In September 1971, I entered third grade. Dad had come back from the camp on the mountain and was at another reform camp ten miles away from our town. They made him dig ditches from morning to night to expand an irrigation system that eventually failed to work, while continuing to press for more confessions about my uncle in Taiwan, which had always been China's sworn enemy.
Sometimes I was allowed to visit Dad and bring him food. I would stand on the edge of the work site, searching for signs of my father among the hundred or so other people being "reformed." Tired, curious faces would look at me, word would pass on down the line, then eventually out would come my dad from the ditches, his back straight, head held high, and a dazzling smile on his face for his son as he busily dusted off his ragged clothes. I would have nothing to say and could only look at his blistered hands, while he asked how everybody was and how my schoolwork was going. Then it was time to leave; if I delayed, the foreman would chase me off the site with his wooden stick.
Grandpa was suffering all the time now. An expensive medication was bought to cure him, but he was outraged when he heard its price, since he knew that what it cost could have bought the whole family some decent food for a month. Despite his frail condition, he was still ordered to go to the rice fields every day to chase the birds. After he had had an especially bad night, I brought in another petition. The cadre ripped it to pieces in front of me.
"The stinking dogshit!" he screamed, and spat on the floor. "Tell your no-good grandpa to wake up. I've already given him the lightest job and he doesn't appreciate it. What does he want, to sleep in his warm bed all day and plot his revenge against our Communist system? Well, that's not going to happen with me in charge." He thumped his chest. "Do you hear me? And as for you, you little shit, I don't want to see you this often. You'll be in trouble yourself one of these days, running all these errands for your no-good family."
I ran home angrily and told Grandpa the answer was no.
My eldest sister, Si, had graduated from junior high school. Brother Jin had had to stop one year short of completing it, and Ke and Huang were asked to leave before finishing elementary school. The Red Guards took over the classroom and put some teacher on a humiliation parade. They had made the lives of landlords' children and grandchildren miserable. Si's classmates had hacked at her hair with scissors, which made her look like a mental case, and Jin, while he was still in school, had been constantly hassled and beaten by his classmates.
One day we received a notice from the local school authorities. It read, "Due to overcrowding in our school system, it has been decided by the Communist party that the children of landlords, capitalists, rich farmers, and the leftists will no longer be going directly to Junior high or high school. This new policy is to be implemented immediately for the benefit of thousands of poor farmers." The curt notice didn't explain the logic behind such a decree. But we understood that they considered us the enemy and a danger to their world. Education could only further our cause and threaten theirs.
Thus I became the last student in our family. Every day Morn would whisper to me before school that I should cherish this precious opportunity. I should work hard and be a good student, or I would have to stop school like my siblings and become a farmer or a carpenter, with no hope for a better future. She said the more they wanted you out of school, the more you should show them how good you are. She admonished me to behave myself and not give them reason to throw me out.
The pressure weighed heavily on me. The idea of being a farmer for the rest of my life, working in the fields unceasingly, rain or shine, chilled my bones. I saw my sisters and brothers, still so young, getting up before dawn to cut the ripened rice in darkness before the biting sun made work unbearable. They came home by moonlight after laboring a full day, their backs cramped and sore, cuts on their fingers, blisters covering their hands. Sometimes they were humiliated because the older, more experienced farmers in the commune trashed them for making mistakes. And sometimes they were angry because they were made to work the heaviest jobs, like jumping into manholes to scoop up manure. At night, my sisters often cried in Mom's arms. They were no longer children.
I looked at school in a different light. It was still a fun place, but now it was much, much more. It was the key to a bright future. I knew if I could somehow stay in school, I would do well. There was hope. I arrived at school early every morning and volunteered to sweep the classroom and clean the blackboard. I still managed to have my morning reading assignment done before the others arrived so that I had time to play and help those who needed some tutoring. But the new teacher wasn't the least impressed with me. I sometimes became aware of him staring silently at my back as I sat alone in class doing my work. He was cool and abrupt and seemed disgusted with the little boy who wanted so hard to please him.
My third-grade teacher was a young man about twenty-five years old. He had icy, protruding eyes, and thin lips that squeezed out his words slowly and deliberately. His nose was pointed, with long, black hairs sticking out of both nostrils, and a receding chin that melted into his long neck. He had a habit of looking at his reflection in the window, preening and recombing his hair before entering the classroom. His name was La Shan.
La Shan invited many of his students to his dormitory on campus, where they played chess and talked long after school. He also organized basketball games among the students, but I was never included. I stood at a distance, watching them play with the energetic young teacher, laughing and shouting. When I sometimes quietly inquired about what they did in his dormitory, my friends Jie and Clang would tell me that they played and listened to La Shan talk about politics, about things like the class struggle and what to do with bad people like landlords and American special agents.
I became quieter and less active in his class. He continued to act as if I didn't exist, and I became more and more isolated, but I still carried on my work with pride and always scored the best in quizzes. I missed my teacher, Mr. Sun, terribly.
In the back of each classroom there was another blackboard on which the best poems or compositions by the students were displayed. It was an honor to have your work posted, and mine used to appear there every week. Many years under my grandfather's tutelage had made me the best calligrapher in the entire school, and I had won school-wide competitions against older students. But since La Shan had become my teacher, my work never appeared on the blackboard. He also deprived me of the task of copying the poems onto the blackboard with chalk, a task only students with the best calligraphy were allowed to do.
I was no longer the head of the class. In my place stepped the son of the first party secretary of Yellow Stone commune, the most feared man in town. La Shan also made him the head of the Little Red Guard, a political organization for children. I was the only one in class who was not a member. I coveted the pretty red bands worn on their arms and had applied to join, but La Shan told me I needed to make more of an effort, that he wasn't sure I was loyal in my heart to the Communist cause like other children from good working-class families. Whenever a Little Red Guard meeting was held, I was asked to step outside. I would hang around the playground by myself until they finished.
My whole life seemed to be drifting away from the crowd. It puzzled me and kept me awake at night as I stared up at my mosquito net. I didn't tell my family about any of the changes; they already had enough to worry about. At home, I pretended to be cheerful and told them how well I was doing in school. Once a cousin of mine mentioned to my brother that I was no longer doing the blackboard copying. I made up a story, telling my family that I needed a change, so was giving my fellow students a chance.
Because I was driven and still confident in my abilities, I worked even harder and volunteered even more for tasks before and after school. It was like throwing myself against a stone wall. The harder I tried, the more the teacher disliked me. He even criticized me in front of all the students about my overzealous attempts to win his praise. This upset and confused me. What more could I do to try and fit into the place that I once used to love?
My first real brush with La Shan came when he was collecting the weekend homework. The assignment had been to copy a text of Chairman Mao's quotations, but my work had been soaked in the rain on the way to class and I had thrown away the smeared, useless paper, intending to redo it in the afternoon. When he found out I had nothing to turn in, La Shan called the class to attention. "Students, Chen Da has not done his homework, which he knew was to copy the text of our great Chairman Mao. It is a deliberate insult to our great leader."
"I did the homework like I always do," I protested loudly, "but the rain got it all wet."
The whole class looked at me quietly.
La Shan turned red, the muscles in his cheeks twitching. He had lost face because I had answered back.
"What did you do with it?" he demanded.
"I threw it into a manhole on my way to class because it was all messy." The students laughed.
" "at did you say?"
"I said I threw it into a manhole," I screamed back. I knew I was acting irrationally, but couldn't stop.
"You threw Chairman Mao's quotations into a stinking manhole?" His face flamed and spittle flew from his mouth with each word. "Do you realize how severe an offense you have just committed?"
A deadly quiet came over the class. Everyone looked at me, waiting for my reaction. In that split second, I glimpsed the possible serious trouble he could make if he chose to. Mom's words, "Stay out of trouble, " rang in my ears.
I felt dizzy, as if I had been hit with a club. I already regretted my actions and wished I could take everything back, but it was too late, the damage had been done. I thought of Mom and Dad and the trouble I might have just brought to my family if the teacher blew this thing up. My head began to pound.
"I am sorry, honorable teacher. I will redo my homework and hand it in as soon as possible."
He stared at me silently with his icy eyes, looking like a wolf that had just caught a rabbit in a trap.
"You think it's going to be that easy?" He shook his head slowly. "Everybody!" His voice cracked out. "Let's have a vote. Those who wish to have Da thrown out of our classroom, raise your hands."
There was a moment of silence. Then slowly, the son of the party secretary raised his hand. A few more hands from the La Shan club went up. Next the whole class raised their collective hands, even my friends Jie and Clang.
I felt trapped. I felt half-dead. I couldn't understand how even my best friends could vote against me.
"Please, I don't want to leave this class. I would like to stay."
"We'll see about that. Class is over for the day," La Shan said, slamming his book closed and walking out of the room, his disciples trailing behind him.
I walked home in a daze. Nobody talked to me. I redid my homework and turned it in right away. I waited for La Shan to throw me out of school, but nothing happened. I sat in the back corner of the class by myself. No one talked to me, not even my friends. Occasionally, La Shan would throw disgusted glances my way. The worst thing was when he disparagingly called me "that person in the corner" without looking at me. Why did he take the whole thing so personally, as if I had desecrated his ancestor's tombstone?
Then one day during the morning exercise break La Shan called my name and asked me to stay behind while the others noisily poured out of class.
"I have received reports about you," he said, pacing in front of the classroom. "Really bad reports."
My heart began to race. "What kind of reports?"
"You have been saying antirevolutionary and anti-Communist things to your classmates, haven't you?"
"No, I haven't." He was trying to paint me as a counterrevolutionary, just as they had done to Yu Xuang, a fifth-grader whom they had locked in the commune jail for further investigation. It was a dangerous situation.
"I have never done anything like that! You know that!" I said, using the best defense a nine-year-old could muster.
"I have the reports here"-he waved a thick sheaf of paper-"and I can ask these people to testify against you if necessary."
"The people who wrote those reports were lying. I have never said anything against our country or the Communist party."
"Shut up! You have no right to defend yourself, only the chance to confess and repent," he spat out angrily. His voice deepened. "Do you understand what kind of trouble you are in now?"
"I have nothing to confess!" I was losing control again. My throat dried up and my arms began to tremble.
"I said, shut up! You have today and tonight to write a confession of all the treasonous things you have said, to explain the motivation, and to state who told you to say these horrible things. Like perhaps your father, mother, or your landlord grandparents."
He was trying to involve my family. They would put my dad in prison. They would take Grandpa out into the street and beat him to death.
"They did not tell me to do or say bad things against the party! They didn't!" I cried. I couldn't afford to have my family dragged into this. I was scared and began to sob helplessly. The sky had just caved in and I felt that nobody could help me. I would be a young counterrevolutionary, a condemned boy, despised by the whole country. I would be left to rot in a dark prison cell for life. That was what had happened to Shi He, another high school kid, who was caught listening to an anti-Communist radio program from Taiwan, and worse, to the banned Teresa Deng's love songs. His prison sentence had been twenty years.
I don't remember how long I cried that morning. When I walked home alone in the afternoon's setting sun, I felt the weight of shackles already around my ankles.
A condemned man at the age of nine! Confession tomorrow! The thoughts played over and over in my mind.
When I got home, I told Mom what had happened and she started sobbing, hitting her face and chest and pulling out her hair. She mumbled hysterically, in broken sentences, that their generation had brought the curse to the next generation. After a while, she sat down quietly, weak and limp like a frightened animal. Finally, she got up and sent Si and Jin to Dad's camp to ask for advice. They got to talk to him by using the excuse that Mom was very sick again.