Grandfather believed in warriors, and dragons. When Lu and I were children Lu still young enough to tolerate bedtime stories, and I too small not to believe them Grandfather told us of warriors from China's great dynasties, the Song and Han, the Tang and Ming, and the battles they fought riding horseback and on foot, using weapons of the earth and steel. They were called warlords and they fought for land, for power, the honor of kings, the sanctity of their promises. They battled barbarians who swept down in wild thundering hordes from the north, trying to devour the great land of the Yellow River by sheer savage force.
This is what Grandfather told us and what we grew up to believe.
In the annals of Chinese lore the dragon symbolizes the emperor, who has had bestowed upon him the mandate of heaven, chosen by the gods to lead the people to prosperity and grand light. This is not so much a goal but the sole purpose of his existence. He has the wisdom and knowledge to teach and lead, and yet harbors the potential to unleash a cold fury upon those who countermand his judgments. The dragon emperor is always right, and if challenged he must answer with an inscrutable and unmatched ferocity; he cannot tolerate impunity, lest his total control be doubted and the mandate of heaven be shaken from his crown. If the dragon emperor's temper is revealed and punishment is exacted, it is always the victim who has wronged and never the emperor, for a son of the heavens makes no such mistakes.
My parents werepeasants, farmers from Shandong province in eastern China, south of Beijing, as were my grandparents, and their families before them. This is where my brother and I were born.
Normally the younger generation migrates to the cities to sample the ways of the new. An old friend of our family, a midranking government cadre, promised my parents and grandparents a secure place to live, simple work in a textile and machine factory, low-ranking Party membership. We would live in relative comfort and feel the new modernization taking place, what was supposed to become the true face of revolutionary China.
My mother was twenty-five, my father barely thirty. I was one year old and Lu had lust turned six.
But my parents would not go. They wanted to continue farming, finish the work they had started and come to completion with the land. They were in no rush to embrace the future.
"You take the boys," my father said. "We'll go in the fall, after the harvest."
"Don't be stupid," Grandfather said. "This is your chance. This is it."
My mother said, "You're the old ones, remember?" My mother looked at my father, then said to my grandparents, "Look at what we've lived through already. What could hold us back now?"
This is how Grandfather told the story. Later my mother apologized for her disrespectful tone. She was a temperamental girl and had grown into a fiery woman, Grandfather always said.
I've seen pictures of my mother and father, grainy black-and-white photos, lost visions of history. My mother is short and round-faced, her eyebrows thinly drawn like a hand-painted doll. She is a complete head shorter than my father, who is gangly in a dark tunic and cap, scarecrow shadows in the pockets of his face. Mother wears a tunic as well. They do not hold hands. In the picture they smile with strain, their faces haggard, raked with lines.
I recall being a small boy and seeing these photos for the first time. Lu had stormed off to our room and thrown himself on our bed, huffing and puffing. I didn't understand then, I was only three or four, but I know his feelings now. There are still nights when I lie awake trying to remember the feel of my mother's hands on my back, comforting me in sickness or telling me stories in those gray moments before sleep. Or the rough scratch of my father's stubble on my skin, calluses on his hands. But I cannot. As far back as I can remember it has always been my grandparents. But Lu remembers because he is older.
My grandparents took a train to Beijing with my brother and me wrapped in blankets. Lu has no recollection of this trip. When we were small I would ask him, and either he had truly forgotten or he simply refused to tell. News of my parents' deaths would not reach us for months, only when the last embers of fire that had disintegrated our small wooden home had gone cold, our parents' bodies lost in charred wreckage. A fluke, an incredible mishap. They had lived through the famine of the Great Leap Forward, bodies piled in ditches like mounds of firewood, dead from starvation. They'd eaten only handfuls of rice, the husks of grain, sipped muddy water from community wells with hundreds of miserable and dedicated others. They hoisted plows with their own legs and backs and shoulders because they could not afford an ox or horse or mule; had spent weeks, months at a time waist deep in soy and wheat fields, skin saturated and crusted with mud and rotten earth; countless nights maintaining shifts to keep the furnaces burning during the drive to make iron. All that hardship survived, only to die from the flicker of a last meal's fire.
There was no funeral. My grandparents my mother's parents never went to retrieve the bodies. The year was 1968, two years after Mao Zedong had announced the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Dongluan (chaos) was rampant like a plague. Bands of Red Guards patrolled the cities and the countryside in search of the Four Olds: old thought, old culture, old customs, old habits. Thousands died, some say millions: artists, writers... Sons of Heaven
. Copyright © by Terrence Cheng. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.