Daughter of China: A True Story of Love and Betrayal

Daughter of China: A True Story of Love and Betrayal

by Meihong Xu

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The critically acclaimed memoir of a forbidden love affair in communist China

"An important work."–San Francisco Chronicle

"Riveting."–Kirkus Reviews

"This memoir is a must-read."–San Jose Mercury News

Now in paperback, here is the stunning true tale of a remarkable woman trained as an elite soldier in the


The critically acclaimed memoir of a forbidden love affair in communist China

"An important work."–San Francisco Chronicle

"Riveting."–Kirkus Reviews

"This memoir is a must-read."–San Jose Mercury News

Now in paperback, here is the stunning true tale of a remarkable woman trained as an elite soldier in the Chinese army, her forbidden love for an American, and her seemingly impossible escape–with his help–from the nation to which she had pledged her life. An astonishing testament to the enduring resilience of love and the human spirit in the face of even the most oppressive, hopeless conditions, Daughter of China offers a compelling look at life inside the rigid walls of Communist China, revealing in fascinating detail Meihong Xu’s inculcation into the system–a process so effective that she would willingly betray a friend or family member to prove her loyalty. Written with clear-eyed candor and stark eloquence, Daughter of China is at once a timeless, deeply moving story of a prohibited love affair and a dramatic depiction of life under Chinese Communism.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I thought Robert Frost was one of the greatest Communist poets who ever lived." Having left her farm village in 1981 at age 17 to join the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Lieutenant Xu was one of an elite corps of girls selected to become intelligence agents--those who viewed "the road less traveled" as the correct Communist path. Xu married Lin Cheng, a glamorous PLA man whom she saw only twice a year, since their training came first. After befriending coauthor Engelmann in a student exchange program, she was designated an "Enemy of the People" for divulging state secrets to him. Although she had never slept with the American, she was ordered to "confess" that he had raped her. After eight weeks of interrogation, Xu was expelled from the Party and the army. Lin divorced her, Engelmann married her and she was granted an exit visa and warned, "You may be leaving China...[but] your family is still here. Don't forget that, ever." Xu's refusal to name names only temporarily saved her mentor, "the General"--the probable grantor of her passport--who soon "disappeared." Xu's memoir reads like a political thriller with an inconsistent narrator. She admits to lying but shows integrity in protecting the General and her family. Constant shifts in chronology, repetition and nameless key characters don't help. However, the ground-level view she offers of the Cultural Revolution, the democracy movement, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the hints of struggle among the top leadership will fascinate those familiar with Chinese politics. Ultimately, Xu's is not a love story (she has divorced Engelmann and now works in computers); it is a survival story. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is not your typical love story. In 1988, Xu, a young, married Chinese military intelligence officer studying at the Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, fell in love with Engelmann, one of her American professors. Their reckless behavior brought down the wrath of the Chinese authorities, who, suspecting an espionage connection, arrested her and had him expelled from China. After numerous harrowing experiences (told, in this frustrating narrative, alongside flashbacks from Xu's earlier life), the lovers are miraculously reunited, marry, and move to America. (They eventually divorce in 1999.) Much of the information contained here, if true, tells an interesting tale about the workings of Chinese military intelligence education. But the problem with this thrilling tear-jerker is that it is almost impossible to distinguish truth from fiction in a story told by a self-admitted accomplished liar. The book is marred by mendacity, inconsistencies, and improbabilities: Caveat lektor.--Steven I. Levine, Mansfield Ctr., Missoula, MT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Both the memoir of a young Chinese peasant girl coming of age during the Cultural Revolution and a cross-cultural tragic romance which depicts the struggle between love for another individual and loyalty to one's country. Meihong begins life as an enthusiastic recruit of the People's Liberation Army, but she possesses a quickness of observation and critical insight which makes it impossible for her not to pick up on the many hypocrisies involved in her PLA training. One of the more revealing moments of the narrative is the drunken rebellion of a class of graduating seniors who have just learned that they will be sent to Tibet instead of being assigned the important posts that they were promised at the beginning of the training. After virtually destroying the camp, many of the soldiers end up deserting from the army before they reach their remote posts. The army does little to retaliate against the new graduates as they do not wish to offend their powerful families nor call attention to the unpopularity among the troops of the action against Tibet. Meihong continues to file her falsely positive reports, in order to please her superior officers, and is eventually graduated as a young army officer. In 1988, Meihong is assigned to the Center for Chinese and American Studies, a joint venture between Nanjing University and Johns Hopkins, where she meets and falls in love with Larry Engelmann, a visiting American. Her betrayal is discovered by the secret police, and she is arrested and interrogated for being involved with an enemy agent. Although her life is spared, her career is ruined, and her future possibilities are very limited upon her release. She is eventually able to get a message toEngelmann, and the two are married in 1990 after great bureaucratic difficulties. Not much as a sophisticated history or political analysis of China, but a fairly riveting love story nevertherless.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The room is small. It's like countless similar rooms I've seen in military barracks scattered across China. At some earlier time the room probably housed eight enlisted men. Tonight there are only four beds in the room—two of them pushed side by side against each of the longer walls. The narrow window has been nailed shut and old copies of The People's Liberation Army Daily have been pasted over the glass.

    Three female soldiers assigned to guard me perch close together on the bed nearest the door and occasionally whisper to each other. They never divert their gaze from me. Two armed soldiers are pacing back and forth in the hall outside.

    Wearing only khaki trousers, a blouse and sandals, I sit on the bed farthest from the door. I fold my arms tightly over my breasts in a futile effort to stay warm. The faint flickering vapor of my breath, as delicate and transparent as life itself, blurs my view of the guards for a moment every time I exhale. Soon, I lose interest in them and stare only at the chipped concrete floor and wait.

    Before long, I know, there will be footsteps in the hall followed by an insistent knock on the door. A guard will stand and unlock the bolt with a key fastened to her belt. More guards will then enter the room and announce my name. I will stand and be led from the room and down the hall, surrounded by all the guards, to another door. I can see it happening. We pass through the swinging double doors and into the darkness outside, quickly transformed into mere silhouettes in a grimlittle parade. We walk away from blades of light that knife through the shaded windows of the barracks to provide the only illumination outside. As if on signal, the guards stop and step away from me. We are in an open space and I face away from the light and wait. I can barely see the ground, which is hard and sharp and shines with a slick skin of ice. The sky is starless. I hear footsteps behind me and then someone pushes me to a kneeling position. My arms are pulled back hard and tightly bound together behind me. I am painfully aware of the sound of my own breathing and I feel the anxious flutter of my heart. The others are impatient. They want to be finished with this unpleasant business and get back inside. I gaze at the ice and wait to hear the rustle of clothing when one of the soldiers raises his hand and holds his pistol a few inches from the back of my head. There is a momentary muted crunch of ice and snow beneath the boots of the others as they step away to avoid being soiled with my blood. Then there is complete stillness. I close my eyes tightly. I think of him one last time—my American. As I remember him—at this moment—will my thoughts fly to him? Will he hear my last unspoken words? Will he whisper my name when I fall? Will he remember me?

    My military records will be purged. No documentary evidence of my career or my crime will remain. I will be erased from existence and become a nonperson. My family and friends will be told that I disappeared. They know what that means. They will not ask questions and will not speak my name aloud for a long time. When they mourn me it will be secretly and in silence.

    These are my expectations as I sit in this room with my three guards. I force my mind to shuffle quickly through a hundred memories of happier times, searching for something I can hold on to, something to take me away from this room. Yet I can't completely push from my mind the bleak reality of the present.

    I find again in my memory the face of the American. His eyes are so blue tonight. He smiles. I see his lips move but I no longer hear his voice. I know I will never see him or hear him or hold him again. His eyes close, his face fades, and he is gone.

    The sound of footsteps in the hall is the measured rhythm of death approaching. Each second is precious now. I know a few words might save my life, alter my fate. But I can never say those words. I cannot betray those I love, not even to save myself. I am even unable to betray those I now know have betrayed me.

    My thoughts come to rest on a familiar memory. Lishi! I see my village—Lishi—and I remember once more the story of the little girls who were lost in the fires. How many times have I heard the tale of their courage in the face of death? How could I have forgotten? Now I wonder if I have that same courage. I think of my aunt in Lishi. In my refusal to betray those I love, aren't I like her? On this night, surrounded by those who denounce me, isolated from everyone I care about, without hope, condemned—do I feel at last what she felt? I sense something like pride and hope rising within me, filling me with strength. I am suddenly comforted. I am not afraid.


We are simple people. Peasants. Our birthright and destiny is hard work. We are each born with a strong back and a strong will and we inherit a tradition of dogged persistence and resiliency. We live by the cycle of the seasons. We know when to cultivate the earth, how to nourish it and renew it. In return, it gives us sustenance.

    For sixteen centuries our village, Lishi, has survived in Jiangsu province near the shore of Mirror Lake (Lian Hu) south of the Yangtze River and west of the Grand Canal. The devastations of man and nature-floods, droughts and famines, plagues and earthquakes, wicked warlords, evil emperors, foreign devils, revolutionaries and religious fanatics—have swept back and forth across our land destroying, stealing and carrying away the handiwork of our labor. But we survive. We return to work, repair the damage and plant the grain once more. Life goes on.

    We have good fortune as well as bad, our elders constantly remind us. One follows the other, always, like the seasons, they say. Fortune, too, has its cycles. It is the way of the world. We accept it all as part of life. It is fate. And we believe in fate.

    We also believe it is important to remember and honor the courage and strength of those who lived and died here before us. Those who struggled, suffered and survived to build and plant again should never be forgotten. Their example inspires and instructs us. Memory is the sacred thread connecting us to our ancestors. Someday it will connect our descendants to us.

    There are a few particular memories, however, that are nearly unbearable. Some believe that those memories have the power to poison the present and the future. They must be told—but only with special care. They must be told even when the telling hurts, because they also explain who we are and who we are not.

    Such is the memory of December 1937, when a cycle of hope and complacency in Lishi was reversed and hell once again ruled the earth.

    It was a time of war. The villagers convinced themselves that the isolation of Lishi would deliver them from destruction. We were unimportant, after all, in the larger scheme of things. We were not a great prize to be fought over and then held up as a trophy for the world to see. We were neither a fortress nor a great walled city like Shanghai or neighboring Nanjing. We were only peasants in a village near a road linking far more important places. We felt safe in our insignificance.

    Yet, the Japanese Imperial Army—the short devils ITL([xiao dong yang])ITL, as we called them—ignorant of our insignificance, passed through our village on their way from Shanghai to Nanjing. They did not stay in Lishi for long—less than one hour, in fact. But we will remember and retell what they did there for a thousand years.

    A road linking Shanghai to Nanjing cuts through fields south of the village. It was crowded with refugees and soldiers that December. For days the villagers watched anxiously from their fields as a stream of humanity stretching from horizon to horizon flowed steadily westward along the road. The villagers of Lishi heard tales of the monstrousness of the Japanese soldiers who had long occupied distant parts of our country. Now they were on the move again, pushing all before them as they advanced on the Nationalist capital in Nanjing and on all of the cities and towns of China beyond it.

    There were nervous murmurs about the approaching Japanese Army and calls for the villagers to abandon everything and join the mass exodus. Yet there was also uncertainty and fear about leaving the village. "Is it really necessary?" people asked. "Where will we go? How will we live? What will we eat? How long will we be gone? Wouldn't it be safer hiding in the fields until the short devils have passed?" The village was far from the main road. Travelers seldom noticed Lishi. If there were no smoke from the cooking fires and if everyone in the village hid from sight, there was the distinct possibility—indeed, the probability—that the short devils would not stop.

    Several young villagers, unconvinced of the wisdom of remaining in Lishi, panicked and decided to join the jumble of soldiers and refugees on the road. They quickly packed their possessions in blankets and baskets, bound their children on their backs, said goodbye and departed. None of them returned. Those who remained in Lishi prepared to hide in their homes or to conceal themselves along the dikes or in ruts in the fields and wait for the short devils to pass, exactly as our ancestors had done when barbarian invaders approached and then passed on.

    After several days the throng on the road thinned and then disappeared. In the distance, a short time later, the villagers watched thick columns of smoke rise slowly to hang like gigantic black ribbons suspended from hooks in heaven. They listened to the distant deep thunder of big guns and occasionally saw bright flashes of light on the horizon. Again and again they felt the earth trembling beneath their feet. They extinguished all cooking fires so no sign of life could be detected.

    As they prepared to go into hiding, some of the villagers saw a lone Chinese soldier, lost and confused, stumbling through the nearby fields. The men chased him down and cornered him. He was just a boy—no more than sixteen years old—and he was terrified and trembling. They attempted to question him, but he could not understand a word of the village dialect. With exaggerated gestures coupled with some common Mandarin idioms they succeeded, they thought, in communicating with him briefly. They were quite sure he said that the short devils had halted and Chinese armies were advancing from the north and east. The short devils were retreating toward Shanghai!

    It was possible, they told each other. There were Chinese armies in Nanjing and Zhenjiang under capable commanders. And if those armies were advancing, then there was no reason for the villagers to hide. When the boy left in a hurry, the villagers concluded that he was on his way to rejoin his unit.

    They returned to the village with good news. A delegation was hastily assembled to welcome the Chinese troops and to offer them food and assistance. A half dozen elders were selected to carry the message and they hurried across a field, over a dike and down several winding paths to the main road. They were followed by a boy, a grandson of one of the men, who wanted to see the Chinese soldiers.

    When the delegation arrived at the road there was no sign of an army approaching from the north. So they waited. After half an hour they saw a long double line of men stretching all the way to the horizon, walking behind a column of trucks and cars and motorcycles approaching them not from the north but from the south. One of the elders said, "This is impossible. This cannot be happening." Those were his last words.

    In the village people stood together waiting for the elders to return. Then they heard distant gunfire. A few minutes later the boy returned alone, crying and out of breath. There was no Chinese army, he screamed. There were only the short devils, thousands and thousands of them. The elders were all dead. The boy had seen the short devils order them to kneel in the road, and then shoot them and stab them with long knives and run them over with their trucks. Now the short devils were searching everywhere. They were spreading out across the fields and would be in the village within minutes.

    The wives and children of the murdered elders cried out. Some tried to break away and run to the road but were restrained. The important thing now was to save the living.

    It was too late to try to run away. One of the older women suggested a plan. Since the Japanese soldiers always looked first for the young girls, they were in the greatest danger, she said. They had to be hidden quickly. The villagers decided to conceal them in the stacks of rice straw around the village. Everyone else would hide in their homes until the danger passed.

    Bundled in extra layers of clothing, all the young village girls were quickly buried inside the haystacks. The youngest girls were placed beside older sisters in the haystacks—two or three of them together—so they could be calmed and kept quiet if they became frightened. The girls were told not to move or make a sound and most important not to come out until their parents returned to uncover them. In only a few minutes, more than fifty girls were buried in the haystacks. The debris that might indicate the stacks had been disturbed was carefully picked up or swept aside. When they were convinced their meticulous deception could not be detected, the villagers scattered to their homes, blocked the doors and huddled under their tables and beds or crouched in corners, clinging together in terror waiting for the short devils to pass them by.

    Minutes later they heard the first voices outside shouting in a language they did not understand. A dog barked. There was the sharp report of a rifle and the barking stopped. Then there were more shouts mixed with sudden bursts of laughter. Soldiers entered dwellings, kicked the doors open, turned over tables and pots, broke water jars. A group of soldiers found several large urns of rice in one home. They removed the covers and took turns urinating in the urns. In other homes the soldiers paused long enough to lower their trousers and defecate. Inside their homes, the villagers huddled together in terror and waited for death to find them. Many kept their eyes closed tightly and covered themselves with blankets as if this might in some way ward off the short devils or hasten their departure. The soldiers found them and ripped the covers away and laughed at them, imitated their terrified expressions and then laughed even louder. The frightened villagers whimpered and squealed and clung desperately to each other. The soldiers punched them and jabbed them with their rifles and then kicked them and spit on them. The villagers made no sound except for the chattering of their teeth.

    A soldier found a small boy under a large iron wok inside one home. He picked up the boy and carried him to the other soldiers and asked him several questions. The boy stared at them wide-eyed. He understood nothing they said. The soldiers made hand motions, and spoke slowly, scrunching up their faces and speaking in a soft soprano voice like a young girl. The boy said nothing. Suddenly, a soldier noticed something unusual. He carefully plucked several strands of rice straw from the boy's hair and then examined his jacket and shoes, where he found more straw. He said something to the others excitedly, and then pointed to the nearby haystacks. The soldiers laughed again as if they'd stumbled onto the obvious solution to a riddle. They walked to the nearest haystacks. A soldier plunged his arm into the hay, felt around and pulled out nothing but a fistful of straw. He gave his comrades a melodramatic look of disappointment. He walked partway around the haystack and repeated his action. This time he jerked his hand out suddenly, jumped back several feet and gasped, "Ahhhh!" He examined his fingers and then glared at the haystack while speaking to himself in low angry tones. He shouted at the haystack as if it were a living thing. He listened for a response. Silence. He shouted out an order at the haystack and the unusual shifting tone of his voice indicated that he intended to tease as well as to threaten. Again there followed only a hollow echo of his own words. Then he affixed a bayonet to the end of his rifle and prodded a haystack with it. He found nothing. He shook his head in disgust. Then, impatiently, he stepped to another and jabbed the bayonet in again and again, more forcefully each time. There was no sound, no movement, no resistance to the long pointed blade. But after jabbing a fourth haystack he saw something unusual, examined his bayonet closely and held it out for the others to see. There was a vermilion smear along the entire length of blade. He turned and shouted at the haystack. Again silence. Then he shouldered his rifle, aimed it and fired it into the haystack. There was still no movement. A soldier emerged from a house carrying a can of kerosene. The other soldiers saw him and gave a shout of approval. He sprinkled the kerosene on all of the haystacks and then struck matches and ignited the hay. The kerosene-fed fires blossomed quickly. There was still no sound or movement from the haystacks. After staring at the blazing mounds for several minutes, the soldiers moved on.

    Later, after it was dark and there was no sound of the intruders, some of the bolder villagers peered outside. When they were sure it was safe they ran from house to house and shouted to the others that the short devils were gone. Then they saw the smoke and the glowing embers where the haystacks had been. Some of the women screamed the names of their daughters and some fainted and fell to the ground. Others raced to what remained of the haystacks and with pitchforks and shovels and bare hands pawed madly through them. They blistered and burned their hands and arms but didn't feel the pain. A fetid greasy smoke hung in the cold night air and engulfed the fields and the distraught villagers. They breathed the smoke and choked on it and cried and kept calling out the names of the girls and continued digging. Their faces reddened and then blackened and their hair singed and crackled as they dug frantically through the glowing pyres.

    The fields were a wasteland of ashes and the charred cadavers of their daughters and sisters. In some places they found a tangle of bones and the blackened flesh of the little girls who had clung to each other as the fires consumed them. Mothers and fathers tried to pick up what remained of the bodies, but it fell apart in their hands like overcooked meat.

    They sifted through the debris again and again that night and searched along the dikes and in the fields crying and shouting the names of the girls, hoping to find some little girl who might have escaped. But the round-faced little girls of Lishi were all gone. None escaped.

    The remains of the girls were gathered the next day and buried in a common grave on a slight rise overlooking Mirror Lake. The bodies of the murdered elders were also recovered and buried near the girls. The past and future of the village all seemed to have died on the same day.

    On that day the village of Lishi became another open wound on the ravaged body of China. In the lives of the villagers who survived the short devils that day there would be an emptiness, an ache, that would, as long as they lived, remind them of their loss.

    When my mother was born in the spring of 1941, the burning of the little girls in the haystacks was still a fresh wound. Her parents named her Yingdi. Ying means "hero" and "di" indicated that they hoped she might soon be joined by a brother. A cousin born six months later was also a girl. She was named Lingdi, or "lead to a brother." There had been an older child in Lingdi's family—a girl—but she was killed in the burning haystacks by the short devils. In the next years both families were blessed with sons and the two girls survived to greet and help raise and serve their younger brothers.

    Four years after the defeat of the Japanese, the Communist armies liberated China from the Nationalists. When the liberators passed down the road near Lishi, Yingdi and Lingdi dressed in their finest clothes and danced and sang with other village children and threw flowers at the feet of the soldiers. Later they joined the Young Pioneers and became leaders in the Communist youth movement. In their late teens the girls became members of the Communist Party and prominent pillars in the local red brigade.

    In late 1960, two years after the start of the Great Leap Forward, the two girls, aged nineteen, left the village, which was suffering from a severe and prolonged famine. In those years many villagers starved to death. Others whose families had survived in Lishi for hundreds of years departed. There was no food, they pointed out, and they chose to beg on the roads or in the streets of Shanghai or Nanjing and survive on handouts rather than to sit and quietly starve to death in the village. Those who left for the cities, like those who fled to Nanjing in 1937, never returned.

    Yingdi and Lingdi succeeded in getting train passes and traveled thousands of kilometers away to Shenyang, where they found work in a textile factory. They labored there for three years. Each month they mailed home all but a small portion of their earnings. They ate only one meal each day—a breakfast consisting of thin rice soup. After work they were too hungry and exhausted to do anything but return to their dormitory room and sleep. But the girls gladly made this sacrifice for their families and for the village. They knew that their absence from Lishi was a blessing to the villagers since there were fewer mouths to feed and the money they sent home could be used to buy food on the black market.

    They returned to the village in the late spring of 1962 and both of them married. Yingdi, my mother, married a young man from the village who was trained as a veterinarian. She worked in the fields as a peasant on the collective farm that had been established after liberation. Lingdi, my aunt, married a man from Shanghai who had been a capitalist before liberation. He had been sent by the Communist Party to our village for reeducation through labor in the fields. His family, two generations earlier, had lived in Lishi. He was accustomed to a soft life in the city and was unhappy in our village. He was never a good worker. But the villagers accepted him because his roots were in Lishi. They believed that marriage to Lingdi would help enlighten him, that he would see the necessity and honor of common labor and the wisdom of the dictates of the Party. They thought that in time he would respect the village as Lingdi did and would then carry his own weight.

    I was born on December 6, 1963. My younger brother was born in 1965 and my sister in 1968. Lingdi and her husband had no children.

    Four years after she had married him, Lingdi's husband announced that he wanted a divorce. A divorce was difficult to obtain in China in those days unless one was a high-ranking Party cadre. A serious complaint was required before officials granted any divorce. But Lingdi's husband, who wanted to return to Shanghai and did not want to take his illiterate peasant wife with him, had just such a complaint.

    To all outward appearances, Lingdi was a perfect wife. She was a hard worker and a good cook and always kept her small home clean. She was a leader in community activities. Her only outward shortcoming was that she was childless, a source of deep unhappiness for her. But the inability to bear a child was not considered an acceptable reason for a divorce.

    When Lingdi's husband appeared before officials to apply for a divorce he was asked the reason for his petition. "My wife is not totally a woman," he said.

    A moment of silence followed his blunt allegation. The officials were not sure what to make of his words. One of them asked, "What do you mean your wife is not totally a woman?"

    "I mean she is also a man," he said. "And she cannot serve me as a wife and cannot provide me with children. She is neither a woman nor a man. She is both. And I can no longer share a bed with her."

    The officials were stunned and scandalized by this revelation. During the next few hours the story spread quickly. Soon everyone whispered about it, some blushed at the accusation, some shook their heads in disbelief or laughed out loud. Lingdi became an object of curious attention. When she was told of her husband's complaint she went inside her house, closed the door and stayed there for several days, too ashamed to venture into the fields or the market or to attend Party rallies.

    Within days a pair of solemn Party officials called at her home to notify her officially of her husband's petition. "These are serious charges," they advised her. Lingdi was silent as they described, as delicately as possible, the details of her husband's petition.

    She understood little of the things that the two men told her. But she knew enough to be humiliated as she listened to their words. When asked if what her husband said was true, she said nothing.

    The officials realized that she would not respond to their questions directly. They said there was a way to demonstrate that her husband's charges were not true. She could visit a physician in Danyang—a female physician, they emphasized—for a physical examination. She had the right, of course, to refuse. But if she refused, she was told, the officials could only assume that her husband's charge was true, and in that case the divorce would be granted.

    Ashamed as well as frightened, she stayed in Lishi. Six weeks later, Lingdi's husband was granted his divorce. He departed immediately for Shanghai. We never heard of him again.

    In the next years, Lingdi's life was particularly dismal. Villagers whispered and joked about her. Many of them avoided associating with her in any way. Occasionally, when Lingdi was working in her garden or in the common fields on the collective, some of the children threw stones at her when her back was turned, called her names, and ran away. She was suddenly an outcast in the village where her family had lived for centuries and where she had always been a model daughter, Party member, worker and wife.

    She never again visited the community bath. She hid her body from the prying eyes of other women. She no longer went swimming with the other village women in Mirror Lake. She became increasingly isolated.

    Yet she struggled to remain a perfect Party member. Invariably she was the first to arrive at Party meetings and the last to leave. She worked hard in the fields. Yet fewer and fewer villagers openly expressed praise or admiration for her as they had in the past.

    As I grew older, I became aware that Lingdi paid lots of attention to me. She gave me gifts—new shoes and pencils, paper, ink and brushes for school. I had never owned real leather shoes until Lingdi gave me a pair. My favorite gifts were always the children's storybooks she bought for me.

    Shortly after the birth of my younger sister, Lingdi visited my mother. She was lonely, she confessed, and her personal life was empty. She wanted a child. "I would like you to give me Meihong to be my daughter," she said. She could provide for me better than my parents could, she said. She also pointed out that she needed someone to care for her and provide for her in her old age.

    My mother, surprised by the request, promised to discuss it with my father. She said she understood Lingdi's feelings. Everyone needed a child to look after them in their later years. At first my father said he would never give away any of his children. My mother wept out of pity for Lingdi and reminded him of her kindness and her constant loneliness. Finally, my father agreed that if Lingdi would take my younger sister, then perhaps they might come to an agreement.

    When Lingdi was offered my sister, she said no. She said she wanted only me. My father refused. So there was nothing more to talk about on the subject. Throughout the years, however, Lingdi treated me as her daughter, providing me with school supplies, books and clothing. Many times she walked me to school and then in the evening walked me home again. On rainy days she held an umbrella over me on the way to school. On holidays she bought special gifts for me. I enjoyed her attention and I responded to it. She took me to Party meetings and often cooked my favorite dishes for me in her home.

    My mother had three children to care for and Lingdi's attention to me helped ease her burdens. Sometimes, however, she was uncomfortable with Lingdi's special treatment of me. She asked her several times not to give me so many things. I was being spoiled, she feared, and my younger brother and sister were becoming jealous. Again, my mother offered my sister to Lingdi to raise as her own child. But again Lingdi refused. She only wanted me, she said.

    During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, there was heightened political activity throughout China. Gradually, people everywhere in the nation were swept up in fervent revolutionary rapture. At night there were torchlight parades and rallies and denunciations of revisionists, rightists, capitalist roaders and landlords. Traveling groups of dramatists, dancers, singers and students stopped in the village to perform or harangue or encourage us to be ever more red. Huge banners glorifying Chairman Mao and other leaders decorated the villages. On weekends, children were organized to scour the surrounding area in search of landlords plotting to undermine and overturn the revolution. It was an exciting time to be a child as we formed our own platoons to hunt down the duplicitous monsters in our midst.

     Then a troubling series of incidents began. Just as the posters appeared praising Mao and the revolution, counterrevolutionary graffiti appeared in the villages. Some of it was simple: a picture of Chairman Mao or Comrade Jiang Qing, his wife, had an X across it, as if they were executed criminals. Several smaller posters appeared later stating simply, "Down with Mao. Down with Jiang Qing. Down with the Party."

    The source of these counterrevolutionary signs was a mystery. Mass meetings were held to show the defaced banners and graffiti, and to denounce those responsible.

    No one was above suspicion—not even a respected teacher. At this time, one of the girls in my school had difficulty learning to write Chinese characters. We were learning the characters for "Chairman Mao." The two characters for "Chairman" are difficult to make and she always wrote the second one incorrectly. The teacher corrected her writing by putting an X through the incorrect character and then writing the correct one beside it. The next day the teacher was sent into the fields to work as a peasant and was replaced by someone more politically astute.

    The anti-Mao graffiti continued. Chairman Mao's name appeared on a wall with a question mark following it. Meetings were called at the school, and we were told that this was a most serious crime. We were asked individually if we had written the counterrevolutionary slogans, or if we knew who might have done this. We were admonished to watch each other, to report any suspicious statements or actions of our classmates and our family.

    We attended political rallies each day at school. Regular classes were suspended and political struggle became our obsession. We sang-or rather we shouted—revolutionary songs and denunciations of rightists. Yet the counterrevolutionary graffiti continued. And whenever it appeared all of the students were once again marched outside to examine the signs and slogans and try to identify the handwriting.

    Red Guards and Party cadres collected samples of the writing of everyone in the village and studied it for telltale signs of the culprit. But they could not find the guilty party. Teachers were asked to guess who was doing the writing and the individuals named were detained and grilled for hours. Yet nothing seemed to discourage the clever counter-revolutionary.

    Then late one night we were awakened by someone pounding on the door of our home. A Party cadre had come to summon my mother to an emergency meeting at brigade headquarters. My mother was chief of the local brigade. My brother and I were so anxious about the unusual midnight caller that we couldn't go back to sleep. We were sure the Americans or the Russians had invaded China and that soon we would be hunting down enemy spies trying to infiltrate our village.

    My mother returned several hours later. I listened from my bed as she whispered nervously to my father. She was obviously very upset. I asked what had happened. She refused to tell me. She said only that there would be no school that day and in the morning there was to be a public rally. Everyone in the three villages of the brigade was required to attend.

   The rally was held in the large open area where crops were stored and where general Party gatherings were convened. It began at 8 A.M. and everyone in the brigade was in attendance, even infants carried by their parents. Villagers stood around in clusters speaking in low tones or sat on the ground and waited and talked about the mysterious news that was about to be revealed to them. A somber Party official finally appeared, mounted the small wooden stage that stood at one end of the square and announced that the meeting was postponed for a half hour. Later he announced a second postponement and then a third and a fourth. People grew increasingly uneasy and impatient. Each time the official came onto the stage he was very serious. I had seen this demeanor and heard this tone of voice in the past when someone was to be executed or punished severely for counterrevolutionary activities.

    Then the local Party secretary came to the stage. She announced that the criminal responsible for the anti-Chairman Mao graffiti had been identified. This was a serious crime, she screeched through a large megaphone, and the arrest of the criminal represented a great victory for the revolution. She confessed that the Party cadres and Red Guards had never guessed how such a class enemy could be concealed so discreetly in our midst.

    Then she shouted out triumphantly, "The class enemy is—Xu Lingdi! Down with Xu Lingdi! Down with Xu Lingdi!"

    There was a moment of silence and a loud gasp of astonishment from the crowd—as if they'd just witnessed some supernatural phenomenon. But within moments everyone joined in the chant "Down with Xu Lingdi! Down with Xu Lingdi!" which became louder each time it was repeated.


Meet the Author

Meihong Xu joined the People's Liberation Army when she was seventeen and received her B.A. from the Institute of International Relations in Nanjing. Larry Engelmann is a professor of history at San Jose State University and a journalist. He is also the author of four previous books, including the New York Times Notable Book, The Goddess and the American Girl. They both live in San Jose, California.

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