jesus in my mind. He is a man of all people, not just of foreigners, but also of Chinese. Mine is a Chinese Christ.”
Grandpa was a good amateur artist, so I imagined that his painting must not be too bad. But why half foreign and half Chinese? Did he try to combine a Saint of the West and a Wiseman of the East to create an ideal Jesus of all mankind?
Besides painting, grandpa had also designed his church building, which was again in a style that combined Western and Chinese styles. Right before the Cultural Revolution ended, I had visited my grandmother, and she took me secretively to see the church from a distance. The church was made of stone. On top of the building there was a small pointed tower that used to have a cross on it. The glass windows were all long and narrow. My father told me that the tower and glass windows were in the Gothic style. The rest was all in typical Chinese fashion in the way that it exchanged the usual orientation of east-west axis of churches in the West, for the south-north orientation of a three-thousand-year Chinese tradition. The ground plan was not exactly a cross but a T-shape. There were also two adjacent courtyards with round gates in a Chinese classical garden design. The church was taken over by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and converted to residential housing divided into many small units.
A few years ago, I learned that the church was taken back by the municipal administration as a cultural heritage site for protection. Nothing would please Grandpa more.
Grandfather was born to a peasant family in Shou Yang county, Shanxi province in the last few years of 19th century. His Christian beliefs were inherited from the family. According to the family’s oral narrative, my grandfather’s father was a descendent of a general of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-1872), a rebellious and short lived government against the Qing Dynasty. The rebellious organizations were growing out of Christian organizations in the Guangdong (Canton) and Guangxi provinces in south China, so the members were supposed to be Christians. After the failure of the Heavenly Kingdom, the families and relatives of the Kingdom officials did their best to escape persecution, and hide in the mountains of the northern provinces. So my grandfather’s father came to a remote mountainous village as a Christian. Only recently I learned that many villagers in that area, including my great grandparents, very likely joined a British Protestant mission named Sheo (Shou) Yang Mission, after the county’s name, or SYM.
In 1900, when the Boxer’s Rebellion spread to many provinces in China, killing foreign missionaries, Shanxi became the center for killing both foreigners and Chinese Christians because of its large Christian population. My great grandparents were loyal Christians. When the Boxers came to their village, Christians were brought to an open space on a hill, and asked whether they wanted to give up their foreign god and fight against foreigners. My great grandparents and few others refused, and so were beheaded right there. Their oldest daughter and son-in-law, who happened to be visiting from another village, were killed along with them. My grandfather was about three years old, his elder brother six, and his younger brother, only a few months old. The three kids were thrown from a high cliff by the Boxers. The little brother died, but the two elder brothers survived, saved by some trees. A fellow sheep-herdsman found the boys that night and hid them in a remote mountain cave. Later, when the Rebellions were suppressed, they were sent to an orphanage run by the British Baptist Missionary Society in Shanxi. The second eldest sister, who had been sent as a child bride to a family in a different village and therefore escaped the massacre, was paid by the orphanage to take care of her brothers.
In the orphanage the children began to learn and to speak English. The sister now became the parent. While she took care of her little brothers, she also studied with the brothers. She was given an English name: Grape. Grape was so good that she was sent by the church to further her studies at Bridgman Girls’ School in Beijing, established by American missionary E. J. Bridgman with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. After her graduation, she went back to Shanxi to teach. But sadly, not long after that, she got tuberculosis. She was put in isolation, not to be visited by anyone. The brothers tried many ways to see their sister, but were unsuccessful. Once they even climbed a tree near their sister’s room and tried to jump in through the window, but were caught and punished. Even at her death, the brothers were not allowed to see their beloved sister.
Before Grape’s death, she was already engaged to a son of the Provost of Shanxi University (founded by British Baptist Missionary Timothy Richard) for love, not by arrangement. However, because of some church politics, Grape’s church did not agree her marriage to the young man whose father belong to a different church. So Grape died very unhappy.
Grandpa was also smart and studied hard. He was always the best in school, especially good at drawing and painting. An English minister liked him so much that he adopted him. When grandpa was old enough, the minister had arranged a position at the Royal Academy of Art in London for him to go and study art. To everybody’s surprise, he refused the offer. He was stubborn and simply said: “I am Chinese, why should I go to a foreign country to learn”. When the minister retired, he asked grandpa to go back to England with him. Again he refused. Again, “I am Chinese” was the answer.
Grandpa had strong opinions about foreign missionaries and Christianity. He was hurt by the church’s interference in his sister’s marriage and his visit to see his sister for the last time. As he grew, he had witnessed more serious conflicts between the foreign occupants and native Chinese. Although he benefitted from the foreign missionaries, he sensed deeply that many did their charity work from a supercilious point of view, as if saying: “You poor things. You need to be rescued. You are not as good as us, but we will help”. He had his dignity and felt insulted. He did appreciate what the foreign missionaries had done for him and his family. He also thought Christianity was a good religion. He often said how good it was that people had gotten more open-minded from learning western culture, and how wonderful that the Christian Chinese women liberated themselves from foot-binding and could even go to school, etc..
He had actually established, almost single-handedly, a church with the name “Church of Real Jesus”. He had spent all his savings to build the church and his spare time to serve for the church. He baptized all eleven of his children and many others. Interestingly, he did not give any of his children Christian names but pure Confucian names. Many people in the city were drawn to the church simply for his Chinese interpretation of the religion. He was known as being kind and generous, even the beggars knew where they were certain to get food. And his house was always open to the poor. Many years after his death, during the most depressing period, the Cultural Revolution, when all religions were repressed, a young man, disguised as a beggar, traveled from Henan Province to grandpa’s house looking for the founder of the “Church of Real Jesus”. My grandma, scared to death, covered his mouth with her hand, pulled him into the house, and warned him not to mention a single word ever, or both he and my family would be dead.
Grandfather started his career as a simple postman. Because of his intelligence and hard work, he was promoted quickly. He was sent to Zhengzhou in Henan province and Lanzhou in Gansu province in charge of helping establish the post offices in the two provincial capital cities. Back home, in a competition for the Chief position, he won the first prize, beating a native English speaker, a Japanese man, and a few Chinese competitors. One of the major requirements for the competition was English. And he had excelled in it.
When grandpa had become quite established and was well-off, he learned that the herdsman who had saved him and his brother from the Boxers was still alive and poor he sent for the person and gave him 500 dayang, a large amount of money that could support one for several years. Unfortunately, the guy never went back to work but spent the money drinking and gambling. He boasted to people how rich he was. In less than a year, he was robbed and killed. When grandpa heard the news he was so regretful that he kept saying “I’ve killed him; I’ve killed him”.
Grandfather remained a faithful Christian all his life. But he faced dilemmas all his life. To me, his photo and the portrait of Christ he had painted, although it looked so funny, might have been serious interpretations of his philosophy.
In late 1980s, when I was accepted by a university in the United States and planning to leave for the US, everybody in the family expressed same emotional sigh: What would grandpa say if he had been alive? Half century earlier when he had such a chance, he so adamantly refused. He could have had the very first Master or Ph. D from abroad in the family. Now I would the first. I wanted to tell him that the world had changed, I would go, but I would always remember that I am Chinese.
I do not think that religious beliefs can be passed on through genes, but everybody in my family liked to say that I was very much like the grandpa: devoted and persistent.
Revelation in the Desert
The pursuit of the Communist Ideal made me join the army of Educated Youths with great enthusiasm. Upon high school graduation, except for those who were the only child at home, all graduates had to go to the countryside to get a peasants’ re-education. I did not have to go because my brother had gone to a commune several years earlier, but I insisted on going. It was the Great Leader Chairman Mao’s call. How could I stay home and not participate in such a great movement for young people? I believed that, to send educated youths to the countryside and remote areas, and let them live with the peasants, learn the peasants’ feelings, and help the peasants, was Chairman Mao’s great strategy for the country. We young people should respond to this bright call. To do so was a way to test our spirit and our faith to the Party and Chairman Mao.
At the farewell meeting, I was asked to give a public speech. In front of several thousand students and their parents, I swore that for realizing Communist Ideal, I would live with poor peasants, work with them, and take roots in the countryside for the rest of my life. I promised from my heart. And I did believe that the realization of the Ideal was not far away with our great efforts.
The farm I and twenty-some fellow students were sent to, was called Happiness Farm under Happiness Commune, about 200 km from home. It was on the edge of a small oasis in the southern part of the Taklamakan Desert. Although it was part of the oasis, one rarely saw anything green. Our dormitories were surrounded by the desert. What we saw, smelt, and touched everyday were sand, sand, and more sand. I was not discouraged by such a boring and dull environment. Instead, I would occasionally pick up a few dandelions to decorate our six-girl dorm room. Those small yellow flowers made me cheerful.
But, seeing the extremely poor conditions of the farmers’ lives, I submitted my application to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party, to demonstrate my determination to stay with these people and improve their lives there. On the farm, I worked extremely hard. Every day, we went to the fields to plough, or hoe, or carry crops, or clear the fields, in a most primitive way. After a day’s work, I would visit the farmers to do acupuncture for the sick kids and adults. I had been to a training workshop for acupuncture under my mother’s advice before moving to the farm, so I was prepared for the job. There was absolutely no access to any medical facility or personnel on the farm. It would take several hours of driving in an ox-cart to get to the nearest clinic in the headquarters of the Commune.
A seven or eight year old boy had suffered from severe Rheumatoid arthritis. He could not walk easily and his knee was already deformed. His brother had to carry him to school on his back. After I did acupuncture for him for about six months, he could walk to school by himself. A young woman had amenorrhea for a few years, and after my acupuncture for only two weeks, she was cured. We both got very excited. There were also other patients who sought my help. I found my life filled with meaning.
One cold winter day, around 4 o’clock in the morning, we got up and each one of us was given two pieces of corn bread and we went out deep into the desert. Our work that day was to cut wild grass and bushes for making composite manure.
It was the first time I walked this early in the big desert under the dark blue sky. Chilly, but clean, air cut through my lungs. I felt good. Looking up, I clearly saw the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Stars of the Cowherd and Weaving Maid (Altair and Vega), and many constellations I could not name, brightly filling the sky. It was beautiful. The sparkling sky and dark solid earth connected at the horizon. In between, the dark night looked dangerously unpredictable and mysterious. Wrapped in such an atmosphere full of poetry and philosophy, anyone, even those who had the least sense of beauty, would gasp their simple but marveled reaction. And anyone, whether or not they understood philosophy, could sense how humankind was tiny and humble, and the universe vast, sublime, and infinite.
It took us more than an hour’s walk before sunlight started to appear. In the desert there grew nothing but a kind of thorn bush, called “camel thorn” by local people. They grew so sparsely that they spread wide into the desert. We soon split into many different directions because the bushes did not grow close together. We reminded each other to keep close enough that we would not get lost. Gradually, we could only hear but not see each other. I helped two girls who were heading home put the tied-up bundles on their backs, and went further into the desert to gather more bushes. When the sun rose high, I sent the last person off, who actually insisted that we go back together. But I did not feel I had enough, so I told her to leave first, and I would catch up soon. I did not know how much time had passed before I had gotten a big hill of a pile in front of me. I jumped on it hard to press it tight and small, and then tied it. The bundle was still bigger than I was, and it was so heavy that I had to kneel down and lean my back against the load, crawl a few steps on hands and knees before my hands could reach a higher part of sand dune, and then gather up my strength and stand up. It was a big load. From behind, one would only see a bundle of bushes moving.
I started to move. It took many minutes before I suddenly realized that I should check the direction to make sure I was heading home. There were no roads, no trails, only endless desert. I was afraid that I might not be able to put the bundle back on my back again, so I hesitated for a while, deciding if I should drop the load. But my instinct told me to do it right away. So I dropped the load and climbed to the highest sand dune nearby.
When I got to the top of the hill and looked around, I instantly choked and collapsed; my heart was beating wildly and my legs shaking. A great panic fell over me. All directions looked exactly the same. There were neither signs of life, nor signs that showed the way home. For a long time, I could not make a sound out, or stand up.
Hoping that there were still some fellow students left behind, I tried my best to put my strength together and started calling loudly, “Is there anybody here!” “Can anybody hear me?” No sooner than I began to shout, did I realize that I had completely lost my voice. I could not make any sound. I lost my strength. I tried again. “Hello! Is there anybody?” This time the sound was swallowed by the vast space.
Calling out at the top of my lungs, but not hearing a sound, was a surreal feeling, a dream scene, an extremely exaggerated mime show. Desperation overwhelmed me and I began to think about death.
The stories about the desert flashed through my memory like a slide show. Many spoke of how people had lost their way in the desert and could never get out, to be found as mummies years later. Many others spoke of how the wind moved sand dunes from one side of the road to the other side overnight, but they looked exactly the same as before, and fooled people into going the wrong direction, finally getting lost completely. And even some well-prepared explorers were often reported to vanish in the desert. I knew now, that they were not jokes. They were very real. Everybody in the region knew that it was not funny to be lost in the desert. The name of the desert, Taklamakan, meant “a place one can go into, but can never get out”.
“But I’m too young to die, and cannot die like this.” I was nineteen. I had to find a way out.
The sun above me reminded me that it was about noontime, and I had several hours to try and get out before it got dark. I struggled to stand up. Every direction still looked the same, everything reaching to the end of the sky. I slid down the hill, and looked around. Nothing helped. Afraid of wandering away from this point, I climbed to the top of the hill again and hung my food bag on a stick as a sign of my base, and slid down again. Now I started walking around among the sand dunes. Something caught my eye. Goat shit. And then, donkey shit. My heart almost jumped out of my throat. I knew I found a ray of hope. Soon I found donkey and sheep tracks. Their footprints meant I might have found a trail. I crawled on the ground studying the prints. But, the more prints I found, the less confidence I had. There were too many of them. And worse, they pointed in all directions.
Finally I decided that I would try four directions in turn by walking into each for about ten minutes and make marks on the ground with a stick. With my decision, I felt a little relieved. So I went to the hill to fetch my food bag. I sat and began to eat my lunch. The two corn breads were frozen, too hard to bite. I put them under my arms to warm them up. I still had some water in a military canteen (luckily it was not summer), partially frozen. Little by little I finished one piece of bread.
I started to walk with a stick marking a long line. I changed my direction two or three times before I saw condensed footprints of animals and even faded human footprints. I did not forget my big load of bushes – the whole purpose of my life at this moment. So I went back to my base, and again, I knelt down and leaned my back against the load, put the arms into the rope loops, straightened up, bent a little bit forward, crawled a few steps on hands and knees, and then held the weight and stood up. I got out the death trap of the Taklamakan.
Some years later, when I sat in the university library reading Jack London, I felt like saying to the author: “Hey, buddy, I’ve been there.”
I did not know how long it took me to get out of the desert. I did not have a watch. When I suddenly saw the trees surrounding the village, I staggered. I said to myself: “Don’t fall. Stay up. Don’t fall. You are safe now.” When I arrived to the village it was late afternoon. I was too exhausted to even step up to the weight scale only three inches from the ground. Two guys had to pull me up. One guy reported: “220 jin (about 240 lbs).” They helped me take off the load and weighed me again: “100 jin (110 lbs.).” So I had carried a load of 130 pounds, 20 pounds heavier than myself.
I did not explain to anybody why I came back so late. I did not want to talk casually about my life and death experience to those who had not had a similar experience or to those who would not understand. I needed time to myself to think and digest the meaning of it. It was such a sudden enlightenment for me that I began to think more realistically about the meaning of life, and began to examine the ideal I, or we, the whole generation of mine, had been striving for.
I thought about my great grandparents’ saintly but blind loyalty and sacrifice for their belief in Christ, and then my own naïve beliefs and actions in “realizing the Communist Ideal”. Millions of educated young people were wasting their knowledge and intelligence, and sacrificing their lives for nothing. My enthusiasm for pursuing the Ideal faded away.
(Started in 1998 and revised in 2014)