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Mao's Last Dancer

by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin X
Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2004, 444 pages

    Mar 2005, 480 pages


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Part One
My Childhood

Chapter 1


My parents, as newlyweds, lived with my father's six brothers, their wives, his two sisters and their children, a total of over twenty people crammed into a six-room house. My mother was the youngest daughter-in-law, so her status in the Li family was the lowest. Family hierarchy had to be respected: she would work hard to prove her worth.

Often my mother would not see my father until late in the evenings, because he worked at two jobs, either away in the fields or carting building materials, all day long. Then the family would sit for dinner under the candlelight (there was no electricity in the village then), with men eating at one table, women and children eating at others. My parents hardly set eyes on each other during that first year of marriage. Sometimes, in the dim candlelight, my mother would even mistake one of her brothers-in-law for her own husband.

The women of the house would sew, wash, clean and cook. My mother was meticulous and efficient, and the speed and quality of her work won her mother-in-law's approval. To cook well was a sign of love and care. My mother was often the one sent to deliver the food to the men in the fields too, because of her unbound feet. Then she could see her husband in the daylight, and her sisters-in-law secretly envied her such freedom.

My mother's mother had died within the first year of my parents' marriage, so my mother would visit her father once a year with gifts and special food she cooked, even though she was never loved by her father in the same way as he loved his sons. A son could work in the fields. A son could bring home a daughter-in-law. A son could carry on the family line. To fail to have a son was considered the greatest betrayal of one's ancestors.

The people who lived in the New Village had been forced to move there during the Second World War from another village about twenty miles north. The Japanese had occupied Qingdao and built an airport where my father's family used to live. The New Village was still small then, with just over three hundred and fifty families, a two-roomed office and an open square. Later, loudspeakers, from which Mao's official revolutionary doctrines were broadcast, would hang from poles or sit on people's rooftops. The houses were attached to each other in long rows with a gap of about four feet between each row.

My parents continued to share a house with my father's family--as the family grew and more children arrived, they simply built more adjoining rooms. Their first son had arrived about a year after their marriage, their second just over two years later, their third two years after that, and then their fourth, Cunsang, in 1955. But Cunsang was lucky to have survived his first week in the Li family. When he was only a few days old, there was an accident. Two of the bigger brothers were playing, stacking up chairs, and the chairs crashed down upon Cunsang's head. He started having seizures. My mother took him immediately to the hospital where the doctor told her that he most likely had brain damage, but was too young to have any treatment. All my mother could do was take him home.

For several days he did not feed, he cried nonstop and the seizures continued. Finally, in desperation, my mother wrapped him in a little handmade blanket, took him out into the snow, and left him on the Northern Hill, close by our village. She thought somebody with magic power might save him. She cried all the way home.

My father's mother, Na-na, came by later to check on her new grandson. Na-na was a kind, tiny little woman. When she found the baby missing, she begged my crying mother to tell her where he was. Eventually she did, and Na-na rushed on her crippled, bound feet to the Northern Hill. She found Cunsang and took him home. He was blue all over, nearly frozen to death, and had a severe fever for several days. But then, miraculously, Cunsang stopped crying. The seizures ended and he seemed to recover. He too grew up with the rest of his brothers in that crowded house, and my mother eventually came to be known as "that lucky woman with seven sons."

My family's house looked into the back of someone else's house, and that house looked directly into theirs. It had a small front courtyard which was enclosed, in years to come, by six-foot stone walls. People with money had the stones delivered and secured with mortar, but my family was too poor, so my father and some of the older sons went to the mountains to bring those stones back themselves, by horse and cart. You could see through the holes in the wall and spy on the neighbors, and once part of the wall fell apart.

My family's property had no backyard. The house itself was built with big stones and bricks, with German-style terra-cotta tiles, made locally. Inside, my parents and their sons had four rooms: two small bedrooms about eight feet square, a slightly larger bedroom about ten feet square and the kitchen-cum-living-room, which was about the same size as the larger bedroom. It had two built-in woks with big wind boxes attached to make fire. Those woks occupied three-quarters of the space in that room. Crockery cupboards were built into the walls, and a small freestanding wooden pantry, made by my father, stood in one corner. There was no refrigeration and no running water, only a huge clay pot for storing drinking water. If both woks were in use at the same time, there would be no space for people to pass through that room without having to move aside whoever was operating the wind box.

The woks backed onto the bedroom walls, which were covered with newspaper "wallpaper," and which contained the chimneys. Fire and smoke would travel through under the mud-brick beds and escape through the walls on the other side. The mudbricks were supposed to retain heat, but they were not very effective: as the night wore on the beds became colder.

The floor was a reddish earth. During the wet weather, water always seeped through the earth and my father would have to take out the wet floor and wait for a dry day to replace it, every inch with new earth, pounding it down with a huge wooden hammer. The harder the floor, the less chance there was for the water to penetrate.

There were no wardrobes in the house. Clothes were stored in papier-mâché boxes my mother made, stacked on the two small beds during the day and moved onto the floor at night. There was also a main bed about the size of a small double bed, and eventually my parents and all their sons had to share those three beds. The main bedroom was also the room where my family ate, and the only room with an attic: it was my father's secret hiding place for important things like money. Others were forbidden to go there.

After waking each morning on the freezing beds, everyone would fold the blankets into rolls and tuck them neatly away. What remained was a bamboo mat. A wooden tray about two by four feet, passed down from my father's ancestors, would be placed on top of the mat and the family would sit around it, cross-legged, knee to knee, to eat each meal. Three of the older sons had to sit on wooden stools by the edge of the bed because there wasn't enough room around the tray for everyone.

My family had to go to one of the village wells to fetch water, carrying it back in two buckets that hung from either end of a bamboo pole balanced across the shoulders. The adults and the big boys would carry big buckets, and the little boys had smaller buckets. Water was heated in the big wok, and wooden or clay basins about three feet wide and a foot deep were used for baths. There was one public bath in the commune shared by over ten thousand people, which my family couldn't afford, and no bathroom in the house, only a toilet, which was a hole in the ground in the front courtyard. You had to stand or crouch on two wooden boards, one on each side of the hole. There was no roof, so it was freezing cold in the winter. Half of the toilet was inside the wall, and half outside, to allow the lowest class of laborer in the village to collect the waste, which was used in the fields as fertilizer. He'd use a wooden spoonlike scooper and pour the waste into two wooden barrels that sat on each side of his wheelbarrow. The shit man pushed his wheelbarrow through the narrow streets every day, and if people were coming toward him, they'd move aside and allow him to pass. One day the shit man had a collision with a bicycle. The foul contents of the wheelbarrow ran all over the street. What a smell! Even after the neighbors washed the shitty area over and over with water, the dreadful smell remained and everyone avoided that street for a long time. Neighbors complained to the head of the village and tried to have the shit man replaced, but no one else wanted to be the next shit man.

My family had to utilize every inch of their front yard. There was a small vegetable patch, climbing beans on the stone walls, and a pigsty with a couple of pigs, but there was never enough food to feed the people, let alone the pigs, so the pigs were always very thin. Eventually they were sold to the commune. There was also a chicken yard, but again, the chickens never received enough food to produce many eggs, and the few they did lay were sold in the market for badly needed cash.

The commune allocated each family in the village a piece of land. My family's was one twentieth of an acre, halfway up the Northern Hill, about fifteen minutes from home. It was so small that it could only be used to grow essential foods, such as corn and yams. On Sundays, which was the only day my father could spend at home, the entire family, including the children, worked on this land with him. All the land in Li Commune was divided into small, stepped terraces, and everything was done by hand using shovels, picks, hoes, sickles and plows. At one stage the village had the luxury of two old, starved oxen, which were used for plowing, but they were slow and often refused to walk, despite constant whipping. They too eventually died, one after the other.

My mother's earnings, as with all the peasants', depended on the weather and luck. They had no say in what to plant: the central government in Beijing decided that. My family planted mainly wheat in the winter, corn, yams and sorghum the rest of the year. The government would get the first and biggest portion, at the government-set price, and the rest was divided among the peasants according to the number of members in each family and how many points the family earned during the year. This apportioned food would be counted against your earnings at the end of that year. Every day, the head of each working group in the village would register who worked and for how many hours. Then, at the end of each month, all the peasants would gather and decide how many points each person was entitled to. The most a man could earn in a single day was ten points, which was about one yuan or roughly seventeen U.S. cents then. Women normally received about half of a man's earnings.

One year, there was a severe drought and nobody was paid a single yuan for a whole year. The village had to borrow some money from the Qingdao government to lend every family so they could buy food to survive. It took the people in the village more than two years to repay that loan, and still the peasants had to eat anything that moved, and some things that didn't. Often they couldn't even find any bark to eat.

My family was very poor, but there were even poorer people than the Li family in our commune. By the time I was born there was deprivation and disease everywhere. Three years of Mao's Great Leap Forward and three years of bad weather had resulted in one of the greatest famines the world had ever seen. Nearly thirty million people died. And my parents, like everyone else, were desperately fighting for survival.

I was my parents' sixth son. I was born on 26 January 1961. By then my parents had been married for fifteen years, and the Li family had grown to become a large extended family. Our na-na, my father's mother, lived next door, and his fourth brother (we called him Fourth Uncle) lived next to her. Our third uncle's family lived in front of us, but he died of an unknown disease in his early thirties and left four young girls and a boy. My father, whom we called Dia, and our fourth uncle became their de facto fathers.

It's a Chinese custom that the mother stays in bed for a month after giving birth. Their babies are delivered at home by a local midwife. To get out of bed and work before the month's end was supposed to be bad for the mother's health, and it could do unthinkable harm in her later years. But I was born just twenty days before the Chinese New Year, and this was the busiest time of the year for my mother, my niang. Because of my birth she was far behind in her preparations for the feast. She had no daughter to help her. Our na-na tried to help, but she had bound feet. So my niang didn't have the luxury of staying on her kang for that first month.

My life began with near tragedy for my parents. When I was just fifteen days old, my niang left me on our kang and wrapped me in a cotton quilt before going to the kitchen to make her bread rolls for the Chinese New Year. Mothers in China always wrapped their babies' arms tightly against their bodies and laid them facing up, so the baby's head would grow to the normal shape. That day my niang had so many rolls to steam that the kang where I was lying got boiling hot. I was probably suffocating in the tightly wrapped quilt. I struggled my right arm loose, and the kang badly burned the middle of my arm.

When my niang first heard my screams, she thought I was crying for milk. She had none left in her breasts, so at first she did not respond. By the time she came to check on me, the whole elbow area of my right arm was severely burned and blistered.

The burn quickly became infected. Two days later, my entire right arm had swollen up and turned bright red. My parents had no appropriate medication. They could not afford to take me to the hospital. The burned area gradually became full of pus, and I developed a dangerously high fever. I screamed constantly day and night.

They finally had to borrow some money from our relatives and friends to take me to the hospital. "Your son has a severe infection," the doctor informed my parents. "He is too young to take any medication. You should have come earlier. Your only alternative is to apply some herbal medicine. But I can't guarantee this will work."

"What will happen if it doesn't work?" my niang asked, desperately afraid.

"He may lose his right arm. As soon as you see the infection spread, bring him in and we will have no choice but to cut his arm off," he replied.

My parents looked at their tiny son and couldn't believe that he might grow up with only one arm. My niang's guilt was beyond description. My dia kept telling her that there would be a cure somewhere. They took the doctor's prescription and purchased the herbs from a local medicine shop. My niang followed the doctor's instructions and stewed the herbal ingredients in the wok. They applied the dark liquid to my arm. It didn't help. It made the infection worse, and the redness began to travel away from my arm.

My niang started to panic. She took me to see many healers who lived in our area and tried their different secret family recipes, to no avail. Then my fourth aunt said to my niang, "An old healer told my mother once that bai fang helps infections. Why don't you try it?" Bai fang was a meat tenderizer that looked like white rock salt. It was full of acid. At first my niang didn't take the suggestion seriously, but with all other options exhausted she decided to give it a try.

When she first applied the bai fang I screamed like a stuck pig. She couldn't bear to see her son suffering such pain and she seriously doubted whether a meat tenderizer would ever work, so after a few tries she stopped the treatment.

But my fourth aunt believed strongly it would work. "Ni tai sin yuen la!" You are too soft-hearted, she said to my niang. She locked her door, crushed the bai fang into a powder and rubbed massive amounts onto my raw, exposed muscles. She was literally rubbing salt into an open wound. I screamed nonstop the whole day. Every hour she would wash my arm with warm water and reapply masses of bai fang.

Years later my niang confessed, "I was outside your fourth aunt's door and my heart bled each time you screamed. The sound of your cries was like a thousand sharp knives cutting into my guilty heart! Several times I banged on your fourth aunt's door, trying to take you away. Thank the gods for your fourth aunt's determination. She just ignored me."

My fourth aunt wasn't really sure whether this bai fang would work either. She nearly gave up many times that day. But she knew this was the last chance they had to save my arm.

By the end of that day I had lost my voice completely from screaming. But my aunt's determination saved my arm. The infection slowly went away. A large scar remained, and in years to come, in moments of crisis, I would always touch it. It would become my link to my niang and a reminder of her love.

Three years later, my niang gave birth to her seventh son, my youngest brother, Cungui, who we called by his nickname Jing Tring. My parents knew they couldn't provide enough food to feed the sons they now had, and as far as I can remember there was never enough food. Meat, seafood and eggs were all on a strict quota system, along with oil, soy sauce, sugar, salt, wheat and corn flour, rice and also coal. Every family was allocated a very small quantity of these items each month, but often they were not available at all.

We ate a lot of dried yams. They were the easiest things to grow, so most of our land was used for yams. I was often woken up at five o'clock in the morning by my niang to go to the yam fields with my big brothers before they started school for the day. We each carried a shovel and a bamboo basket made by our dia, to dig for any yams that might have been overlooked by the peasants during harvesting. We were cold and hungry but the hope of those yams for breakfast always kept us going. Often the fields had already been turned over by others in equally desperate circumstances, and we returned home with empty baskets.

During summer, every family's front yard and roof were covered with slices of these yams drying in the sun. They looked like snowflakes. Some people even laid them out on the street. But if rain came, you had to quickly pick them all up, for if they got wet they soon went moldy. Once they were dried, the sliced yams would be stored in a huge clay pot in my older brothers' bedroom or in our dia's attic.

Dried yams were our basic food for most of the year. We occasionally had flour and corn bread for a treat, but those were my niang's special reserves for relatives or important visitors. We had dried yams, steamed or boiled, almost daily, week after week, month after month and year after year. Dried yams were the most hated food in my family, but there were others in the commune that could not even afford dried yams. We were luckier than most. We were luckier than the thirty million who starved to death. Dried yams saved our lives.

One year, I remember that our commune experimented with growing peanuts on a few small pieces of land, but it was a disappointingly meager crop. After the peanut field had been harvested, a group of boys my age, about five or six years old, followed some of the older boys with spades and bamboo baskets, trying to find peanuts in the ground that, like the yams, might have been missed by others. None of us found many peanuts after hours of earth churning, but on the edge of the field one of the boys discovered a rat hole, a lucky find for starving boys! He immediately started digging. We gathered around him as if he were a magnet: rats always stored food for winter, so we were all excited and envious of the boy's find. We knew not to kneel by the rat hole because local superstition told us that if we did the rat tunnel would disappear. So the boy dug as fast as he could, with his ass in the air. Several times he nearly lost the tunnel because the rats tried to block it. Then he found that it branched out in different directions, and soon he discovered three stores: one of peeled peanuts, one of half-peeled and the third of unpeeled peanuts. We never saw the rats; we thought they had a secret escape route.

That lucky boy gathered almost half a basketful of peanuts, but secretly I felt sad for the rats, losing their food like that. They too might die of starvation that winter. What a cruel world, I thought, where we had to compete with the rats for food.

Mealtimes in my family were always sad for my niang. There was often nothing for her to cook. We would look at what little food there was on the wooden tray and, out of respect for our elders, always wait for our dia to start. One day, when my niang served dinner, it was clear there was not enough food for everyone.

"I don't feel hungry," our dia said casually. "I had a rather big lunch today. You all go ahead."

Each of us had our chopsticks in hand, ready to swarm on the food. But we hesitated. Our niang was next in line. She quickly gave our dia an annoyed look and made "zhi, zhi, zhi" sounds with her tongue. "Don't you dare not eat! Your health is our entire family's security. We will all only be drinking water if you starve yourself to death!"

"I really mean it. I'm not hungry," our dia protested innocently.

"Don't annoy me, you liar!" our niang admonished, and she picked some food up with her chopsticks and put it in our dia's bowl. We started to eat only once he took the first bite. Our parents always ate their food slowly to allow us more food. On many occasions our niang told us to leave the best food for our dia because he was our main breadwinner. But our dia always made excuses and told us we should give the best food to our niang: if not for her we would all have only "northwest wind" for dinner.

We rarely ate meat. Once a month we would wait in long lines at the market for the fattest piece of pork available. Our niang would extract lard from it to use for cooking later, but everyone else wanted the fat pork too, so we didn't get it very often.

One afternoon, my niang heard that the meat shop in our commune was selling pork, but only for a few hours. She borrowed one yuan from my fourth aunt and told me to run to the meat shop as fast as I could in case they ran out, which they often did. It was a good half hour away. There were three long lines of people waiting by the time I arrived. An hour later I handed the cashier my money and our ration card, and I was given a small piece of fatty pork. I was so excited! I knew my niang would be happy with such a fatty piece.

She was ecstatic. She immediately cut the pork into small pieces and started to cook them to extract the lard. I was her wind-box pusher. The delicious fragrance and the sound of sizzling pork made my tummy rumble. She was in high spirits. "What a good piece of pork! This amount of lard will last us a while," she said, and handed me a bowl with a small piece of pork crackling in it. "Don't burn your tongue," she warned. The crackling melted in my mouth--nothing in the world could taste as good.

My niang also cut up a cabbage to cook. "This will be a nice surprise for your dia!"

That night, when the cabbage dish was served, we could actually see the traces of precious oil floating in the sauce! My second brother found a small piece of pork in the cabbage too, and put it into our dia's bowl. Our dia immediately passed it to our niang. Our niang passed it back to him. "Don't be silly!" she said. "I especially cooked this for you. You need it for your strength at work."

My youngest brother was sitting next to our dia. Our dia turned to him and said, "Jing Tring, let me see your teeth." Before our niang could say anything, he put that piece of pork into my brother's mouth. There was silence, and a long, sad sigh from our niang.

It was always like this. Often a small piece of meat in a vegetable dish would be passed from person to person because it was so scarce. Seven pairs of hungry eyes would look at our parents, begging for more. But no begging words were ever spoken because we all knew how difficult it was to get any food at all. There was simply nothing more to cook. My parents didn't know where the food for our next meal would be coming from.

To survive, my niang worked every spare hour she had in the fields, as well as cooking and looking after her boys. She cooked three meals a day, every day. We never dreamed of going to a restaurant. There was only one restaurant in our area anyway, and it mainly served the government officials. Often my niang had to bury her pride and borrow food from relatives or neighbors. She was an extremely resourceful cook and could make delicious dishes from anything, except dried yams. I hoped never to see another piece of dried yam as long as I lived. They looked whitish before cooking and turned pale gray afterwards. They had no taste and stuck in our throats, so we normally had a bowl of hot water to help get them down, or if we were lucky we would get a bowl of watery rice, wheat or corn congee. Congee is like thin porridge, with very few grains in it.

I loved watching my niang cook while I pushed the wind box. This was a special time for me. I could talk to her alone then, and have a little bit of undivided attention. I was her favorite wind-box pusher, the fastest among my brothers to make the fire. I was also the most patient. My joy and sadness fluctuated along with my niang's. She would be in such a happy mood when she had oil, seafood or especially if she had a piece of pork. I would ask her many questions about the cooking, and I learned when to add certain spices and how to be a good cook.

Food wasn't our only problem of course. Even the water we used had to be boiled. We were not allowed to drink unboiled water. We were told that unboiled water from the village wells could give us worms. My brothers and I all had worms many times throughout our childhood. We would get knotted stomachs and bad pains, and our parents would wake us up and give us some sweet medicine to chew. We called them "the vomitable worm killers." They came in the form of candies shaped like miniature pyramids. The first taste was bearable, with some sweetness, but after five of them I wanted to vomit. And I was only halfway there: I had to eat ten of them! My poor older brothers suffered even more, because the older you were the more worm killers you had to chew. We took them at night while our stomachs were empty and the worms had nothing to eat except the vomitable worm killers. After that, for the next few days, we had to be on a strict diet of warm food, warm water, no sweet, salty or oily food, and no seafood. That meant only one thing-dried yams, meal after meal. Sometimes the worms didn't come out for days and we had to repeat the whole process. Most of the time the worms came out still alive, usually many of them and all about a foot long. The older brothers hated their younger brothers for this horrible ordeal because we, most likely, caused the annual drama by not washing our hands regularly. They had no choice but to go through this process each year.

But despite our poverty, our parents always taught us to have dignity, honesty and pride. Never to steal or do things that would harm others. Our good family name was most sacred and should be protected with all our might.

I tested this one day when I was playing at a friend's house. I was about five. Sien Yu was the same age, and his uncle, who lived in the city, had brought him a small toy car when he'd visited the day before. It was the first time I had ever seen a toy car. I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life! Sien Yu let me play with it for a while. I loved it so much. When he went inside to get a drink, I took it and ran home.

"Where did you get that?" my niang asked suspiciously.

"I...I found it on the street."

She knew I was not telling the truth. No one in our area could afford to spend money on a toy. "Who did you just play with?"

"Sien Yu," I replied.

She took my hands firmly and pulled me back to Sien Yu's house. She said to his mother, "Sien Yu's niang, is this your son's toy car?"

Sien Yu's mother nodded.

"I'm sorry, I think my son has stolen your son's toy car," my niang said.

"Don't get upset," Sien Yu's mother replied. "Your son is too young to understand."

"I'm ashamed, I'm ashamed of what my son did!" said my niang, and apologized profusely. She tried to make me do the same, but I felt too embarrassed and refused, and wished I had never seen that toy car. I wished for a hole in which to hide. I wished for thick skin to cover my face. I felt the blood rushing to my neck. I tried to escape from my niang's firm grip. I wanted to run away and never come near Sien Yu's house again. I hated my niang for embarrassing me like this. She shouted. She wanted the entire world to know I had stolen my friend's toy car. I screamed and kicked as she dragged me home. "I want a car! I want a car!" I yelled.

As soon as we went inside our house, with despair in her eyes, she pulled me to her chest, hugged me tightly in her arms and sobbed. It was as though she had suffered as much humiliation as I had. "I'm so sorry to do this to you," she whispered tenderly. "I'm so sorry we are too poor to buy you a toy car." After a brief moment she continued. "I'm too stupid to have all of you in this cruel world! You don't deserve this suffering!" I felt her tears streaming onto my hair. "We are too poor! The gods in heaven won't answer our prayers, and even the devil below has abandoned us. We are born with a hopeless fate," she sighed.

"Stop saying that! Don't say anything!" I begged her. I hated to see her so sad.

She continued as though she hadn't heard me. "How I wish I had the money to buy you a toy car! But we don't even have enough money for food."

"I'll have enough food for you one day! I swear!" I said to myself.

She hugged me tighter as she sobbed. I didn't know how long she hugged me, but I didn't want her to stop.

That evening, at dinner, after she had told everyone what I had done, my dia started lecturing us. "Although we have no money, no food, and can't buy clothes, and although we live in a poor house, one thing we do have is PRIDE. Pride is the most precious thing in our lives. Throughout our forefathers' struggles, the Li family always had our pride and dignity. We have always had a good reputation. I want every one of you to remember this: never lose your pride and dignity no matter how hard life is."

From Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, Copyright © 2003 Li Cuxin, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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