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The Cultural Revolution, which spread over a decade beginning in 1966, had an enormous impact on practically every person in China. I was born on June 14, 1982, some six years after the Revolution had ended, and I still felt its enormous reverberations. The Revolution was a large-scale, society-wide social and political upheaval in which all students and intellectuals, including musicians and artists, were sent away from the cities to labor on farms and learn from the peasants. Millions of professionals were forced to leave their homes. China was to be self-reliant and was closed to the West.
When I was around seven years old, I began asking my mother questions about our family's past. One night, while my father was at his job policing the nightclubs and entertainment district of Shenyang, and after I had completed my long practice session on the piano, my mother sat down next to me, handing me slices of fresh oranges and a glass of cool water. It didn't take much prodding to get her to start talking about her youth.
I loved listening to my mother's stories. Because she had been a singer and an actress at her school, she spoke theatrically, with bubbly enthusiasm and great dramatic pauses. As she told me the story of her life, and my father's, and how their lives intertwined, music in my head accompanied each taleever since I can remember, I have had a kind of soundtrack playing in my head, accompanying my life's most memorable moments. I heard etudes and concertos, sonatas and great symphonies. I heard the harmonies and counterpoints. I heard the action of the music. To me, music was action. And my parents' lives were action packed, the stuff of drama and thrilling music.
"Music," said my mother, "was an early love in my life. Music always lifted my spirits and brought me joy."
Mom told me how, when she was four, her parents moved the familyher and her three brothersfrom Dandong on the coast of North Korea to Shenyang in the north of China, where her father worked as a highly skilled technician in an iron plant and her mom became a bookkeeper. Her grandfather loved to sing songs from the Peking opera, so music filled the house.
"What about my grandmother?" I asked. "Why don't I know her?"
"She died of a lung disease when I was young."
"How young?" I asked.
"I was nine."
My heart started beating like crazyI was suddenly terrified. "Will you die when I become nine?"
"Oh no, darling," she assured me. "I'll always be here with you."
"Were you scared?" I asked.
"Yes, I was afraid. Being the only daughter, I was so close to my mother. Losing her hurt a great deal. I was afraid of living without her."
"Then what happened?"
"The world went on," said my mother. "The world always goes on."
Her father excelled at his job in the ironworks factory. He invented a device that improved manufacturing efficiency, and he was rewarded accordingly. My mother went to school and did well; they were all bright students in her family. At school, she began acting in little plays, singing, and dancing. Then, in 1966, came the Cultural Revolutionand everything changed.
Mom's paternal grandfather was a landlord, even though my mother had never seen this "land." Though her father was a successful inventor and invaluable technician at the ironworks factory, he was now considered untrustworthy and was supervised closely. Rumors circulated that my grandfather was conspiring against the Cultural Revolution. Of course, the rumors were false, but they persisted. To protect Mom and her brothers from worry, her father never mentioned any of this. They only found out when a friend came to their house one day and cried out, "They have your father in the fools' parade!" My mother didn't even know what that meant, but of course she ran outside to see. On the street, a group of men was being forced to march from the factory, her father among them. They were all wearing dunces' hats and holding up big cards with words Mom didn't understand. She wanted to run to him, but he was surrounded by guards. That night her father didn't return home. She wept like an infant. When he finally showed up the next morning, she ran to him. "Why are they doing this to you?" she demanded. "Have you made a mistake?" "I have made no mistake," said my grandfather. "I have done nothing wrong. But these are changing times with new people in charge who persecute me even though they don't know me."
Her father was reinstated at the factory but was demoted, and he was no longer recognized or respected. My mother felt the community's contempt most keenly in school. Her classmates were being chosen to serve in the Red Guard, which was an honor for young boys and girls. Those selected wore a special red scarf, but because of her father Mom was forbidden to wear one. She was a good singer, though, so despite their scorn, they wanted her to perform for the school. During her performances, she was given the red scarf to wear, but when they were over, the scarf was taken from her. Boys from her school would chase her down the hall and curse at her. They never expected her to answer them, but she always did. She cursed them right back. She may have been wounded by their hatred, but she was not shy or weak. She had dreams and ambitions.
"What kinds of dreams, Mother?" I asked.
"Dreams of joining a professional dance or music group. Dreams of acting. When I was on that stage, it didn't matter what anyone thought of meup there, I was invincible."
Mom had imagination and talent. She could feel the story behind the lyrics of songs and make that story come alive. She could transform herself into different characters. She could lose herself in a costume drama, or a song from another century, or a choreography arranged decades before her birth. Onstage she felt free, and she had high hopes of becoming a professional. The military recruited actresses and singers to entertain the troops of the People's Liberation Army. At that time, the military was the most important power, and to play before the generals was the biggest honor. My mother had every reason to believe that she would be chosen. Her teachers recommended her highly. Her colleagues all said she was the number one actress, dancer, and singer in her school. And yet she was rejected.
"My father's family were landlords, and landlordseven the granddaughters of landlordscould not be trusted during the Revolution," my mother told me. "My schooling ended, and so did my dreams . . ." My mother and her three brothers were sent away from their fathermy mother to work on a farm, and her brothers to labor in different villages. One of her brothers was a talented Peking Opera singer, but his career was ended during the Revolution.
I loved listening to my mother talk. Inevitably, though, her stories would come to an end, and she would tell me to go practice. I was working on pieces by Chopin and Liszt that other students didn't attempt until they were thirteen or fourteen, and I was excited by the challenge. But as my fingers moved over the keys, my mind would move over the stories my mother had told me about my family. I was proud that she hadn't allowed the boys in her school to intimidate her. I was grateful for her strength, and I believed she was the artist she had hoped to become. I practiced to make up for her missed opportunities, until I conquered the music just as she had conquered her enemies. The music became a soundtrack to a movie about my mother.
At our small dinner table, she served me the food I loved best, hot dumplings and sauerkraut with pork. My father worked late, so she and I would often eat alone, and I would urge her to continue her stories.
She told me how she and my father had met in 1977, when they were both twenty-four years old. The Cultural Revolution had ended, and because of her excellent work on the farmland she was allowed to return to Shenyang. She had just begun her job as a telephone operator at the Institute of Science, and my father was working at a factory during the day. But my father's dream was to become a professional musician. He played the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, the most popular traditional instrument in China, which in a traditional orchestra plays a similar role to the violin in a Western orchestra. Although his dream to enter the music conservatory had not been realized because the conservatories had been closed during the Cultural Revolution, he had found part-time work playing with an acrobatic circus band, and sometimes he traveled with them. But the job wasn't stable.
On their first date, my father took my mother to the movies to see a Russian film. Afterward, he told his friends that he was 100 percent satisfied with her appearance and her personality.
I asked my mother if she had been 100 percent satisfied with my father.
"I can't say I wascertainly not at first. My ideal man was a little taller, a little more dashing than your father, more talkative, and with a warmer personality. And a little more established in his line of work."
I asked if my grandfather liked him, and Mother couldn't help but laugh. She told me how her father had warned her, saying, "This man has no future, no profession. You will not be satisfied with him." My grandfather forbade my mother to date my father, but my dad was persistent. He kept asking my mother out. In spite of her father's disapproval, she agreed to meet Dad secretly on several occasions. One evening when she came home, her father spotted Dad walking her to the door. Infuriated, my grandfather slapped my mother across the face. According to Mom, this was the only time her father ever raised a hand to her.
After that, she stopped seeing my father, but it was as much his own doing as it was her father's. Once in a while, my father still called her; her job as a phone operator meant that he could reach her at any time. The country was filled with new hope for the future. The universities had just reopened, so my father decided to apply to the conservatory; he knew that higher education was his key to becoming a professional musician. While he studied for the entrance exams, he told my mother, "Zhou Xiulan, please understand if I don't call you for a while. I must dedicate myself fully to these tests." Naturally, my mother understood and wished him success.
My father placed number one on the first two exams, and yet he was still denied admission to the conservatory. My mother explained to me that the leaders of the conservatory found an inconsistency in my father's application. In those days you couldn't apply for admission if you were older than twenty-five. Dad was, in fact, twenty-five at the time, but a teacher advised him to put down twenty-four so that if he failed the exams, he could reapply the next year. My father followed the teacher's advice, but because he is an honest man, right below, in parentheses, he wrote, "Real age: 25." They immediately disqualified himthis, even though he had twice placed number one. I could only imagine how he suffered, to have his dreams dashed for such a stupid infraction that had nothing to do with his talent.
After that, my mother's father forbade her to see my father at all. According to my grandfather, the incident proved that Lang Guoren was not worthy of his daughter's company. Mom was told to return all the small gifts my dad had given her, and she had no choice but to obey.
"But you married him anyway," I reminded her.
"As I said, your father is a tenacious man. He would not let me go. Now that he was no longer preoccupied with his studies, he would not stop calling me at my job. On some days he must have called fifty times. He called so often I could hardly do my work. He would insist that I accompany him to a concert or a play. When I told him that my father had forbidden me, he said, 'You don't have to tell your father.' "
So a new, even more secret phase of their relationship began. It wasn't at all romantic; at first my parents were simply friends. My mother began enjoying my father's company more and more. But although she realized that they had many artistic interests in common and she saw that he was intelligent, she let him know that she did not see her future with him.
" 'Don't underestimate me, Zhou Xiulan,' Lang Guoren told me. 'I will have a good future. I'll prove it to you. I will become a professional musician.'
"Because my own artistic dream had been denied, I didn't believe him. I didn't think it was possible for him to find a stable job as an artist.
" 'I will find a job,' he said, 'and I will win your love.' "
Of course, as with anything my father put his mind to, he succeeded on both counts. The Air Force had a program for musicians to play in its band, but to enter it, you had to pass exams. The Air Force orchestra's pay was decent and the work steady. If he got in, my father would no longer have to work his two jobs, one at the factory and one in the acrobatic circus. So he found a teacher at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music to tutor him. For months he practiced his erhu day and night, outside so that he wouldn't disturb anyone, beginning at 4:00 a.m. before he went to work and until midnight after work. His discipline never faltered, and, true to his word, when the exam day came, he excelled. He was finally granted admission to the Air Force as a soloist and concertmaster of the orchestra.
Mom's father was impressed. "Perhaps I have misjudged the man, Zhou Xiulan," he said. "He is ambitious and persistent. I will no longer interfere in your friendship with him."
Their friendship blossomed into love. I didn't see my dad as a romantic man, but when my mother told the story, I understood that he had passion. My parents were married on April 22, 1980, and I was born a little more than two years later.
At first they lived with my paternal grandparents. But when Dad's younger brother married, he needed a place to live with his new bride. My father, being generous, offered his place in their parents' home. In those days, you couldn't just buy an apartment, because apartments were allocated by the state. But as an Air Force musician, my father qualified for a room in the barracks. He and my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, could move there, and that would solve the problem. But new complications emerged: Chairman Deng Xiaoping was reforming China, and one of his goals was to reduce the size of the military; Dad learned that the Shenyang Air Force orchestra would be dismantled in a couple of years, and when that happened, he would not be entitled to a room.