4. The Function of Bathing.

(PAGE 29) Whenever Xiezi walked past her father, the mingled stench of stale urine and the odour of a man’s body unwashed for a very long time wafted across her nostrils. Xiezi’s father had always clung to his peasant origins. Despite taking part in the Revolution and being the head of a coal plant, the muck from his time in the Eighth ‘Dirt’ Route Army fighting the Japanese still clung to him, ingrained and unwashable. Xiezi’s father was deeply repulsed by the thought of bathing and passionately believed it could bring about all manner of evils. He’d say: ‘See those youngsters all pink and shiny like scrubbed up piglets? They’re just showing off and doing their best to stir up a hornets’ nest for the rest of us. Have a wash or two and before you know what den of demons you’ve pissed on, you’re divorced, you’re home and money are gone, floozies under the bed and all because of washing.’

One of his favourite pastimes was catching adulterers in the act. He would personally lead a small detachment of People’s Guards from his Work Unit on a tour of inspection and in the dead of night, torch in hand, he’d burst into the dormitories at the coal plant. Who’s that sleeping in the marital bed? he’d sing to himself. On the one or two occasions when he actually caught people, it was treated as the most important thing that had ever happened, hauling them over the coals with public criticisms and denunciations, forcing them pen long essays of self-criticism. He and the leading cadres pressed them into giving minutely fine details of their encounters, demanding they describe every single scene: How did they kiss? What were they doing with their hands and feet? What positions did they use in bed? If the protagonists were unwilling to go into such lurid details, they’d have more charges levelled against them: Their attitude to confession was bad. Their explanations were dishonest. Didn’t they know the policy of our Party has always been ‘Leniency to those who confess, severity to those who deny’? The tone of questioning by the Worker’s Political Group was scathing and they’d fly into a rage if they felt unsatisfied by the quality and quantity of details. The men and women caught en flagrante of course never made it through such a grilling and were punished by being made to clean the communal toilets or some other filthy, exhausting job where they were regularly checked and always found lacking. People gossiped behind their backs, poking fun and sneering about their ‘mistakes in life’ and were even disrespectful to their faces. It was because daily life was so dull that they became the hottest topics of mealtime conversation. People were especially fascinated with the intricate details of these clandestine relationships, exercising their vivid imaginations to the full in bringing the scenes to vibrant life with fantastically colourful details. It was the only pastime people had. The people being talked about cowered through the streets like dogs with their tails between their legs, terrified of everyone and afraid of raising their heads.

(PAGE 30) Xiezi’s father used to say if you wanted to maintain purity in the ranks of the Revolutionaries then the smallest misdemeanours had to be dealt with, otherwise the tiniest eye of a needle would pass the strongest gales.

Xiezi’s father had yet more irrefutable evidence to present against washing: it was leading an army of unwashed peasants that The Great Leader Chairman Mao had beaten that bald western lackey Chiang Kai-shek and chased him off to his tiny little island. It was that dick-head Chiang who told his armies to wash whenever they could, the pussies, turning them into the bunch of panda pups us Reds battered to a pulp! Chiang Kai-shek got himself a ‘plastic Yank’ for a wife, and call her ‘Darling’ in public. But if someone says ‘Darling’ in English, it sounds like ‘Big Bell’ to a Chinese ear, like someone saying ‘Swede Hat’ instead of ‘Sweetheart.’ Everyone looked around in confusion. What big bell? Is there a small bell? All these airs and graces. Happy to have brought a round of laughter, Xiezi’s father placed the index finger he had used to pick between his toes under his nose and snorted hard as though he were joyfully satisfying an illicit craving. Xiezi’s father was disgusting in the privacy of his own home. It was as though he delighted in the grotesque, taking vice as virtue.

But Xiezi’s father had another unmentionable terror of water. The thought of washing forced him to recall his three sons who had drowned in the river many years before. Water was the demon charm of their family. Water had executed their family’s heirs. Even though Xiezi’s father the Revolutionary had this unshakeable superstition towards water, he was still a devout Marxist. He was an atheist and steadfastly refused to subjugate himself to destiny; he was a highly principled Communist and a Communist simply does not believe in superstitions. He decided, therefore, to rely on his faith in the Party to magically produce another son for him.

Xiezi’s Mother’s life had been hard. She had given birth to thirteen children in all, and her neighbours used to say they had never seen her with an idle belly. She seemed to be always heavy with child and, they said, having a baby was like taking a piss for her. She didn’t know whether the number thirteen was unlucky or not – the Chinese don’t share this superstition with westerners. Anyway, only four had survived, none of which were sons and so the Wu family line was broken. The death of his sons proved to be the breaking of Xiezi’s father’s heart, and he was certain it was a disaster brought about by there being too much Yin in the family Wu. But still he was the head of the household with his awesome bearing and absolute power, and was waited on like an emperor by the five women in the home. Whenever one of the women in the house walked in front of him, he could almost physically sense a blast of Yin conquering the Yang of the family. But he was (PAGE 31) utterly unwilling to admit to the fact, because to do so was tantamount to admitting his own incompetence, and that would never do. But how was he supposed to make the Yang overcome the Yin again? He looked at his body, knobbled and scrawny as a bundle of firewood and at his four pale and sickly daughters and felt completely helpless. But he would not concede defeat. He imagined the day when he would have sons, his face wreathed in smiles, surrounded by heirs giving him the strength and energy to live. All he had now was a feeling he was living on borrowed time. One of the things he hated the most was other people discussing their sons because it always felt as though they were deliberately flaunting their heirs in front of him; he hated it more when people asked him how many sons he had because that felt as though they were deliberately taking a swipe at him. Not having a son seemed to have shattered a facet of his spirit and he felt people were laughing at his shortcoming. A cloud of nameless ferocity sometimes descended from Heaven to envelop him, which he then used to smother his wife and daughters.

‘If you had any bit of use in your old hag’s bones, you wouldn’t just tip out a bunch of useless dowry fodder, would you. You can’t even look after a single son. If I’d have known it’d be like this I’d have dumped you long ago.’

Whenever Xiezi’s Mother suffered one of his tirades she burst into tears and couldn’t bring herself to stop. She was like Xiezi’s father inasmuch as this was her sore point too, but at the same time she felt a grievance that it wasn’t entirely her own fault. She didn’t really understand anything about ‘science’ or x and y chromosomes and she always kept her ears open to try and pick up any tips on ensuring the birth of a son.

She once heard that if you drank a solution of brick dust, you’d then conceive a son, but crucially, the dust had to be from the wall of a room where a baby boy had lived. This proved difficult. There were plenty of girls in the home but there was an obvious lack of boys. Eventually, with the help of some sympathetic women with sons, she collected some ‘baby boy dust.’ But there was still more to it than that. She needed the innards of a cockerel which had never crowed to mix with red dates as a catalyst. The mixture then had to be brought to the boil at midnight and as soon as the first cock crowed, the baby boy dust had to be added in three equal measures, each the size of a very small coin. She had to further bear in mind that she mustn’t use an iron or aluminium pot, only an old and battered earthenware pot would do. This particular folk prescription specified what time it had to be taken, and how it should be taken. If any stage of the process was performed incorrectly, then it wouldn’t work and not only would she continue having daughters, she might even give birth to small monsters covered in moles.

As she prepared the concoction, Xiezi’s mother’s eyes were blood-shot and red from sitting by the fire and staring into the flames. She couldn’t help smiling the tiniest little smile as she imagined actually seeing the birth of a son. But still she didn’t dare take lightly the smallest detail of what she was doing, afraid that the slightest loss of concentration would interrupt the process and she wouldn’t produce a son. (PAGE 32) When the cock crowed for the first time, Xiezi’s mother duly added the baby boy dust into the pot where the young rooster’s innards had already boiled for hours. The stench was so strong that Xiezi and her sisters found it impossible to go to sleep. The magic concoction boiled harder over the fire and Xiezi’s mother deftly lowered the flames. They had to be kept as small and bright as beans and then the concoction had to be boiled again for another four hours, or just before dawn. The fire then had to be extinguished and the mixture poured into a porcelain bowl. She waited another two hours, and when the first rays of dawn appeared over the horizon, she drank the mixture down and went to lie with her husband. This prescription is said to be extremely effective and successful, and many were the women who couldn’t bear sons and tried it, and before the month was out they had joy and nine out of ten of those joys were sons.

Xiezi’s mother raised the bowl of broth that would decide her fate, and quietly prayed. ‘Dear Emperor of Heaven, I beg of you, please grant me a son. In life I am a person of the Wu clan. In death I will be a ghost of the Wu clan. I beg of you to make us complete and bestow an heir upon the house of Wu, and in future lives do with me as you will.’ Tear drops glimmered in her eyes as she drank the bitter brew, and not a drop was left.

Xiezi’s Father’s factory sporadically gave out tickets for the public bathing house as a kind of welfare benefit, and if the date on them expired before use, tough. Once a fortnight Xiezi would take her sisters to the bathing house. With so many days’ grime it was as though their bodies were actually heavier with dirt. The bright cleanliness they felt after bathing was unimaginable before they had been, and Xiezi would always feel as though swallows had returned to their forests on the first days of spring; she would feel lithe and happy beyond compare. Bathing was more or less the happiest event in their monotonous lives. In that city of swirling dust and choking fumes it was even more important in the lives of the city-folk who only enjoyed the privilege once a month, maybe even only once in several months – especially in the winter when it was simply treasured. Each time after she bathed, Xiezi was always surprised to discover how much whiter she and her sisters were.

Without being sure whether it was the influence of her Father, or whether it was her own fear of the Great River, Xiezi always felt nervous near water. But (PAGE 33) when she finished bathing she felt as though she had been reborn, relaxed and comfortable enough to forget completely the labours of the day.

Xiezi could certainly be considered hard-working and industrious. Even though she wasn’t a boy and wasn’t given the special treatment due to a boy, she still did more physical work around the home than any boy would have done. Xiezi was the sixth child in the family, but all those born before her had either died of illnesses, died in childbirth or been taken away by the Lord Dragon King, making her the eldest child. She was therefore put to work and ordered about as though she were a boy, buying rice, lugging sacks of flour, hauling sacks of coal and chopping wood. When the roof leaked in the rain it was she who clambered up and replaced the felt. It was her who changed the light-bulbs, afraid of getting an electric shock, and as a matter of course, it was her who swept and cleaned and looked after her sisters. Xiezi and her mother were the busiest in the home with all the heaviest work falling to them, but they got none of the respect they deserved for it. Xiezi’s father lived like a lord in his own home. As soon as he walked through the door his youngest daughter placed his slippers next to his feet. The next daughter would have poured his tea and placed it next to his hand, and his food was ready and waiting for him on the table. No one dared so much as look at the food until he had touched his chopsticks. These were the rules of the house. After the meal, he went and lay on the sofa.

‘Xiezi! Tea!’ Xiezi brings him tea. Huozi brings a foot bath and nervously removes his slippers. She rubs the soles of his feet while he grumbles. ‘What’s the water doing being so cold?’

‘Didn’t you say it’s been too hot these past few days?’ suggests Huozi, timid and meek.

Without bothering to look up, he says, ‘I’ve been at work all day and when I come home I can’t even get a hot foot bath. Why’s this little skivvy such a pain?’

‘Don’t be cross, dear,’ says Xiezi’s mother, a soothing apology. ‘Working all day you should rest. I’ll get some more hot water for you. Xiezi! Get in the kitchen and bring some hot water for your dad.’

‘Nothing’s ever right, is it,’ he says impatiently and frowning.

Even though she loathed the Great River, as far as Xiezi and her sisters were concerned, washing was still a joy. Every time they filed into the public bathing house, the streaming hot water would help them forget their Father’s menacing presence for a while. Unconcerned by the meaty, sweaty smells in the room, they shrieked and squealed as they zipped in and out from beneath the shower heads. And when they were finished, they left with a sense of jubilation, fresh and gorgeous as though a new leaf had been turned in their lives. (PAGE 34) This was especially so in the freezing winters when the crisp, clear sun seemed to beam the light of life into their faces. Xiezi wished she could share these moments of pleasure with her Mother, but she thought washing in public was too shameful, too much of a face-losing affair. Xiezi’s Mother was illiterate, only barely capable of writing her own name. Her small bound feet were the paragon of Confucian feminine virtue. She would never have been able to bring herself to strip off in front of someone else and stand there having her back scrubbed. In her view, a woman’s body should belong only to one man and was permitted to be seen by him alone, her husband. Standing naked even in front of other women was too much for her. She became flustered and never knew what to do with herself whenever it crossed her mind. Xiezi’s Mother had only once in her life seen a man’s bare behind, and that was Xiezi’s Father’s. She regarded being naked in front of anyone except her husband as a kind of infidelity, and she thought such attitudes were the paradigm of moral virtue, happy to voluntarily lay upon herself the restrictions such attitudes incurred. Traditionally, women like that are most worth of others’ respect. ‘Hide one’s teeth when laughing.’ ‘Death rather than dishonour.’

More than once, Xiezi heard her Mother telling this story:

‘Once there was a beautiful, clever woman, who loved her husband’s parents and did everything she could to satisfy her husband’s every whim. To her children she was benevolent but firm, and people from far and wide had nothing but praise for her. One day, an important guest came to their home, and naturally, she was thoughtful and attentive. As mealtime was fast approaching, she was keen to prepare a meal befitting their honoured guest’s status. As the traditional saying goes “A beaten wife makes beautiful bread.” Only a wife who is beaten will ever learn her lesson; she’ll knead the dough with all of her might and well-kneaded dough makes the best bread. This wife, this paragon of virtue, delicately entered the room and saw her husband and their guest involved in a happy discussion at the ceremonial table. She walked to the flour store, and as she bent over to ladle some flour into a bowl, she accidentally let out a loud fart. She was so embarrassed she reddened to the tips of her ears, for in that moment she lost all of her feminine charms and caused her husband to lose face. She felt she had broken the traditional rules, shattered the three obediences and four virtues of Confucianism and lost all right to show her face in front of their guest. She plucked a long hair clip from her head, and with an iron will and righteous determination, thrust it deep into her neck. When people noticed her, she had already been dead a long time and the flour store was soaked with fresh red blood.’

To take your own life for the sake of a fart? This story became a eulogy for feminine rectitude, and has been passed down for hundreds of years. Xiezi’s Mother was bowled over in admiration for such women, so how could she ever go to the public wash house? (PAGE 35)

On one cold winter’s day, Xiezi took her little column of sisters to the public bathing house as usual. She stood beneath the hot streaming water allowing it course along her form and contours in rivulets to her toes. She looked at her own breasts, swelling larger each day, and felt a twinge of shyness she couldn’t explain. Her arms and legs were long and slender and her skin glowed a gentle shade of olive, seldom seen among people from these cold northern climes. Her skin shone bright as a bronze urn, but people didn’t admire or appreciate it. The people around here have a saying: “A touch of white to hide all flaws.” Indeed, it was because of her skin colour that people said she was unattractive – in some people’s eyes even a little strange. Xiezi often heard other children being praised, if not for being good, then for having white skin. Xiezi never heard anyone offering such praise about her.

Standing in the midst of all these naked women she quietly and unconsciously examined the physique of each person: the old, the young, the fat and the thin, the smooth and shiny and the rough and course, big bums, small bums, thin and thick waists, long and short legs, barrel bodies and slender waifs, pert little bosoms, sagging great bosoms. She looked again at her own delicately turned up breasts and felt for the first time in her life a soft rush of arousal. She had never imagined her own body could be beautiful and unflawed and she admired herself as though appreciating a pearl. Every kind of smell was rising from the countless bodies in the bathing house, mixing with the heady perfume of cheap soap to an almost suffocating level. But the women, damp in the steam, paid no heed as they scrubbed each others’ backs telling jokes and laughing. Xiezi heard some middle-aged women talking about things which made her blush bright red. Women slowly ambled here and there, visiting, natural and grand as trees, with not the slightest sign of shyness in their nudity.

Xiezi found herself closing her eyes and putting back her head to let the gushing water caress her face and soak away the collected filth and tiredness of so many days. Soon forgetting where she was, she felt a contentedness she had never imagined. The water poured like a veil draped from Heaven across her eyes and she felt she was floating in air, drifting to a place with no distinction between male and female, where gender didn’t happen, and therefore no one had a Mother or Father and no one suffered their Father’s bullying. People with no gender do what they want, free and happy in their Kingdom of Water. She wanted to never again toil in the realm of people, where she was forever being ordered to do (PAGE 36) this and that and every kind of chore; the never-ending grinding housework weighing on her shoulders and breaking her back.

‘I could stay here forever,’ she said to herself.

‘What?’ said Lizi, surprised and nudging her. ‘What did you just say?’

In the depth of her reverie, in the lethargy of the steam, Xiezi looked about herself and was suddenly shocked to see a pair of eyes – a pair of man’s eyes looking directly at her! Horrified by the maleness of the gaze, her reflex reaction was to cover the most secret part of her body with both hands. There was a framed photograph of the Great Leader Chairman Mao hanging high on the wall of the showers. He was smiling slightly through the rolling steam at all the naked women below, solemn and amiable, and in his perceptive and benevolent gaze was an infinite mercy and compassion. Xiezi was suddenly breathless and her whole body tensed. She knew it was impossible to walk through the bathing house with the same insouciance of a moment before. She felt like a thief, startled and unable to run. Gingerly she tip-toed through the bathing house, hiding herself and unable to raise her eyes, her movements embarrassed and prudish. But she still had to take care of her three little sisters. Using a towel she roughly scrubbed their backs dry, the quantity of grime soaking into the towel and spreading across the floor momentarily distracting her. They yelped as hard as they could and even a little harder, but their bodies were so clean they almost felt like they could fly. Each time after a wash, they sprinted along the streets, looking for all the world like birds in flight. Clean bodies left them brimming with exuberance, and Xiezi knew that no matter how hard or grim their lives became she would always take them to the bath house. It was a moment of pleasure between the sisters, a rare opportunity and a moment they all treasured.

She dressed herself with trembling hands. She felt a burst of fury within her, but she had nowhere to release it except to hurry her sisters along. Huozi said she wanted to stay longer, and Zhizi blinked her big eyes at Xiezi, bewildered. Usually, they tried to stay as long as they could. Even if the choking steam and fumes in the shower house were sometimes too much to take, it was still the only pleasure in their lives. Xiezi was behaving like her Father, bullying and haranguing her sisters to hurry up and get dressed, and she quickly left the building. But even as she fled through the door she could still feel those eyes scrutinising her from behind. (PAGE 37)

She stood in the street gulping breaths of air, her heart muffled with terror. The sky was as grey as lead and the air was thick with choking coal smoke. She was all too familiar with the smog. She had grown up in these reeking surroundings. It was worse in the winter when thick coils of acrid smoke rose from the roof of every home. Xiezi stood in the street, swathed in smog and shaking with fear. She had scared herself beyond belief, but couldn’t understand what was so fearsome in those eyes. She didn’t dare admit it even to herself. It was a crime punishable by death.

She remembered the old illiterate woman from her neighbourhood who used to feed her chickens from a sheet of newspaper spread on the ground. She wasn’t to know that Chairman Mao’s name happened to be on the piece of newspaper she was using one day, and neither was one of the chickens, which shat square on the characters for Mao Zedong’s name. This eighty-year-old woman was branded an ‘Active Counter-revolutionary.’ When the Red Guards came to get her, she knelt on the ground, bowing and scraping and pleading for her life, but it was no use. She was paraded through the streets over and over again with her arms bound behind her back and a placard hanging from her neck, until her Neighbourhood Committee sentenced her to clean out the public toilets every day. But she was an old, old woman, and there was no way she could endure the mental and physical tortures she suffered. One day when she was cleaning the toilets, she collapsed and fell awkwardly into one of the latrines and drowned. Xiezi heard so many stories about people like this old woman who had slandered The Great Leader Chairman Mao, and a shudder went down her spine and the hairs stood up all over her body. As the weather gradually got warmer, she occasionally caught a whiff of her own unpleasant odour, enough sometimes to make her gag. Whenever she drew water to wash, her mother chided her saying: ‘What’re the wash-house tickets for? What do you want to keep wasting our water for?’ In the face of such reprimands, Xiezi’s quandary was made ever deeper.

One evening, when snow-flakes as big as goose feathers were slowly falling, the family had finished their meal and Xiezi had just cleared away. She went into the main room where her mother was sewing cotton shoes under the gloom of a fifteen watt bulb. Al through the year, Xiezi’s Mother’s needle was never idle, making clothes, mending trousers or darning socks, new for three years then hand-me downs for three, then patched for another three. (PAGE 38) She silently crossed the floor to her Mother’s side and started gently massaging her feet. Her eyes were blank and empty as she absent-mindedly cast her eyes about the four empty walls of the room – empty except for a huge, arresting poster of ‘Chairman Mao Going to An Yuan.’ Xiezi looked up at his divine image and another shudder trickled down her spine.

‘Ma,’ she asked with a timid and barely heard voice. ‘What do you reckon to that portrait of our Great Leader Chairman Mao being in the bathing house?’ Her mother sat up straight and stared at her daughter, surprised.

‘It’s good of course. The light from Chairman Mao shines in all directions; the light from Chairman Mao brightens every corner,’ she recited. She paused for a moment, and then as though suddenly remembering something, her expression stiffened and she fixed a stare on Xiezi. ‘What are you asking me that for? You looking to die?’ She paused again and released a long, slow sigh. ‘Never ever talk like that outside these walls. And don’t go asking stupid questions – all that stuff is out of bounds.’ So saying she softly stroked her daughter’s hair. ‘Now get yourself off to bed, okay?’ This was the first time her mother had touched her since the death of her three sons.

Xiezi didn’t say anything. Feeling again the warmth of her Mother’s hand, she could barely tear herself away, but she groped her way back to her room where her sisters were already asleep, mumbling their dreams. She lay down on her bed, eyes open and staring at the ceiling, then felt a sudden recurrence of the terror. She had thought of something which scared her to the core without knowing why it should. ‘What did the portrait in the wash house ever do?’ she asked herself. The brilliance of Chairman Mao was omnipresent. Under the loving concern of Chairman Mao’s Thought, why did she feel awkward and shy? She couldn’t understand her own reaction so surely, she surmised, her instincts had to be gravely incorrect. She wondered how someone of her own tender years could be guilty of such a heinous crime. She thought she deserved to die and she deserved no sympathy. Death was too good for her. She deserved a thousand deaths. Why had the Great River drowned Sanzi and why hadn’t it taken her? In the black of the night she viciously cursed and swore at herself.

When Xiezi got up at dawn the next day, she crawled under her bed and groped around until she found a small earthenware jar. She brought it out and lightly brushed away a thin layer of dust, revealing the grey brown colours underneath. She hesitated a moment then thrust in her hand and drew out a small package, tightly rolled in brown straw-paper and itself matted with dust. She unwrapped it layer by layer as though enclosed within were treasures of gold and jade. She removed the last piece of wrapping and there before her were several bank notes. The largest was two jiao, there were three one jiao notes and an assortment of smaller one and two fen notes. Xiezi spread the money out before her on the bed and counted a total of nine jiao, three fen. This was the sum of four years of saving, four years of deprivations and sacrifices and was the only thing in her life which belonged entirely to her. She had never told anyone about this little piece of private property in her possession. Saving a little money was just instinctive for her, without ever really knowing why she was actually saving. Since she was small her Mother had said that in her day, as soon as a daughter was born, her Mother started making her bridal gown. When a daughter was older, her Mother would teach her how to sew. When a daughter married and moved into her husband’s home, it was a matter of honour for her Mother that she should be able to sew well, and it was one less thing the bride’s Mother-in-law could use against her. When a daughter’s prowess with a needle was developed enough, she and her Mother would continue making her bridal gown together. When the daughter wore the gown on her happy day, it was partly to show the world the worth of her family, and to attract the praise of everyone in the husband’s neighbourhood for having taken so skilful a wife. It was the first gift offered to the daughter’s Mother-in-law and made it less likely that she’d be bullied as soon as she crossed the threshold.

Perhaps it was because of this that Xiezi had quietly saved. But it had been so hard for her to put this money aside. The two jiao note had been given to her by her Mother for a school outing one spring. The other children used the money given to them to buy all sorts of peanuts, candy and puffed rice. All Xiezi had was her Father’s flask from his time in the Korean War, filled with water and nothing to eat for the entire day. She couldn’t bear the thought of wasting her two jiao on a pancake. She was so hungry she saw stars in front of her eyes but she was determined to keep hold of her money. And now the money was hers. It was the first time in her life she had owned this kind of money and she felt immeasurably rich. From then on she took every opportunity to save the drips and drops of money that came her way – not so she could spend it, but rather so she could save it. But today she bundled it up without thinking and stuffed it into her pocket. She crunched through the snow and whistling wind to the Xinhua bookshop. Blinkered and determined she let go of four years’ savings like a pent up breath and bought four larger than life-size colour portraits of Chairman Mao. (PAGE 40)

She had one fen left in her pocket.

When the teller had rolled up the portraits and placed them in Xiezi’s hand, she felt her soul shine with a divine light. Carefully and reverentially she tucked them away next to her heart, not wanting the weather outside to taint such sacred treasures. She opened the door of the shop and stepped outside to face the wind and driving snow. Unconcerned by the bitter cold she walked home, cradling in her bosom this great spiritual sustenance, and she felt comfort and solace in her repentance. It was a fair distance from the bookshop to her home, and as she traipsed through the crunching, creaking snow, her hands and feet stiffenend with the cold. She stamped it from her cotton shoes outside her door and rubbed her hands when inside, before carefully removing the two foot roll from within her jacket. She unfurled the posters and suddenly the huge visage of Chairman Mao was spread out in front of her. Lifeless, she stared again at the male and masculine eyes she had seen in the wash-house, and once more they swamped her mind and shuddered her spine.

‘Why are you so scared of his eyes?’ she asked herself, but found no answer. Throughout her entire education, The Great Leader Chairman Mao was the singularly most divine figure in the world. His image had no gender. It was only when she was in the specific environment of the public bath-house that she felt the brace of his gaze, and only then that she realised his gaze was the blinding gaze of a man. But whatever her education, her instincts were stronger. And a young woman in the flush of youth would always be taken aback by the gaze of a man’s eyes, and especially those of the Great Leader Chairman Mao. But to be afraid of his eyes was surely a crime. Xiezi was certain she was criminal.

So in order to become accustomed to those eyes, she hung the four portraits of Chairman Mao over hers and her sisters’ beds. Every day there were eight sacred eyes watching her, yet still when she changed her underwear she had to hide behind the bed. She was deeply enraged by her own timidity, so forced herself to expose her secret before those sacred eyes. She deliberately lay naked on her bed, no vest or knickers, letting the light that shines in all directions, the light that brightens every corner, fall upon her body. She stripped off once, twice, again and again before that holy gaze to try and steel the shyness from her body. But she just felt more and more uncomfortable before his eyes and more and more she wanted to do something perverse and unforgivable. (PAGE 41)

One evening, Xiezi’s oldest younger sister, Huozi, forgot to give her ‘evening report’ before going to bed. In those days, people were expected to relate to an image of Chairman Mao their good deeds of the day. Xiezi forced her to strip and stand naked in front of his portrait for fully forty minutes as a form a penance. The undeniable sense of terror she felt whenever she stood before those eyes seemed to emanate from the very depth of her bones. Those eyes could scrutinise the very roots of her soul; they flowed in her blood through her veins; they nestled in her every nerve. The terror she endured from those male eyes made her feel she might drop dead at any moment, so only by pledging her undying loyalty to those eyes could she hope to protect herself. She needed those eyes to wash away her sins. Only by standing in the light of those eyes could she hope to be rescued and protected, and she sang The East is Red to those eyes every morning:-

  The East is Red,
  The Sun is Rising,
  China sends forth our Mao Zedong,
  He strives for the Glory of the People,
  He is the Guiding Star of the People.

To punish herself yet further, Xiezi decided to get to school at six o’clock every morning to light the stove in her classroom and sweep the floor. In the depths of those winter months when she woke at five in the morning, the sky was still as black as pitch. Fierce cold accompanied the silence of dawn. Xiezi would reluctantly drag herself from the warmth of her bedding, but as soon as she remembered the slogan “Reform your thinking through labour,” she’d fling open the door and march through the bitter cold to school. Whenever she happened to pass anyone on the road, her pulse quickened. This was not a safe city and violence often erupted. When the stranger had walked on by, she heaved a sigh of relief, grateful she had come to no harm. When she saw she was approaching her school, her stuttering heart settled down. The old man guarding the school gate drowsily glanced at her through his small wooden window frame. (PAGE 42) Xiezi pushed open the door to the guardhouse. ‘Grandpa Li, I’m just taking the key for Upper 1 B,’ she said.

‘Bit early, isn’t it?’ muttered Li, then fell back to sleep.

Xiezi took the key and went upstairs where there were already a few lights shining from the windows. ‘I’m not the earliest. There are people more sincere than me.’ She opened her classroom door and sucked her fingers to try and warm them before chopping kindling for the fire. Xiezi was a good work-hand and in no time she had the fire up and burning. She swept the floor and wiped down all the desks, then ran downstairs to fetch water. By the time the sun was up, the classroom was immaculate. And so it was every day for the entire winter. She had terrible chilblains in her fingers that year and they suppurated constantly. She bandaged them in cotton and did her best to hide them from view. She was inflicting hard labour upon herself to punish her crimes.

Every Saturday afternoon there was a clear out at school, and Xiezi would stand on tip-toes, on top of a stool, on top of her desk, and reaching high above her head, take down the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in the middle of the classroom. Xiezi had a problem with heights and when she was high up in the air her legs would tremble. But if she was going to show her devotion to Chairman Mao, she would have to overcome this small difficulty. When she had the portrait before her in her hands, she gazed once again into those eyes, and reverentially wiped his image clean. Solemnly she wiped the dust from the frame then finally, ritually hung it back in its place. Everyone present was deeply moved by her devotion, and at the end of term Xiezi was judged out of all the Red Guards to have the most limitless devotion to The Great Leader Chairman Mao.

During every political campaign, denouncing people had become a form of systematised behaviour. It was a reliance upon using denunciations that allowed people to advance their own careers: power not money made the world go round. If you had power you could have everything. ‘When a man becomes an official, even his chickens go to heaven.’ From kindergarten to the highest office, from the youngest child to the oldest man with one foot in the grave, all had to learn how to denounce and all had the possibility of advancing themselves. It was fashionable at that time to ‘take a stance’, ‘to state one’s position’, whether you were from the ‘rebellious faction’ or the ‘protecting the emperor faction’ or from the ‘middle-of-the-roaders’, everyone was classified into clearly different factions and clearly different levels within those factions. People looked for, found and exacerbated trouble. Old Man Chairman Mao said ‘There is endless joy in struggling against Heaven; there is endless joy in struggling against Earth; there is endless joy in man struggling against man.’ But the key was in man struggling against man. The nine million six-hundred-thousand square kilometres of China’s geographical area became one sparring arena. People expended a lifetime’s effort on trying to do each other down, and many were the households split between more than one faction. Irreconcilable arguments came to blows (PAGE 43) and there wasn’t a day’s peace as whole families became sworn enemies. Brothers fought sisters fought sisters fought brothers; husbands fought wives and argued and argued and even divorced over differing political standpoints. It was all a question of standpoints. People could easily project principles and positions onto others, and in so doing they set out their own standpoints.

But there was also the ‘unconcerned faction’ in those days, however rare they might have been. Like innocent mutes, they voiced no opinions on anything. Even though they did their best to keep their heads down, their lives were by no means easy. All of them from professors to odd-job men had to attend the same meetings and study sessions with a view to developing the same kind of ‘power thinking’ as everyone else.

There was even a far-reaching campaign of denunciation at Xiezi’s school. It started with a big mobilisation rally in the playground, where Mr. Wang, the leader of the Workers’ Propaganda Brigade, made a speech on the importance of the denunciation movement. He stood on a stage, bawling into a microphone:

‘At this precise moment in time, the Class struggle is extremely complex! All around us, at every second, our Class Enemies are hiding. So all of us, every one of we the Masses, have to increase our Revolutionary vigilance. Quite probably, sitting right now in our very midst, are hidden Counter-revolutionaries! We have no choice but to bring into force a movement of mass denunciations! We must leave the Reactionaries with no place to hide! Students sitting here today, do not think you are too young for this. Revolution and Counter-revolution make no distinction between young and old. You too must denounce each other and reclaim the ground from beneath the Capitalists’ feet! And another thing. You are not only expected to denounce each other at school, but if anyone in your home comes out with Counter-revolutionary theories, or if they happen to express dissatisfaction with the level of Socialism around, then you are most welcome to denounce them too. Your dear mothers and your dear fathers are not as dear as Chairman Mao! Let this be a test of your loyalty to the Party! But more importantly, you must protect the Proletarian Revolutionary Line of the Great Leader Chairman Mao!’

The skin on Xiezi’s head tingled and prickled. ‘Isn’t my fear of Chairman Mao’s eyes a Counter-revolutionary crime?’ she asked herself. A burst of applause from beneath the stage brought Xiezi to her senses, and she mechanically joined in. The leader of the Workers’ Propaganda Brigade stuffed his speech into the top left pocket of his blue Mao-suit and strode purposefully from the stage. As he placed his foot on the bottom step, he turned and glanced back at the thousands of eyes and Xiezi’s body surged with a pang of fear. He had looked straight at her; (PAGE 44) he had looked straight at the secrets she thought she was hiding.

From then on, there was a denunciation meeting at the school every week, the leader of the Worker’s Propaganda Brigade standing on the stage and urging people to denounce each other. Under normal circumstances, teachers weren’t qualified to take part in these meetings because they were the first targets to have been ‘overthrown’ – the lowest of the low, the ‘stinking lower ninth’ of society as decreed by Beijing. No matter how eminently ‘red’ a teacher may have been, merely being a teacher made them eminently qualified to be hauled up in front of the masses and denounced. None of the teenaged boys and girls truly understood the intricacies of Class struggle, but their bearing was always one of earnest sincerity. How dearly they wanted to expose and denounce one of these dark and hidden Counter-revolutionaries from amongst their own number. But regrettably, their age and experience meant none of them were yet likely to have the credentials of a Counter-revolutionary. The accusations and counter-accusations bandied about were usually along the lines of:- Zhang San hasn’t ever really suffered any hardships; Li Si decadently changed his clothes three times in two weeks; someone else’s clothes were too flowery – a trait of the Capitalist Classes; and then there was someone else who once fed half a steamed bun to a dog at the side road which is tantamount to stealing food from the Middle and Lower Peasants. Middle and Lower Peasants are the manifestation of the Proletariat and whosoever opposes the Middle and Lower Peasants opposes The Great Leader Chairman Mao. One student goes to another student’s home and sees the cat is given a bowl of milk – the epitome of a Capitalist lifestyle – and must be exposed and denounced! Vast numbers of people suffered disaster from this kind of logic

Xiezi had always been a very shy young girl, lacking in any self-confidence. She was terrified of speaking in public, and especially so if she was expected to denounce someone. She sat tucked away in a corner during the weekly meetings, saying nothing. She found it impossible to think of anyone in her class whose behaviour was Counter-revolutionary or who had apparently opposed Chairman Mao. The leader of the Worker’s Propaganda Brigade had already ordered her to denounce someone. Denouncing people for him was like delegating duties: everyone was given a quota to meet otherwise the Revolution wouldn’t be thorough enough.

Xiezi returned home in a state of wretched anxiety, and barely slept that night as she racked her brains trying to think of someone suitable to denounce. She lacked the faculty to just fabricate an accusation against someone, and started thinking seriously about whether she should just denounce herself instead. It seemed as though that was going to be the only possibility open to her, but where would she end up if she did? For as long as she could remember, Counter-revolutionaries never came to a good end. For as long as she could remember, she had seen Landlords, Rich Peasants, Counter-revolutionaries, Bad-class Elements and Rightist being (PAGE 45) paraded through the streets without the slightest hope of clemency or leniency. All had been thrown into prison and beaten black and blue. Some had died and others had gone mad – all had come to a miserable end. ‘Have you got the nerve to go to prison?’ she asked herself. The answer was a definite No. If she was ever going to protect herself, she’d have to present a positive face to the world. But who was she going to denounce? She racked her brains and thought and thought. She looked around, but what on earth did a dark and hidden Counter-revolutionary look like? She envied all those lucky characters in films like The Cock Crows at Midnight, The Heroic Sisters of the Plains and Never Forget Class Struggle. How easily they found Counter-revolutionaries standing right there next to them. Why weren’t there any Counter-revolutionaries standing next to her? Just one would be fine. Any more and she couldn’t get a hold of them. All she could conclude was that her luck just wasn’t good enough.

The Denunciation Movement was already into its fifth week. Xiezi was burning with desire for a Counter-revolutionary to appear, a chance to pin a shining medal on her chest. But no such miracle came to pass and she felt utterly dejected. She lay on her bed and whispered a silent prayer to the portrait of Chairman Mao above her bed:

‘Most honoured Great Leader, to You I have unlimited devotion, and to You I beg Your help. Invigorate my hate with a flash of inspiration. Those deep and dark hidden Class enemies are cunning and evil, but Your Thought is like a demon-revealing mirror. Help me, please, expose a Class enemy.’ Over and over she repeated the prayer and a beam of sunlight suddenly shone through the crack in her door and fell upon the eyes of Chairman Mao above her bed. Xiezi returned their bright and burning gaze and a flash of inspiration came to her. The beam of light was like the finger of God dispelling the clouds around her heart.

Xiezi adored Yu Qian (Pretty), the only girl in their class who was willing to have anything to do with Xiezi. She wasn’t put off by Xiezi’s apparent ease with solitude, and often came looking for her after school or during the breaks between classes when they chatted and gradually became closer and closer. Yu Qian had a pair of beautiful almond-shaped eyes, deep and mysterious as the ocean, with a tranquillity and femininity evoking in Xiezi an enormous trust. (PAGE 46) Xiezi loved looking into her eyes. There was nothing knife-like or sharp in her eyes, nothing that scared her. She was surrounded by hundreds of pairs of wolf-like eyes, making her shudder with fear. But Yu Qian’s eyes were like a patch of green grass, a respite, where she could walk and rest for a while. Ever since she was small, Xiezi had been filled with a nameless terror, but she didn’t know where it was from, only that she had it. It was like an invisible sword hanging above her head, likely to fall and slash into her at any time. She knew she had never once dared to do anything illegal, but everyone else around had never done anything illegal either. But for the sake of a single sentence they had lost their lives and even their thoughts could not be thought. Xiezi was terrified people could see what she was thinking. She was once so scared, so startled by ‘those eyes’ that she actually broke out into a cold sweat. It was only when she was with Yu Qian that she felt she could relax, and when Yu Qian looked at her, it was like a spring breeze caressing her brow; it made her realise that beauty still existed between people. Xiezi loved almost everything about Yu Qian. The warmth of her character, the goodness of her heart, her long slender fingers, her lithe figure and her lively mind all entranced Xiezi. But most of all it was Yu Qian’s laugh, infectious, clear and bright as a bell, and carrying just as far. If she stood on top of a mountain and laughed, the glee would have filled all the valleys. And her name! Her name made Xiezi admire her more than anything. Yu Qian. Such an elegant feminine name. The character for Qian could make people think they were looking at ripples on water, as though it were untouchable, its slender beauty only appreciable from a distance like a dream. But the name Xiezi was enough to bring anyone down. It had no gender and it had no grace. She couldn’t understand why her father had given her such an unfortunate name, but she didn’t dare ask him about it. Doing the slightest thing wrong would send him into a rage.

Xiezi, always so inept at making friends, knew the significance of having Yu Qian in her life. Yu Qian was the Yang, the sun in her cloud of Yin. The first time she went to call on Yu Qian, her heart fluttered with excitement. When she knocked on the door, her hands were trembling not with fear, but because she knew she was about to behold a moment of joy, a bowl of happiness in her life that brimmed. (PAGE 47) A young man stood before her when the door opened. She shot a startled glance at him then hurriedly diverted her eyes. Yu Qian stepped out of the house like a breath of a breeze, and laughed.

‘This is my older brother.’ He too was refined and elegant in appearance. He nodded slightly in Xiezi’s direction and her face flushed red. He walked slowly away, leaving Xiezi standing and giving her the opportunity to look around. All four walls were covered in bookshelves, heavily laden with books. The atmosphere in the home was poles apart to that in Xiezi’s. In Xiezi’s home there wasn’t a single book, but here the atmosphere was unique. Xiezi couldn’t name it but she liked it. It was like Yu Qian. A certain scholarliness. Smiling, Yu Qian took Xiezi’s hand and led her to her bedroom. It was small and attractive. Hanging on the wall above her bed were several pictures of animals and stills from films popular at the time. They sat next to each other on Yu Qian’s bed, and Yu Qian showed her a scrapbook with pictures she had done of China’s four classical beautiful women, and hundreds of pictures of fish. She said she wanted to study marine biology in the future and asked Xiezi what she wanted to do. Xiezi shrugged her shoulders. She had no plans for her future. She’d resign herself to fate and see what happened. Yu Qian looked at her, placid and calm, and Xiezi was at ease.

Just as she was about to leave, Yu Qian asked Xiezi if she liked her drawings. Xiezi nodded vigorously.

‘Choose one then.’ She said.

Xiezi, embarrassed, shook her head. Yu Qian picked out one of her drawings of a dolphin.

‘Have this one,’ she said. It was precisely the one Xiezi had like the most. Yu Qian whispered she wouldn't tell anyone else about it. Liking animals was dangerous in those days, because they couldn’t discern Class Nature. You also had be careful of being labelled a ‘Petty Bourgeois Sentimentalist’. Xiezi nodded. (PAGE 48)

Xiezi spent the rest of the day in blissful happiness and it carried her into her dreams.

At the fifth denunciation meeting held on a Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere in the classroom was unusually tense. The students all sat with their heads down. Anyone who could have been denounced had already been done so in the previous few meetings, and now no one could think of anything incriminating to say about anyone else. All the students sat in agonised thought, wondering who they could possibly denounce. The previous week’s meeting had become somewhat ridiculous, raising the most petty and ludicrous points. The son of a market vendor, a Level Five Red, stood up and pointed at Zhang Xiaoping, saying ‘His Dad’s a Capitalist Roader! He farted right in front of me yesterday and I reckon that’s typical Class Revenge!’ Another student, the son of a Poor Peasant, Li Caixie, said ‘Wang Manman’s name is too soppy. How can he be a Red Guard for Chairman Mao with a name like that?’ The whole meeting was taken up with this mediocre drivel, and in the end the leader of the Worker’s Propaganda Brigade said everyone should stop and think a little harder about what should and should not be denounced:

‘We have to strike at the very nerve-centre of our Class Enemies!’ he bellowed through the classroom. ‘We cannot allow a single Counter-revolutionary to slip from our grasp!’ Not a sound was heard. No chatter or sounds of eating and even the birds were silent as the atmosphere became ever more tense. Wang strode back and forth, shouting incessantly, ‘Well? Any one else? As far as I can see, there are people attending this meeting who have not spoken once. This shows that they have a serious problem with their Proletarian standpoint!’ As he spoke, Xiezi felt Wang’s eyes fall upon her and trembling, she lowered her head as far as she could. She wanted to disappear. But when she looked up, Wang was indeed looking directly at her and her heart pounded. In the last moments of the meeting, Wang called out again, ‘Who’s going to make a denunciation? This is your last chance! This is all a question of your loyalty or disloyalty to Chairman Mao!’

‘I’m going to denounce someone!’ said Xiezi, springing to her feet. Yu Qian instinctively turned her head to look and Xiezi met her eyes for a moment, and in that second Xiezi almost lost her courage. Quickly she looked straight ahead again, worried that Yu Qian’s gaze would dissipate her Revolutionary determination. Staring at the wall in front of her she said: ‘There isn’t a picture of our Great Leader Chairman Mao hanging in Yu Qian’s home.’ (PAGE 49) She quickly sat down, hung her head and started shaking, not knowing why she should feel so cold.

It was like hurling a huge rock through the mirror-smooth surface of a lake. The atmosphere in the class became instantly tense and the students stared aghast at one other in hollow despair, terrified the next disaster would fall upon them.

‘Very good,’ said the Workers’ Propaganda Brigade leader, looking as though he had just taken stimulants, pacing the floor and rubbing his hands together. ‘Yes, very good. Wu Xiezi has presented us a very important lead here: There are a few children of Intellectual Elements who look all quiet and uncomplaining, but really they’re Counter-revolutionary to their very bones!’ His eyes fell heavily and pointedly upon Yu Qian, and everyone knew who he meant.

Yu Qian suddenly stood up, her eyes brimming with indignant tears. ‘It’s not true! We have too got a portrait of Chairman Mao at home and if you don’t believe me you can go and check!’

Xiezi sat motionless in her place. ‘But you haven’t got one on your bedroom wall.’ she said in a tiny voice.

‘Is this so, Yu Qian?’ boomed Wang.

‘But that’s not the same as not having one at home!’ she said, broken with sobs.

‘Don’t try and deny this, Yu Qian,’ he said, stern.

Another student suddenly shouted: ‘Down with the stinking Capitalist girl! Stop her rebelling! Stop her inciting!’ and the whole class joined in at the tops of their voices with the new slogan. Xiezi, in a confused and bewildered daze, opened her mouth but made no sounds. Her feelings of guilt tangled with her feelings of devotion to Chairman Mao. She knew quite clearly she had lost a friend for ever. Making the denunciation had not only failed to turn her into a hero, it had actually left her saddened and morose. She knew how disgraceful it was to betray a friend, but when faced with the Revolutionary line of Chairman Mao and the Petty Bourgeois concerns of friendship, it was only natural she should choose Chairman Mao.

‘This marks a new trend for the class struggle in our school,’ said the Worker’s Propaganda Brigade leader at the end of the meeting. ‘And don’t go thinking you’re too young. Revolution doesn’t care about age.’ So saying, he strode purposefully from the room.

After school, when all the children had swarmed from their classes like bees from a hive, Yu Qian sat alone by her desk, solitary and stupefied. Her expression was a numb mask, utterly dumbfounded by this unexpected and treacherous attack. She couldn’t believe her best friend could have brought such disaster. She couldn’t understand how Xiezi could have done this to her.