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1 Shoes of Woven Grass
I was born in 1930, the Year of the Horse, on the fourth day of the twelfth lunar month, the youngest of my parents' six children. My mother was forty-two when she gave birth to me, and my father was forty-one. According to my mother, I was an extremely thin infant, not much bigger than a kitten. She said many people thought I looked like a rat. That is why my parents named me Baokang (Stay Healthy).
I was born near Xiaoniang (Young Lady) Harbor, just west of where the Yangzi River empties into the East China Sea. I have no memory of the place because a few months after I came into the world, a flood washed everything away, not just our home but our fields, too. Everything we owned ended up in the middle of the river.
After the flood, we stayed with relatives near Nantong. Then we moved farther upriver, about 150 kilometers from the sea, to a district called Changyinsha directly across from Nantong's harbor. We lived in a three-room thatched hut my father put up on an acre of rented farmland.
Summer days were hot; nights, a cool wind blew in from the river through walls of loosely woven reeds. Snow covered us in the winter; we mud-plastered cracks in the thatch against the cold. When there was money for oil to fill the small stone lamps, wicked with scraps of old cloth, my mother and sisters did needlework, sewing, and spinning. My father and brothers made hemp rope and shoes of woven grass.
We all slept in our clothes in one room on beds that were really just wooden boards on four legs with hay underneath us and cotton quilts on top. We woke to a breakfast of corn or oats. Sometimes there was no money for salt.
My job as the youngest child was to go out into the fields and collect the night waste. I would shovel dog, horse, and donkey dung into a grass basket, slide the shovel through the basket's bamboo handles, and heave the load up onto my shoulder and then set off searching for the next pile of dung. A hook on the shovel's handle held the handle of the basket in place. The night waste, and our own excrement (collected in a large clay jar from our rickety outhouse), fertilized the fields.
My father and brothers were accomplished fishermen, both with nets and by wading into the shallow Yangzi channels and snaring fish by hand. Our house was built on a raised piece of land between two of the river's channels. The Yangzi dominated the landscape. It was huge, deep, and cold. The land was flat under a big sky. Dikes lined the river and the roads were raised. There were no trees except on the riverbanks. All arable land was in crops.
We pumped water from the river to irrigate our fields. A man sat on a bicycle, steadily pedaling, powering a water-wheel with buckets that drew river water into the fields. We tilled the fields with buffalo. They were friends that worked for us, so we didn't see them as food. Our family didn't own a buffalo; we borrowed one.
In addition to collecting dung, I had to gather grass to feed our pigs and goats. We needed to cook the grass for the pigs, but the goats ate it raw. We fed them grass because if we fed them other food we wouldn't have anything to eat. We sold our livestock for oil, sugar, salt, and cloth. It was a rare occasion when we ate meat.
Often, my father and brothers worked for other landowners, far from home. They brought their lunch with them, and pots and pans for cooking in the fields. They would leave our hut in the morning, toting all their tools: short-handled shovels that looked like cricket mallets, sickles, iron hooks to dig up the stems and roots of soybeans, and bamboo baskets for carrying mud. We grew rye, cotton, soybeans, rice, wheat, green vegetables, carrots, gourds, peanuts, and lily bulbs for medicinal oil.
At home, we cooked over a small fire of cotton and soybean stems. Our kitchen countertop was clay-faced brick. Our utensils were chopsticks and rough ceramic bowls from which we shoveled up our gruel three times a day. The bowls were as heavy and thick as stone--if you dropped them they wouldn't break. For lunch and dinner, we added sweet potato sticks and pickled vegetables to our gruel. Salty fermented daikon set off the bland porridge and was a special treat.
We had little, and the work was hard. Yet from my perspective, in my memory, our life was happy. My parents were a perfect couple. I never saw them fight; they never even quarreled. This was mainly because my mother was a very smart, very competent person. All my father had to do was work the fields and provide us with food and money. My mother dominated the family; she ran our lives. My father was grateful. He accepted her strength, and, in return, my mother was loving toward him. Their mutual devotion deeply affected me. Whenever I interact with people, I try to harmonize with them, in the way my father did to my mother. He bent his actions, his thoughts, and his heart to her wisdom and will.
Seven years after we moved to Changyinsha I saw for myself what a flood can do, although it didn't affect us directly because we lived several kilometers from the river. I remember that it rained for over a month. The typhoons came and came and came. The winds rose and rose and kept blowing. The rain was dense and lashing. It would storm for days, the sky would lighten briefly, and then the rains would begin again, waves of rain, soaking everything. After the first week or so, the Yangzi started to rise. It started pulling in the land on its banks, sucking the land into itself, getting fatter and fatter, faster and faster, gobbling up soil and trees. It swelled so much that it broke through the dikes into the fields. We didn't need the bicycle man to irrigate now: our fields were full of fish!
When the typhoons finally stopped and the wind died down, my father took me to see how my second sister's family had fared. Although the flood had spared their house, their land was outside the dike and had disappeared. In places where the water had begun to recede, all that was left of other houses were thatched roofs. Debris floated in the water, half-starved dogs and cats clung to flotsam, and human corpses bobbed in the waves. Their clothes had been stripped off, and they had begun to bloat and rot.
The male corpses floated facedown, their bodies arched like bows with only their backs visible above the water. I thought this was because their stomachs had less fat, but I never found out why. Most of the female corpses floated face up. Their heads were bent back, their hair was fanned, and their feet hung down below the surface. They also formed bows, but in the opposite direction. The children's corpses were bloated like blowfish, swollen and puffed up with sickly white bellies and leprous gray backs. Ducks scavenged their eyeballs. The rain had stopped, the sun beat down, and waves of stench drifted off the river.
It was such an awful experience. Over the next few weeks I kept waking up in the middle of the night in terror. The fragility of life is frightening--not only to adults, but to children, too. The destruction I witnessed was like what Shakyamuni Buddha realized upon enlightenment: that this world is fragile and constantly in danger. The cycle of birth and death is like an ocean of suffering.
At that time I had absolutely no religious beliefs. But standing over the fetid river, watching the corpses drift by, I had a sudden realization that any of us can die at any time. I knew that if we had lived in that area we would have died, too. Seeing so many corpses, the impermanence of life was driven home to me. Yet I felt that it was a very good thing to be alive. In the midst of all that terror, it was not fear that I felt, but that life is good and that we should cherish it. In the weeks to come, the horror of the corpses faded and was replaced with a kind of acceptance. At a young age, I knew that when death comes there is nothing we can do; we have to accept it.
I have seen much death in my lifetime--war, famine, disease. I am at the end of my life now. One day soon I will die. The lesson of the flood is still with me, and I know that there is no use worrying about death. The important thing is to live fully until the moment when it comes.
2 The Open Door
As a child I was always very weak and sickly. I began to walk at three, and didn't talk until five. I was a horrendously slow learner. There was a pendulum clock on the wall at home. My parents and siblings all tried to teach me how to tell time, but it was beyond me. I remember my puzzlement at this great mystery of telling time, and the unfathomable meaning of the arrows pointing in weird directions like ciphers. I loved watermelon, but at age five I could not say the word "watermelon." I knew only that when we ate watermelon we needed to split them open, so I referred to watermelons as "open." My family was sure that I was going to be an idiot when I grew up.
Because I was so slow, I was given the simpleton's job of caring for our goats. I didn't really know what to do with them, so I would bring them to the stream or another nice place for them to graze and leave them there.
"Where are the goats?" my mother would ask me when I came home.
"The goats wanted to graze and not come back," I would reply, and my parents would have to go fetch the goats themselves. They eventually decided that I should just gather grass for the goats. This also was beyond me: the goats were picky and ate only one type of grass, and I did not know which type to collect. I often came home with a bunch of grass that they wouldn't touch.
I spent much of my time alone. There was no one to play with; my parents and siblings were busy every waking moment. During the day I would go and hide in the wheat fields, especially in places where broad beans were cultivated. Their flowers had a very nice fragrance and the beans were a handy snack. I didn't know there was a boundary between our field and our neighbor's. I have an early memory of lying dreamily on my back on a summer day, under a close canopy of green leaves, the earth warm beneath me, thinking of nothing at all as I lazily broke off beans from their fibrous stalks. Suddenly, a stranger plucked me out of my cozy cocoon and asked in a harsh voice what I thought I was doing. I was terrified. It seemed that I had unwittingly wandered into a neighbor's field. One of my older brothers eventually rescued me. I'll never forget my mother's words as I came into our house and she turned from the stove and faced me.
"Why did you become a thief?" she asked. I hung my head, paralyzed with fear and shame.
When I was little, there were only two rooms in my family's house. The interior walls were made of reeds. The ceiling was also made of reeds and was quite low: an adult could reach up and easily touch it. Bamboo beams held up the reeds in the ceiling; we tied iron wires to them for hanging vegetables. There was a shallow storage loft above the reeds beneath the slightly sloping roof of mud and straw. The central column of the house and the horizontal beams were made of wood, and the pillars on the side of the house were thick bamboo stalks. An adult could easily touch the beam of the ridge of the roof by standing on the dining room table. Every two years we had to replace the walls and roof because of rot. We planted gourds on the rooftop each spring, and they ripened in summer, festooning the house and making it into a living, growing thing.
The bedroom had four beds: one was for my parents and me; the other three were for my older brothers and my older sister. My brothers' beds were not really beds; they were chests for storing clothes and bedding. My sister's bed was made of bamboo slats. The only real bed was the one I slept on with my parents, a wooden bed with four vertical poles at the corners and four rods connecting the poles, over which was draped a mosquito net.
We ate at a simple table. Beside it was the small stove, about two by four feet, which could fit only two pots, one small and one big. Behind the stove was a chimney. On the right side of the chimney wall, about four feet above the floor, was the kitchen-god altar, our home's spiritual center.
In the summer, the house stayed fairly cool under our thick hay roof. I still often miss that kind of hay and reed house, the way it breathed and smelled of the summer fields. It seemed sprung from the earth, a part of the rich land around it that was dominated by river and sky.
My mother made all of our clothes from cotton we grew, which she spun into yarn and wove into cloth. I am still amazed by my mother's competence in being able to grow cotton and turn it into our clothes. I wore my older brothers' hand-me-downs. By the time they got to me, they were covered with patches made from my father's old clothes. I was small and the clothes I inherited from my older brothers were always too big. I looked like a midget wearing a giant's garments. My mother, much to my chagrin, refused to tailor them for me. I remember one bitter New Year's Day when, as a gift, she gave me yet another ill-fitting shirt.
"Why am I wearing old clothes when everyone else has new clothing?" I complained.
"It's newly mended! It's good enough that it keeps you warm," she replied, ending the conversation.
Cottonseed and vegetable-seed cooking oil were beyond our means, so my sisters and mother collected and crushed woodchips or sesame flowers, which they soaked in water and then filtered for hair oil. My mother never wore makeup, but she did use jasmine-scented frostbite cream for her parched ever-busy hands. When she dressed me, I smelled of jasmine frostbite cream. If her skin was really cracked open and the frostbite cream no longer worked, she patched her wounds with herbs.