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PART 1 Childhood
THE NEW AUTUMN SEEMED ALMOST HOTTER THAN SUMMER. EVENING breeze blew gently through the torn paper window, yet my body was covered in sweat as Grandma held me to her bosom. Earlier in the day my mother had beaten me with a wooden stick. Now silvery moonlight revealed blood streaks on my skin and shone whitely on my pale and worried face.
My stifled sobs turned suddenly into loud crying.
"Crying will awaken your mother, and she will come again to beat you. Don't cry, my precious little Phoenix."
Grandmother spoke these scary words, patting me lightly to put me to sleep.
"I ... I'm not afraid of beating. Why doesn't she beat me to death?"
I spoke loudly, almost as if I wanted my mother to know what I felt. But Mother, sleeping on the other side of the wall, kept her temper and made no sound.
"Precious, don't be naughty anymore," said Grandmother. "Your mother has suffered I don't know how much distress for your sake. Remember the time you put a copper coin in your throat and could neither spit it out nor swallow it? Your eyes rolled far up in your head and went white. All day long saliva gushed from your mouth as if you were suffocating. Your mother was filled with anxiety as she climbed seven miles up a high mountain to get the doctor. In front of total strangers she kowtowed like a crazy person, crying out, `If only someonewill save my child, he can have my life if he wishes it.'
"Later, you managed to swallow the coin and it fell into your stomach. Then your mother feared the copper would absorb blood and endanger your life, so she sent someone to Baoqing to buy fifteen or twenty pounds of plant roots for you to eat—and she constantly examined your feces to see if the copper coin had come out.
"And then there was the time you fell from a ladder while fooling with a swallow's nest in the rafters—you injured your face, stopped breathing, and your whole body turned icy cold. You were knocked completely senseless. Your mother cried streams of tears. First she called for the doctor. Then she knelt before the Goddess of Mercy and prayed by the bowl of magic water, saying, `Oh, Goddess, please let misfortune descend on me instead of my precious Phoenix. I only ask you to protect her health and her high spirits. Take my life in exchange for all her misfortunes.'
"Precious ... do you remember all these things?"
I stopped crying. Silently, I listened to Grandma tell my story.
"Alas, my sweetheart." Grandma sighed—a very long sigh. "You really are too troublesome—I just don't know where you came from. In the same month that you were conceived, your mother began to vomit everything she swallowed, even a single sip of water. If she ate so much as a single bean, she threw it up. Each day she felt lightheaded and her stomach ached. During the last two or three months of her pregnancy she suffered so much that she considered suicide, yet she always remembered that she had three sons and one daughter who needed her care, so her thoughts turned again to life.
"Finally came her fateful moment: you were about to descend to earth, Your mother told me that her stomach was so painful she could not even get out of bed. No use talking about eating—she could not even swallow water. For two days she tossed and tumbled in pain. Then suddenly your head appeared. I thought you would come out immediately, and my heart was full of hope. I stared, waiting to receive you as you were born. Unfortunately, I watched one whole day and one whole night, and still your little head full of black hair stayed at the same place. Your mother could not last much longer. To make matters worse, your father was not home. I was alone and dared not move one step away from her. At last I asked your great aunt to go and get the midwife. Ah—this business of the midwife makes me angry every time I think about it. Already your mother had given birth to four children, and not one of them had required a midwife. Each had been born in an hour, at the most. But this time ... who could have known that after three days and three nights you still would not descend? The midwife came, looked, and shook her head: `No hope, you should at once prepare for the funeral.' That's actually what she said to us.
"Next your great aunt began to insist that the midwife must get the child out. `No matter what happens,' she said, `we must save the adult—it doesn't matter if we sacrifice the little child.'
"By then I was totally frantic. I had no idea what to do. Yet your mother was still clearheaded, and she sobbed to me, `Mother, quickly go to the Nanyue god and promise incense on my behalf—if the child is a male he will return to burn incense when he is sixteen, and if it is a girl I will take her myself the moment she is twenty.'
"So I did what your mother said. I knelt in front of the Nanyue god and promised Blood Basin Incense.
"As a result," continued Grandmother, "just at the moment of dawn there came a WHAaa sound and you descended to earth. Your voice was unusually loud. Almost everyone in the courtyard was startled from sleep. Your eyes were like two brightly lit lanterns, and your eyeballs were moving extremely quickly. A pair of little fists and two legs moved nonstop. Your great aunt sighed and said, `Too bad it's a girl. If it were a boy he surely would become a big official—you see this lively pair of eyes?'
"At that comment your mother was most unhappy. She replied, `Son, daughter, all the same.'
"From this you can see that your mother loves you very much, despite all the hardship she has suffered for your sake. In future, Precious, do not make your mother sad again. You should appreciate her hard work and her love."
I listened silently. I was only six.
Grandma feared I had fallen asleep. Actually, I was quite clear: on one side my brain played the sad scene of my mother's difficult delivery, while on the other side was deeply imprinted the scene earlier that day when my mother had beaten me with all her strength. A most curious feeling. Also, I had a suspicion that when Grandma told me what my great aunt had said just before I was born—that I must be sacrificed to save my mother—she really was describing her own words. But I knew that Grandma loved me very much, so I did not settle accounts with her.
Hah! But if Mother loves me so much, why did she beat me so hard? Isn't a child a person? Doesn't she have her own ideas? Must she obey an adult's every word? (These words ran round and round inside my brain.) Yes, I am a naughty child. I often anger Mother—she who manipulates everybody, men and women, young and old. She manipulates the entire village of Xietuoshan. But to catch up with me, naughty and strange little creature, this is Mother's most unhappy task.
Sometimes Mother's anger reached the limit and she told Father vindictively, "You take her away from me forever. This child could not have been born to me." Or else she would say, "I'll marry her off early and avoid trouble."
Pitiful child. By the time I was three, I had already been promised as a wife to the son of my father's friend. Who could predict the fate of this little life, already so carefully arranged?
* * *
GRANDMOTHER OFTEN TOLD the story of her marriage to Grandfather: "My own family was very poor, but when I came to your grandfather's family I found he was poorer still, with neither rice to eat nor two bowls to eat it from."
"How can that be?" I always asked her, whenever she told this tale.
"Be patient and I will tell you. Your great-grandfather had six sons. Your grandfather was the second of them. When the old man died, each son received one pound of rice, one bench, and one bowl. That was all the inheritance he left them. Your grandfather, like all the other sons, had only a single bowl. So after I came into the family, what were we to do?"
"Go buy one," I said.
"Right. Your grandfather was an honest and hardworking farmer, and whenever he worked for others the boss treated him very well. He not only earned enough money to buy another bowl but every year was able to save part of his salary. When I came here to live with him I washed clothes and did hard labor for other people every day, so I was able to earn a bit of rice. Eventually we were able to buy farm tools. We borrowed money to buy a buffalo, and we rented several acres to cultivate. Ah! Speaking of farming reminds me of your father.
"Even when he was only a boy of seven or eight, your father loved to read books. Each day when he tended our buffalo he secretly carried a book along with him, hidden in his shirt. After reaching open country, he sat down to read it. No matter where the buffalo wandered, and no matter whose wheat, vegetables, or beans the buffalo ate ... well, your father paid no attention. One time the buffalo got lost, and for a whole day your father was too scared to go home. He cried in desperation. On the second day a neighbor found the buffalo. When your grandfather asked your father why he had been so absentminded, he replied that he had forgotten about the buffalo because he was reading a book. Your grandfather then realized this boy was no herder: he was a born book idiot.
"So your grandfather agreed to send him to school. He said that if your father excelled in his studies, he could take the national scholars test. On hearing these words, your father became crazy with happiness. He read books all day and all night. On moonless nights he read by the light of lit pine branches, and sometimes he burned his fingers, scorched his skin—but he did not even notice.
"In the year 1903 he went to take the provincial scholars test. He did not have proper clothes for the journey so I made him a new set of outer clothes, and I gave him some of my own torn clothing to wear under them. Your grandfather carried your father's bundles of luggage for him, which was why shop people along the way paid no attention to your grandfather and treated him like a servant. Afterward your father became a scholar. Who would have dreamed that the old porter was actually the scholar's father? Ha!" Grandmother laughed.
I knew many tales about my father. I knew that he had attended Zhang Zhidong's Academy of Hunan and Hubei, and that his thinking was entirely sympathetic to that of Confucius and Mencius. I also knew that he preferred studying the words of Song dynasty scholars. In the last year of the Qing dynasty he was one of six people invited to the capital to take a special exam in economics, sponsored by the governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, for a government post. All the others went but not Father. He had high ethical standards and would have nothing to do with politics. He believed in traditional morality, including absolute obedience to parents. He was even more reverent than the philosopher Zeng Zi when it came to honoring his parents. Everyone liked being with Father, for he was easygoing and polite. To his children he could be stricter than the strictest teacher in all matters related to schooling and character, yet in his love for them he was gentler and kinder than Mother. Strange to say, he did not oppose new ideas, although his own thinking was quite old-fashioned. When my second-oldest brother wanted to study English in middle school, for instance, my father encouraged him and urged him to work hard. And Father always engaged new graduates to teach courses at the Xinhua County Middle School, where he served as principal for thirty-seven years. Of course, he still enthusiastically promoted ancient literature and traditional morality, and that was why I, when still a child in my father's bosom, had already begun to chant poetry and read ancient literature.
As for Mother? She was a woman of great courage and character, afraid of neither heaven nor earth.
Her own mother had had no sons, just three daughters. Mother was the oldest of the three, so family matters fell entirely under her sway. At sixteen she married my father and quickly became famous in Xietuoshan as someone exceedingly clever. She was endowed with a talent for managing things and was brimming with notions about how a proper wife and a proper woman should behave. She believed absolutely in the notion that a female should be humble and should respect the male. She paid particular attention to the fine points of traditional manners, which were almost more important to her than her own life. She was Xietuoshan's Mussolini: whether at home or out in society, she was always telling people what to do. Almost everyone in the village, adult or child, listened to what she said. Community property was kept by her, for she never took advantage of anyone and she always worked enthusiastically for the common welfare. Village politicians could not get along without her. Whenever the members of the village council could not find a solution to a situation, they had only to invite her to speak a few words and all questions were answered.
She was strong and capable, born with an unbending and unwavering spirit. Everyone feared her and obeyed her—and not just in the village. Even in her own family she was the dictator, treating her children as an emperor treats slaves who must listen to her every pronouncement and obey her every order. One time my big brother took his wife to Yiyang, a town 170 miles away, to start his own little family. Unfortunately, he did not get Mother's consent beforehand. So Mother sent someone to find him and bring him back. She punished him by making him kneel on the ground with a large foot basin full of water on top of his head. Whenever he moved only slightly, the water spilled, and then Mother would spank his bottom. After many people tried to intercede for him, she finally allowed the foot basin to be set down. On another occasion my second brother wanted to divorce his mean, unfeeling, tiny-footed wife, but Mother slapped the table and scolded him loudly, "You thing! The idea of returning from your studies to try to pull such a shameful and immoral trick. Really. Don't you care about the honor of your ancestors? If you want a divorce, kill me first and then talk about divorce. So long as I am alive, I will not allow this loss of face." My brother knew her character and believed that if he got a divorce she would kill herself, so he suffered the bitterness of his marriage and did nothing. From that moment until the day he died from spitting blood, my brother remained utterly alone and never had a romantic relationship with a woman.
My sister was even more obedient. She was actually like a little lamb in front of Mother, and spoke in a whisper. She married someone named Liang at eighteen, and suffered the ill treatment of her husband and her in-laws without complaint. Whenever she came home she went out of her way to tell us how well her husband treated her, for she knew if she did not say this, our mother would scold her for not waiting on him. Many times I caught my sister crying in the toilet, and often at night I was awakened from my dreams by the sound of her sobbing. My youngest brother obeyed Mother and Father, but he was stronger than my second brother. Sometimes he actually argued with Mother. He had ways of touching our parents' hearts so they would not oppose what he wished to do.
As for me?
Ah—I regret to say I was a completely rebellious child.
* * *
I WAS MOTHER'S YOUNGEST. My sister, ten years older, was married off when I was eight. By then my oldest brother was already working as a teacher.
My other two brothers went away with Father each school term to study in the town of Xinhua. Twice a year, at winter and summer vacations, they came back home. Those were the happy times when we were reunited. During the winter Mother prepared lots of dried fish and dried meat and stored it away for their return. I always envied my brothers for the way she treated them as guests. As soon as we received a letter telling us that my father and brothers were on their way home, Mother became so happy that she could not sleep for one or two nights. She cooked up rice and dishes of food. She changed me into, clean clothes and would always say, "Precious, don't get dirty. When Father returns he will bring you candy, and your brothers will give you many toys."
The journey from Xinhua to our home was thirty-two miles along a road that climbed over two high mountains. Father rode in a sedan chair and hired a porter for the trip, but my brothers huffed and puffed along on foot, wearing short shirts and straw shoes just like coal deliverers' children.
Mother always took my hand, and we stood watching at our gate from five o'clock in the afternoon until finally, at twilight, we could see the sedan chair coming in the distance.
"Precious, your father is returning!"
Then she ran back into the house to boil water and steep tea. Meanwhile, the little black dog and I raced three hundred yards to welcome them. By then Father was always walking, for he customarily got off his sedan chair about three miles from home, just at the place in the road where he passed near the homes of some elderly people and the graves of our ancestors.
"Father! Candy?" Like a little monkey going up a tree, I quickly climbed until my two little hands held tightly to Father's neck.
The little black dog wagged his tail and leaped on Father—and my second brother hit the dog with a stick. Father quickly said, "Don't beat it, don't beat it. It's welcoming us, just like Precious."
Even the porter laughed.
I only twisted my lips tight and made no sound. I was unhappy that Father compared me to the little dog.
Whenever I welcomed Father, he carried me home. In winter as soon as he entered the gate he wrapped me in a leather coat, afraid I would catch cold. My brothers bustled about, giving me many toys they had made themselves—tiny boxes, toy sparrows, little boats, pencil holders—as well as blue ink bottles and broken glass vessels from their chemistry lab. I especially loved those glass vessels. In summer I caught many lightning bugs and put them inside the glass, and the bugs moved up and down like a golden dragon, flickering. Most intriguing.
Father had bought flavorful candy for Grandmother and pretty little round pepper cakes especially for me. Mother was afraid I would take all the cakes and share them with other children, so she always kept them and gave them to me just a few at a time. But she didn't know about the candy I got from Grandmother, or how I sometimes stole cakes and biscuits that had been prepared for our guests, put them into my pockets, and took them outside to divide among my little friends.
On one occasion Mother was too busy to sew a pocket on my old shirt, but I insisted that she do it right away. Because of this she chased me with a wooden stick. I ran so fast that her little feet could not keep up with me, however hard she tried. She ordered me: "Stop!" I ignored her and ran even faster.
Suddenly I heard a noise, poo-tunk: Mother had fallen and her two little feet were plunged in a mud field. She could not pull them out for a long while. Pitiful. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I escaped home and cried out for my sister-in-law to save me. But Mother soon returned, locked me in a dark room, and used a thistle stick to beat me. On that night my grandma told me several stories, for I ran to her bed to sleep and nurse my wounds.
Father loved most of all to plant flowers. Behind our house was his garden. In spring and summer, winter and fall, this garden was bursting with many kinds and colors of flowers, as well as with pomelos, oranges, cherries, plums, pears, loquats—all sorts of fruit trees—and here were many bamboos and pines, and when the thorny bright roses opened up, the entire garden sparkled, and all day long the yellow oriole cried ... this beautiful garden, I don't know how much happiness and hope it gave me.
When he was home, Father spent his days in the garden. If he was not pulling weeds, he was using a watering can to sprinkle the flowers and trees. In evenings, beneath a vegetable oil lamp with a bean-size flame, he instructed my brothers in ancient literature and taught me to chant poetry, while nearby my mother and sister-in-law spun their yarn. The sound of Father chanting poetry frequently intertwined with the sound of the spinning wheel, all harmonizing in a drunken music. On many such nights I lay in Father's arms and fell asleep ... and one morning when I awoke, he asked me to recite a poem by heart.
With a red face I answered:
"Father held Precious,
His voice so deep;
Next thing Precious
"Who taught you this poem?" Father pretended to be upset. Yet I knew his anger was fake, for a smile floated at the corners of his mouth.
While speaking, I slipped away like a little sparrow.
* * *
Paths in the fields were green with grass and filled with red and white flowers. Water ran slowly in the stream. Frogs in the field cried guh-guh nonstop. This was the time for farmers to plant and for children to catch fish and shrimp. Every spring the barefoot farmers, wearing coir raincoats, stood bent at the waist in their fields, beneath the drizzling fine rain, from early morning until skyblack.
When I saw our foreman returning with little carp strung on thin reeds, I knew it was time for me to go out to play. I took off my shoes and socks and put on a bamboo rain hat, just like the farmers, and ventured out with a few naughty boys. In a muddy stream we competed at catching shrimp and little fish. Sometimes the stream was moving so fast we couldn't catch anything, and then the boys discussed stealing fish from the fields. Raising fish in fields was a secondary farming business, and stealing a few little carp was no problem as long as you did not encounter anyone. But my goal was shrimps and crabs, not fish—and, anyway, I definitely did not want to be a little thief.
I liked snails too. When I picked up snails, my legs often were bitten by leeches and began to bleed, all my clothes got wet, and my face got all muddy. Whenever I went crying to the house, Mother scolded me: "You know you are a girl, don't you? Why play outside with such dirty, knockabout boys?"
"Can't girls play outside?"
"Not outside, no! Only in the house."
"No, no! I must be outside...."
Then followed the mingled sounds of Mother scolding, me crying.
Excerpted from A Woman Soldier's Own Story by Xie Bingying. Copyright © 2001 by Lily Chia Brissman and Barry Brissman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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