This chapter about children is excerpted from a larger work of ethnographic memoir about the time I spent in two subsequent summers in a tiny peasant village, Dang Jiashan (also spelled Dang Jia Shan), in northern Shaanxi Province, China. I originally visited this village as a volunteer through Earthwatch to document this traditional village with the Principle Investigator of the expedition, Dang Anrong, who grew up in this village, and we stayed in an unused home in the village, where his family cooked and cared for us. I returned the subsequent year independent of Earthwatch but concurrent with another volunteer team who came with Anrong. Li-Li, his niece, was my private translator. I don't explain who everybody is here, I haven't made this a self-contained essay, it's just an excerpt ... but you can catch on who is a volunteer and who is a local. If you read some of my other essays from the village, you'll start to become familiar with everybody. The children were so endearing and have such different lives than American children, I thought some readers might find my time with them interesting. This was in the mid-2000s and things are definitely changing -- rural China is becoming a smaller circle of shared experience as people are moving to cities in droves, but I don't think it's yet an experience completely relegated to China's past, as there are still many rural and relatively isolated areas (I say this in 2017).
My first year in Dang Jiashan, several times in the early morning I climbed the hill opposite the village to the south. From there I could look across a narrow valley and see the Dangs and the Jiangs walking the village paths, and the sheep released from their pens running around the hillside for exercise, while the sky brightened in the east. And though I couldn’t see the school yard, I could hear the children, eight primary school students, singing their morning song. I don’t actually know what it was, but I suspect it was the national anthem or The East is Red, the virtual national anthem perhaps sung more often than the official one.
I could clearly picture the children singing because we had visited the school one day and they performed a couple songs for us; it is one of my best memories. The one-room school was a yao [a cave-home dug inside the soft loess hillsides] the same size as any residential yao. The teacher, an older man, lived in the school’s courtyard in a yao adjacent to the classroom. He was from another village and went home on the weekends.
We came into the schoolyard to find the children waiting for us in a straight line, standing stiff as boards. Two outhouses screened by high brick walls stood at the opposite side of the courtyard from the classroom, and a large pile of coal filled one corner of the yard to fuel the teacher’s stove. For some reason, no one thought to put a stove in the classroom. In the winter, the children huddle at their desks in their winter coats.
We followed the teacher inside and the kids filed into their seats. The classroom had a chalkboard on one of the long walls and two rows of rickety wooden desks with narrow legs, once painted reddish brown. Each desk contained a cubby hole beneath its surface, where two small notebooks lay rather starkly with a package of colored pencils. No markers, crayons, erasers, glue, stubby scissors or string; no snuck-in toys burrowed in the corners, no chewing gum stuck to the bottom. Accompanying the desks were hard wooden benches. The children sat with erect posture at their desks, leaning on their forearms, looking earnestly to the blackboard in front of them, where Chinese characters were sketched in white chalk. There were a few posters tacked up on the far wall, with pictures to help the students learn pinyin pronunciation of words and the brushstrokes for some Chinese characters.
One poster encouraged the students to follow principles of personal hygiene, though I’m not sure if that poster was making any headway. Many of these principles require water, which is simply not available in this arid region. There are no bathing facilities anywhere in the village. Washing hands and brushing teeth cut into the precious water supplies, plus purchasing soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste often doesn't seem to rural villagers like money well spent when they have so precious little of it. I can’t remember now if my husband and I coined the phrase ourselves to refer to something pointless, or if we borrowed it from someone else for the accuracy of the simile, but we sometimes say, “that’s about as useful as a Chinese toothbrush.” Many of the children’s teeth are stained, which seems a pity when their faces are so beautiful. But they are otherwise healthy, and most older villagers retain a nearly full set of teeth.
Nothing else occupied the spare classroom. The primary school instructs grades one through four. The children arrive at school at 6 a.m. They go home for several hours at 10 a.m. to eat, and then return for the afternoon until about 3 p.m. Many children spend most of the lunch break doing chores. They usually have afternoon and evening chores also, but during my first visit, when we were the very first team of foreigners to come to the area, the children found an awful lot of time to stand on the hilltops and spy on us or loiter outside our courtyard. Several times when I got up early to use the toilet, a chorus of hello’s rained down on me from above, where kids were lined up as though they’d been waiting for me all night in a duck blind.
Both years, they found time to make gifts for us. In the first year, they fashioned delicate spectacles out of weeds for us to wear on our faces. The second year, the older kids made origami for us, and the younger ones presented drawings and paper folded into baskets. I can’t count the number of flowers the children picked for me each year to put in my hair, and how many bouquets of flowers and weeds were smilingly handed to me. I sometimes made bouquets to give back to them, which always made them giggle. Here they have picked me a flower for my hair, as soon as it might fall out, they will quickly pick another one.
Little Xiu-Xiu of the fourth grade produced copious and impressive drawings with colored pencils that first year. Xiu-Xiu was the favorite child among the Earthwatch volunteers in that first year. She was very curious and precocious, and if we asked the children a question, she could be counted on to answer it when everyone else was too shy. Also, she is simply an incredibly cute kid.
Xiu-Xiu lives with her grandparents, and they are like Jack Sprat and his wife. Old Man Xiu-Xiu, who grows the tobacco, is tall, lean and sprightly. Old Lady Xiu-Xiu, who dug up such a bounty of wild roots, is the heftiest and jolliest of the village women. She has a full laugh that jiggles her girth and when she grabs your arm, she means business. Happy business, but business just the same.
The grandparents both have the jolly gene, which makes me think the matchmaker earned his/her fee when putting those two together. They also are reputedly the couple who is most in love; when they were young they used to frolic rather romantically in their courtyard, and all the young people in the village would sneak over to the hill above and spy on them, suppressing spasms of giggles with their hands over their mouths.
When I came back to the village a second summer, I brought with me a big art supply set to give to Xiu-Xiu. When I presented it to her, her precocious nature abandoned her and she fell stunned into whispered shyness. Her grandmother had invited me inside to present the gift. You know how there are houses that are clean and neat, and then houses that are actually lived in; Xiu-Xiu’s house is lived in. Old Lady Xiu-Xiu cleared away a spot for me to sit at the edge of the countertop next to the large water jars. The smell inside the cave was not exactly unpleasant but it was far more complex than in my yao or most of the newer, tiled yao. Xiu-Xiu’s yao is a very old one, and I think it’s about the most picturesque in the village. The smell of the earth is heavy, coming from the deeply dug dirt walls with thin plaster and the porous stone floor, and it mixes with the smell of the burned fuel—plant stalks and coal—in the cook stove, and with cooked food and the recent moisture, and the peculiar smell of time. You may think I’m being metaphorical in regard to this last smell, but it is truly tangible to the senses and is noticeably missing from the newer and renovated yao.
Xiu-Xiu and her sister, two of her friends and her grandmother gathered around as I opened up the padded plastic case to reveal the colored pencils and crayons, paints and brushes, stapler and paperclips. I had my Chinese tutor at home write a letter to Xiu-Xiu in characters about why I wanted to give her this gift, because my husband and I thought her drawings last year were so good. She read it out loud, a quiet voice reading through the words like a hungry child quietly devouring a sandwich with the promise of dessert after she’s finished. Xiu-Xiu is to the right of me with her hands of her hips.
Old Lady Xiu-Xiu was practically beside herself with pride at her granddaughter being singled out for this relatively grand gift. She insisted on giving me a gift in return. She wanted me to pick out a little woven rug of her daughter’s making, of which she had several lying around the yao. I didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t want anything in return—it was a gift, not a trade—but Old Lady Xiu-Xiu was relentless. She physically wouldn’t let me leave the yao, wrapping her large peasant hand around my bony arm until I chose a rug. She rolled it and tied it up with a string. A couple days later I was delivered a packet of drawings and paintings that Xiu-Xiu had made with her new art supplies.
According to her primary school teacher, Xiu-Xiu was not the brightest kid in class, but she made up for it with her enthusiasm. When we visited the classroom and the teacher asked the children to sing, she was in the front row with her hands clasped together tightly on top of her desk.
She sang louder than any of the other children—so loud she was nearly shouting—and later clapped her hands together with more force than the others. She was straining at her seat with glee, with giddiness to perform for the foreigners. That day happened to be the sixtieth birthday of one of the volunteers. The teacher learned of this just before we arrived, and the first song the children sang was “happy birfday to you!” in hastily-learned, heavily-accented English. They sang their new song with such pride and zeal, it brought tears to my eyes.
We asked for another song, and again they poured their little hearts into singing—even the ones who could barely manage a whispered reply when the foreigners spoke to them—sang loudly and confidently. When we had asked them each, “What’s your name?” most answered so quietly we had to kneel at their mouths to hear them. At “How old are you?” some of them couldn’t even bear to answer this question, they merely shaped their breath into a number. The contrast in their bold singing was too much for me; I could feel my chin quivering and my nose turning red. Fortunately since the children were facing directly ahead, looking straight at the chalkboard, and we stood off to the side, they couldn’t see me trying to will my lower eyelids into little dams and quickly dry my eyes when I failed. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly this encounter with peasant children singing in a cave moved me to tears. Something about their isolation from the rest of the world and their abject earnestness, the purity of their intent to perform well for the foreigners. It was cuteness overload.
After they finished singing, I handed out to each child some gifts I had brought with me—a chocolate Kiss and a sheet of stickers of cartoon animals—dancing hippopotamuses, frogs on lily pads, and tigers swinging from trees with toothy grins—and also items that other volunteers had collected, like toothbrushes and combs. It appeared that the children had never seen stickers before. I had to demonstrate to them that the animals could be peeled off the sheet and that they were sticky. Most of the children kept the chocolate Kiss unopened and sat very dutifully with their gifts neatly stacked and untouched on the corner of their desk. Rural Chinese children are nothing if not exceedingly well behaved under the eye of an adult. But one little boy carefully unwrapped the very top of his Kiss and sneaked in one tentative lick with the tip of his tongue before re-wrapping it and setting it on his desk.
Later, out in the courtyard, I showed the children some pictures from my home on my laptop—where I live, some of the people in my family, raccoons I raised one summer. They all squatted around me, intent and silent. Then I pulled up a photo of my cat. In unison they all exclaimed, yī zhī māo! (“Cat!”) And they looked to each other in delight. So foreigners have cats, too!
The next day, Xiu-Xiu was running around the village in her pretty red outfit and a frog sticker neatly pasted right in the middle of her forehead. When I knelt down to her height to take a picture of her, her grandmother, who was standing nearby, reached over and yanked the sticker off. Xiu-Xiu barely flinched over being stripped of her adornment. Only the tiniest wince at the corners of her eyes betrayed her steady smile.
“No no! Put the sticker back on!” I motioned. When Old Lady Xiu-Xiu realized that it was because of the frog on her granddaughter’s head that I wanted to take the photograph, she laughed and slapped it back on, a little crooked.
The children are gatherers, collecting wild medicine plants to be sold to the local pharmacies, golden needle and various herbs to eat, hay for the livestock, water in the buckets, leaves in the fall.
When they were children, Anrong and Anju also collected fossils from the valleys and hillsides, though it seems that no one does that anymore. The government paid them by weight for the bones and miscellany, and if they found a fossil tooth, that garnered extra money. “It was very exciting to find teeth!” Anrong said.
Children are good candidates for gathering hay to stock the livestock pens. With a scythe they cut the hay and gather it into a great bundle, which they tie with a rope that they loop around their shoulders so they can carry the bundle on their back. The first year I stayed in the village, young Pan-Pan could be found walking the path beside our courtyard each morning at about dawn. Pan-Pan was the shyest of all the children, and never really spoke to us. When we assaulted her with our cameras in the mornings, because she looked so picturesque with the purple-blossomed alfalfa strapped on her purple back, she bowed her head down. With much coaxing she would look up and smile, but it was obviously rather painful for her to be the center of such attention.
The following year she came to Dang Jiashan from boarding at middle school only for a couple days while her sister, Wang-Wang, and her cousins clamored to spend as much time as possible with us. Again Pan-Pan spoke only a few words. Li-Li [my translator and Anrong's niece], who is her half-sister, explained that she is terribly shy and if anyone even looks at her she turns red in the face. So we didn’t speak much during the day she followed us around with her cousins, but after she went back to school she wrote me a letter in pinyin—for this is a form of Chinese language I can manage to discern. In it she told me a little story about her and her younger brother, going out into the field one afternoon to let the family cow graze. While it was grazing, she and her brother fell asleep in the warm late-afternoon sun. When they woke up, the stars were out twinkling above them.
Pan-Pan is the only child who says she thinks about quitting school and helping her parents work the farm. “I would like to help my parents’ burden,” she wrote to me in another letter (my tutor helped me translate the letters). The other kids seem to have lofty dreams of city careers, making lots of money and buying big stuff. But Pan-Pan prefers the simple life, the quiet life, where she can fall asleep in the fields.
All of Anrong’s nieces and nephews are intensely devoted to their parents, as he and his siblings are to theirs. This is endemic to children of peasants all over the country—the sense of duty to support their family and the lack of any perception of burden in doing so. The children’s dreams of the future always include taking care of and improving the lives of their parents. All the village children except Pan-Pan envision buying things for their family, or giving them a portion of the money they earn from their city jobs. Only she has the wish to help her parents with her own labor—with her hands rather than her pocketbook. I suspect her intense shyness also makes her anxious to leave school, and the prospect of interviewing for a job in the city probably terrifies her. I knew her the least, yet I just might have loved her the most. She was the kind of person in whom I had the most hope—someone who could educate herself yet not abandon her home in the upshot. My official stance to her in 2005 and 2006 was that she needed to finish high school. A solid education would be valuable even to a farmer, to help make better-informed decisions, to not be taken advantage of, and perhaps be able to start new enterprises like the dairy farm in Da Huo Dian. To this end, I paid her school tuition starting in August 2005 because her parents were hard-pressed to pay to keep her in middle school.
She wrote me that fall (2005) that she would try hard in school because she believed now that education was important. Then in 2007 she wrote to say that she had dropped out of school (at age 14), as had her younger sister, Wang-Wang. “My mother and father work very hard for us, I could not just stay in school to let them feed me,” she wrote, and asked that I give her my blessing for working. Probably she’ll now be married off young for a good bride price. I wrote back telling her to try to keep educating herself even though she’s not in school, as her grandpa, Anrong’s father, did, and her own mother, who led the women’s affairs league with only four years of formal schooling. I feel sad but love her nonetheless. I hope she will still fall asleep in meadows, that beginning her life of formal labor now will not extract all her youth, that she will still have the energy to find waking up beneath the stars magical and noteworthy, and not just another peasant day.
From a young age children begin training to carry the buckets of water home from the natural spring on a shoulder pole. First they start with just a little water in each pail that hangs from each end of the pole. Over time, as they grow bigger and stronger, they work up to carrying full buckets totaling five to six gallons of water. My second year in the village, when Anju took the team to the spring to demonstrate gathering water, Peter wanted to try carrying the shoulder pole to see how heavy the buckets really were. Takeshi, Qi-Wei and Irene tried also. It cracked me up that when Anju filled the buckets for Irene it didn’t occur to him to put less water in them because she was a woman. Peasant women are nearly as sturdy as peasant men and can do most of the same chores. The rest of us laughed, since where we come from women are usually treated differently with regard to physical labor. When Anrong told Anju to empty some of the water out, he poured out only about a quart from each bucket which I thought was even funnier: he really thought he was coddling the poor foreign woman taking that much out. Anrong and Li-Li had both demonstrated the technique first and we all thought they made it look so easy. (Li-Li below.)
Everyone else who tried it made the same comment as they wobbled down the path for about twenty feet: “It’s not so easy!”
To see people like Anrong, teaching at university in Beijing, or Li-Li, a smiley student at university in Xian, it never would occur to me that they could casually lift two heavy buckets of water on their shoulder and carry them for half a mile through hill country, that they had spent every day of their childhood doing this.
When Li-Li talks about her childhood she often mentions that the labor was very hard. Another thing she did as a kid was form the young willow trees so their branches bent over to the sides rather than grow straight up. So she had to climb on top of the tender branches and then hang down by her arms, trying to pull them down. I said that it sounded kind of fun, but she said not when you do it all day—your arms get very tired! Sometimes she climbed trees to get honey and was stung by the bees. When she told me this, she rubbed her arms and cringed, remembering the feeling. Li-Li’s father contracted cancer when she was just a child of six. “My early childhood was miserable,” she told me, watching her father get ill and die, followed by the hard work her mother and the children had to do to carry on farming. Her mother eventually remarried and Li-Li said her step-father is a very good man and treats her and her older sister just like his own children.
Once I asked Li-Li if she had any nicknames. “It translates to Laughing Star,” she said. I’ve always thought it a sign of good character when people can laugh or smile about hard times, that it shows a graceful acceptance of the mean facts of life. I think this must be the best antidote for the bitterness in Chinese peasants’ lives. Papa and Anju smile literally all the time; Anrong and Jiang Lu are always ready with giggles; Li-Li’s smile consumes her face, and sometimes she blinks her eyes shut briefly like a Cheshire cat; Xiu-Xiu’s grandparents are among the poorest but the jolliest. I’ve almost come to think that a peasant’s outward appearance of happiness directly correlates to the hardships of their life. The more smiling and serene, the harder the life. It’s their only coping mechanism.
The peasant girls perhaps do have a harder time of it because they must do the same chores as the boys. You may have noticed by now that the majority of the children in Dang Jiashan are girls. There was a little gang of four boys, but they did not spend time with us except one day when we visited their homes in the new village—their parents had been the first to move. One boy had a pet puppy. The boys were a bit rough on the poor creature, but he was regularly picked up in hugs by his young owner.
Everyone in America knows about Chinese families aborting or killing their infant girls or sending them off to adoption because of the ingrained cultural value of men. Girls are not considered descendants; only boys carry on the family name, which is of paramount importance in their long-standing culture. Even the Chinese government has policies that enforce this part of their culture: in the North, a peasant family cannot apply to the government for more land or to build a new yao complex unless they have a son. It is assumed that all daughters will leave their home when they get married to live with their husband’s family, according to custom, so a family with only a daughter is not eligible to acquire more land or space. (This was the case as of 2006, perhaps some day it will change.)
Though I certainly and vehemently disagree with the vile practice, undertaken more often than not by an uneducated parent, the culture and the long history which bred this behavior is far beyond most Westerners’ awareness and understanding. It's easy to pass judgment on the barbaric practice, and it should be stopped, but it's only fair to them to first understand where it came from. ('tis well beyond the scope of this humble blog to address ... visit your library if you're interested) Human trafficking is also a wide-spread practice—desperately impoverished families sell their male children to couples without male descendants. In a recent documentary film, a man who works as a broker selling children said, “I think there is probably something wrong with selling children like material goods, but I can’t figure out what it is.” He felt melancholy, but his isolation in uneducated rural China robs him of the ability to understand it; he knows no other world than the one of desperation. To end these “traditions” will take a widespread campaign by the central government and a revamping of its own policies. The citizens of a communist country are educated primarily by the central government. It is the government’s responsibility to take action to correct these cultural values, to educate the population—half of which is rural and illiterate—and enforce laws that correct the behavior.
But Anrong’s family with five girls, two of whom were born before the sons Anju and Anrong, Li-Li’s family with four girls all born before the only son… this village has cherished its girls. It has been a common part of peasant life to sell female children in times of desperate need, as cheap future brides or domestic labor. I think if I had asked if any of the villagers in Dang Jiashan had sold their kids, I would have gotten a straight answer with little shame or embarrassment. There’s nothing to cover up—this type of thing isn’t a secret within China, just a regrettable part of life in this region of the world. Yet, from my own embarrassment over something so raw and harsh, I hadn’t the nerve to ask.
I didn't know this sweet girl by name, she was not part of Anrong's immediate family, but she sure made for some cute photos.
Fifth Sister’s daughter, little Lei-Lei, was the apple of her grandpa’s eye. Papa was always looking out for her, made sure she got included in everything with the older kids, always had a particular smile in store for her. Lei-Lei was five years old in 2006. She lives in the city with her parents, comes to visit family in Dang Jiashan only on holidays and now also in the summers when her parents leave their city jobs to help care for the Earthwatch teams. Lei-Lei will never know about all the chores, the relentless hard work that young people in the village know. She has free time and takes dancing and singing lessons.
Though she is the epitome of a cheerful, joyful child now, sometimes I wonder whether she will be a Laughing Star, like Li-Li, when she grows up; if she will have the same kind of smile and laugh that evolves from bitter seeds swallowed early in life. The smile may look the same and the laugh be indistinguishable from another, but I just bet they won’t feel quite the same on the inside; Lei-Lei’s laugh will be like ripples on a pond that a stone thrown onto the surface creates, not the kind of ripple that comes from beneath the surface, from rifts in the lakebed that let bubbles of hot air escape from the molten heart of the earth.
Children who make it on to middle school and high school hardly have a more pleasant time than those who work at home. In my second year in Dang Jiashan we visited the nearest middle boarding school in Wang Jiabian, where many of the village children go for as long as their families can afford it. It’s not hard to get anyone anywhere to say that middle/junior high school was a miserable era of their lives. But in America it’s mostly due to the kids being at their height of cruelty—teasing and ostracizing and bullying. The rural boarding school, by Li-Li’s account, was a difficult time not because of other children but because of the living conditions. She looks back on it now with a slight air of incredulity that she lived that way and made it through. But like so many things, you live through them because at the time they are what they are, and you just deal with it. Only afterwards when things have improved do you look back with a scale of relativity and say, "wow, that was rough."
The classrooms are furnished, like the primary school, with spare wooden desks, backless benches and a chalkboard. Some years the school is so overcrowded that there are no aisles among the desks; they’re pushed one next to the other in rows the entire width of the room, and the rows fill in from back to front—the teacher practically breathes down the necks of the front-row students. In order to reach a desk near the front, the students walk on top of the other desks or crawl underneath them.
Where the overcrowding really takes its toll is in the dormitories. Anrong had already mentioned how when he was boarding in high school in Jiaxian, the kids crammed onto a kang so tightly that every other kid would sleep in the opposite direction to fit together more snugly and then with the space left next to the wall—for kangs are generally deeper than a person’s length—more kids would sleep head-to-toe. “Basically,” said Anrong, “you could not turn over in your sleep.” All of this crowding isn't because so many children are attending school, it's because there are so few schools for children to attend.
When we walked into Li-Li’s old dormitory at the middle school, it was like walking into a warehouse or a prison. Everything was bare cement. “This is where I used to live!” she exclaimed, and her voice bounced off the walls and ceiling like a ping-pong ball. The hallways and the rooms themselves were boxes of gray cement, no carpets or rugs. One window was placed in each room. In Li-Li’s day (roughly ten years previous) the children had to bring their own boxes to keep their belongings in (which were very few and the boxes quite small); they were kept underneath the bottom bunk beds. Now one wall was lined with blue-painted wooden lockers, about two feet wide and deep and a foot and a half high, in which the children kept their belongings.
The sleeping accommodation was a bunk bed that stretched the length of the room. “Bed” is a liberal word. Literally, it was just two levels of plywood held up by rusting metal frames. Children are responsible for bringing their own quilts. Li-Li had nineteen bedmates. Ten kids slept on each level. They were packed together so tightly, that if a girl had to get up in the middle of the night to use the chamber pot, it was virtually impossible to squeeze back into her space in bed. In winter, the tight quarters could be a bit of an asset, for none of the cement rooms are heated. In the summer, the lack of air-conditioning compounded the stuffy misery. Recently more rooms have been built to relieve the crowding. Still, many girls cram into one room, in which there isn’t even enough space for a person to wash her face in a basin. Li-Li recalled having to squat in the cement hallway with a tiny basin of water. "It was bitterly cold in the winter," she said. Boarders had to wait in line to use the pit toilets in the morning. It’s impossible to study in the rooms—students stay in the classrooms or in the library; there is no study lounge or group lounge of any kind in the boarding buildings.
I told Li-Li that I hoped she liked all of her roommates and classmates since they were so physically close to each other all the time. She said that for the most part they got along fine. Particularly, she tended to make very close friends with the girls she slept right next to on the bunk bed. Qi-Wei recalled to me how in his dorm, after lights-out was called, he and his friends would lie still for a few minutes and then spring back up, huddle in a close circle on the top bunk, and play cards all night by candlelight. When I asked if it was hard to see the cards in the dark with just one candle, he said sometimes they bent over so close to the candle in order to see that their hair would catch on fire. “It was very funny!" he said. "It smelled awful. It happened quite a lot, and everybody laughed at the guy whose hair was on fire.”
After Li-Li graduated from high school (the second person from Dang Jiashan village ever to do so, after Anrong), she taught primary school in a village for three years to save up money to go to college. But her annual wages were less than the annual tuition to the university in Xian, so her parents have provided some supplemental support. She’s going to Xian Foreign Language University, so her future job will be involved some way in translating or interpreting. She loves the city, loves the fast pace, the whirling motion. She will never come back to the village life, she said. “I need to get a good job to help my family.”
Cao-Yu, Fourth Sister’s oldest child, is the most ambitious of all. After her first year in high school, she is at the top of her class in several subjects. She’s a bit of a tomboy and she dreams of everything. Not so much for the money, but just to be, to do, to become, to experience. She is driven to excel; her hunger for experience and knowledge is insatiable. The whole duration of my second visit, she carried a little notebook around and continually asked for the English words of objects we came in contact with. “What is this word, please?” “How do you spell, please?” She was also taken on as a team helper on my second visit and came with us everywhere. At times her energy and vitality were overwhelming; she made me dizzy.
She was having a particularly swell time being pals with Qi-Wei. But she buddied up to everyone. In Chinese society, addressing people by their given names is extremely immodest. In English, we say our given names first followed by family name. In China, it is reversed. I would be called Johnson Shara, and only my most intimate friends would ever call me Shara. Most people would call me Ms. Johnson, and my family would refer to me by my familial relationship to them in terms of generation, such as aunt, elder sister, younger sister, grandmother, etc., without saying my name. Old Lady Xiu-Xiu said that some peasant women literally forget their given name by the time they are old women, because in a small village no one ever calls them by anything but by terms of relation. When Pan-Pan writes to me, she addresses me as “aunt” because I am the same generation as her uncle Anrong. One time in the village, a young man in his twenties rode by on a motorcycle and greeted Anrong in passing. “Did you notice how he addressed me?” Anrong asked us. “He called me grandfather because his dad is the same family generation as my son.”
So one day, about half-way through my second visit to the village, Cao-Yu asked me very seriously if she could call me “sister” (rather than “aunt”). I imagine this was because I cavorted around playing with the kids more like a teenager than like someone my actual age. I told her she could call me whatever she wanted. From then on, I was called Beautiful Sister! Sometimes she would yell it out just for the heck of it.
“Hello Beautiful Sister!”
One day Irene asked all the children around us what they wanted for their futures. The younger children (middle-school age) said they just wanted to learn English for their future. Our conversations using their budding English were great:
“I like green beans very much,” they’d say.
“I like green beans, too,” I’d say.
“I like peaches. Do you like peaches?”
“I like peaches, too.”
“Do you like apples?”
“I like apples, too.”
Cao-Yu, however, wanted to be an astronaut. She said this and then laughed. She knew the kind of ambition this answer revealed in her, especially when many older peasants in the village are completely unaware that space travel actually exists. Probably she doesn’t really want this occupation, but it is the most succinct way to sum up her personality, her vision and drive. After that, I dubbed her “Beautiful Astronaut.”
In sad contrast, one time when we drove into Jiaxian City, our minivan came around a corner to find a child sitting in the middle of the road with a begging cup. Not beside the road, but literally in the middle, with no chance to run from a car that couldn’t swerve or put on the brakes in time, for he sat paralyzed, his legs limp out in front of him. Sometimes I wonder if part of the parents’ strategy was to end his misery and their financial burden by enhancing the kid’s chances of being killed by a car by “accident.” When my husband and I were in Yinchuan, capital city of the poor province of Ningxia (it is, surprisingly, a very pleasant city), we watched an adolescent girl performing in a large pedestrian mall. She was balancing on a board on top of a roller while kicking kitchenware such as bowls and plates with one foot up onto her head, to land stacked neatly on top of each other. A substantial crowd had gathered around her. She missed catching one bowl with her head and her mother, standing behind her, scolded her immediately, and the girl completely lost her concentration. I was dismayed to see people turn and walk away, suddenly unimpressed. The young girl was crestfallen as she endured her mother’s harsh words and her toddler brother ran around with a cup, trying to collect money before his sister was deserted by the crowd. No one would ever dub her Laughing Star or Beautiful Astronaut. I suspect she seldom opened her mouth, and probably didn’t know what an astronaut was.
“Youth is a terrible thing. Terrible… I will never go back.” Stanley Stewart in his book Frontiers of Heaven relates a man’s account of how he ended up in the desolate northwest border province of Xinjiang, though he was a native of the pleasant town of Suzhou in eastern China, famous for its many exquisite gardens. He was a collector in Suzhou, collecting porcelain. He possessed a priceless family collection passed down through three generations.
“They were the children of our neighborhood. I had watched them growing up. The ringleader of the Red Guards was a boy from my street. He had been a delightful child.” Suddenly given a form of absolute power—the power of violence—by Chairman Mao, the local teenagers-turned-Red Guards harassed and interrogated the man, forced him into self-criticisms and beat him. Then they forced him to smash his beloved porcelain collection himself piece by piece. They threw the shards into a canal. Like many artists and connoisseurs, he was tried as a counter-revolutionary and sent to work the coal mines in Xinjiang Province. He has been free now for many years, free to go home. “Would you not be happier in Suzhou?” Stewart asked him.
“I cannot go back to live among the people who did this. They are still there, as if nothing had happened. Now they say I am free. So I am free to reject them.”
“We only had one idea then,” said another man, a former Red Guard, to Colin Thubron in his book Behind the Wall. “Whatever Chairman Mao said was right, God-given. Our heads were empty. Perhaps we had gone mad. We didn’t think at all. And now it seems like a nightmare… We didn’t know—we didn’t ask—why this or that man was bad. People said hit him, so you hit him. It wasn’t even personal… We found a porter who had been reading novels with a love interest [i.e. romance]. This was [considered] decadent. We beat him unconscious and burnt the books. Then he died.”
He was deeply bewildered at his own past, writes Thubron of the former Red Guard. All of these stories—for there are countless related in the books I’ve read—deeply bewilder me, too. Though the Red Guards were recruited more from the cities, still when I look at the children I’ve personally met in China and hear them talk about their devotion to their parents, their respect for them and sense of responsibility to protect them and look out for their welfare, I can’t reconcile that with the recent past of the Cultural Revolution. I can’t reconcile the two ends of the spectrum of human behavior that evolved in the span of only a few years.
This excerpt of China's past doesn’t have much relevance to my own story of Dang Jiashan village except that I am haunted by the thought of being in this huge country of China with all the sweet children gone mad and running with the devil. Could Pan-Pan or Wei be capable of these acts? Could Beautiful Astronaut or her younger brother, Cao-Jie, always shuffling around in vastly over-sized flip-flops, ever be persuaded into such absurdity? It’s so difficult to imagine them turning against their elders, but Anrong told us at the village temple how the adults once had to pray in secret; they had to keep secrets from their own children, right here in Dang Jiashan.
Such complex futures lay in wait for today’s children of China. Such a great unknown. However repressive the 2,000-year-old dynastic era in China, the future was never such a blank slate as now. Things were relatively predictable for the majority peasant population, and the one drastic change—the Mao era—ended in disaster. Great changes are on the horizon; the society is moving, shifting, jostling, like the land itself that rides the tectonic plates beneath it. Cultural identity is being stripped away, which could cause a crisis in self-identity. Perhaps the young people’s heads will become empty again. No traditions, no culture, no continuity to fill them. Increasing knowledge, yes, but knowledge of the world outside, of subjects and technologies but not of themselves.
When I think of the children I knew in Dang Jiashan, all I can feel is the warmth of Lei-Lei’s small hand promptly placed inside mine whenever we walked together; the strong arm of Cao-Yu as she linked it through my elbow as we skipped along the paths or stood listening to Anrong, her wet lips pressed against my cheek in kisses; Li-Li’s arm around my waist as we posed together for pictures; the delicate paper of the origami creatures Zhong-Li made for me and her patient instruction trying to teach me the folds; the long-lasting infection in my ear from the earring Wang-Wang gave me with such delight, and her short, black hair that I stroked when she laid her head on my shoulder. The memories are so warm and sweet, so relaxing, that I sometimes fall asleep thinking of them. To me, this is the beating heart of China right now—the devoted peasant children oozing with affection. This is the true spirit of the people, which hopefully will not be trampled as the country begins to modernize.
Sometimes I sit on the hillside of my own yard and look out at the pond below; behind it children play and ride their bicycles. I can hear them laughing sometimes, and shouting at each other. Their voices morph in my head into the singing that rang through the early morning hills in Dang Jiashan, of the earnest children releasing their innocent energy, their golden hearts, into the meter of song; and little Xiu-Xiu singing loudest of all.