Monday, March 4, 2013

Red Aunt

“The past, like a cricket in the corner
Whines in its low, persistent voice.”

Shu Ting

We are simple people. The never-ending mysteries of the world have seldom been a source of contemplation for us or for our ancestors. We are not philosophers. We are peasants. We have always been peasants. Our birthright and our destiny is hard work. We are born with a strong back and a strong will and we inherit a tradition of untiring persistence and relentless resiliency. We live by the cycle of the seasons. We know exactly how and when to cultivate the earth. We know how and when to enrich it and renew it. In return, it provides our sustenance. Our life is simple. For more than sixteen centuries our village, Lishi, has survived in Jiangsu province near the shore of Mirror Lake(Lian Hu) south of the Yangtse river and west of the Grand Canal. In that time floods and famines, plagues and earthquakes, war lords, evil emperors, foreign devils, revolutionaries and religious fanatics have afflicted us and undone our work. But we survived. There were bad times. But there were good times, too. We have had good fortune as well as bad, our elders remind us. One follows the other, always. Fortune, too, has its cycle. It is the way of the world. We accept it as part of life. It is fate. And we believe in fate.
It is important to remember the past. Memory is the thread connecting us to our ancestors and some day it will connect our descendants to us. But it is important also to forget part of the past or to abridge it in remembering. There are, after all, some memories that are unbearable, memories with the power to poison the present and the future. Part of the bitter past must nevertheless be told, even when it is painful, because it explains who we are. And it explains who we are not.
Such is the memory of November, 1937, when a cycle of peace and complacency in Lishi was tragically reversed.
It was a time of war. But the villagers convinced themselves that the isolation and the insignificance of Lishi would deliver them from destruction. We were unimportant, after all, in the larger scheme of things. We were not a prize to be fought over and held up to the world. We were not a fortress nor a great walled city like Shanghai or Nanjing. We were merely peasants in village near a road connecting far more important places.
Yet, the Japanese Imperial Army -- the short devils(xiao dong yang), as we referred to them --ignorant of our insignificance, passed through our village on their march 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 here for a thousand years.
The road linking Shanghai to Nanjing, cuts through the fields about one mile south of the village. It was crowded with refugees and soldiers that November. For days the villagers watched anxiously from their fields as the endless stream of people moved steadily westward on the road. For years the villagers listened to stories of the monstrousness of the short devils who had long occupied parts of our country. Now they were on the move once more, pushing all before them as they advanced on the Nationalist capital in Nanjing and on all of the cities and towns beyond.
There was talk in Lishi of joining 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 and simply staying out of sight until the short devils are gone?” The village was far from the main road. Travelers on the road seldom noticed Lishi. There was, therefore, the possibility -- indeed, the probability -- that the short devils would never even see the village. Why should they?
Several of the younger villagers, unconvinced of the wisdom of remaining in Lishi, panicked and joined the jumble of soldiers and refugees on the road. They packed some of their possessions in blankets and baskets, carried their children on their backs, said goodbye, and departed. They never returned. Those who stayed prepared to hide in their homes or along the dikes or in ruts in the fields and to wait for the soldiers to pass, just as their ancestors had done whenever invaders approached.
After several days the throng of people on the road thinned and finally it disappeared. Then, in the distance, the villagers saw tall columns smoke rise slowly and hang like huge charcoal ribbons stretching across the sky. They heard the distant deep thunder of guns. They extinguished all cooking fires so that no sign of life could be detected in Lishi by those who might see it from the road.
As they prepared to go into hiding, some of them saw a lone Chinese soldier, clearly lost and confused, stumbling through one of the fields. The men chased him and cornered him. He was just a boy. He was terrified and shaking. They tried to question him, but he could not understand the village dialect. With exaggerated gestures coupled with a sprinkling of some common Mandarin phrases they managed, they thought, to communicate with him briefly. They believed he said that the short devils had stopped and a Chinese army were advancing from the north and east. The short devils were returning to Shanghai.
Could this be true? If so, then there was no reason to hide, they concluded.
But this was not what the boy said. He did not understand the excited guttural jabbering of these peasants in their ungodly dialect. Their effort to speak Mandarin made no sense at all to him. He nodded at their strange words, seemed to agree with whatever they said, answered their words with his own gestures, nods and sounds and and then half running and half walking, continued on his way west. The men believed he was in a hurry to rejoin his unit. But he wasn’t. He had tried to tell them was that the Japanese soldiers were not just on the road but were in fact foraging everywhere -- they were even coming up the river and the canal-- and that they should drop everything and run for their lives immediately. But they didn’t understand.
They returned to the village with the news. A delegation was quickly assembled to greet the Chinese soldiers and to offer them food and assistance. A half dozen elders were selected and then 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 west. They waited. Then, after several minutes they saw a long double line of men stretching all the way to the horizon, walking behind a column of trucks and armored cars approaching them from the east. One of the village elders said, “This is impossible. This cannot be happening.” Those were his last words.
In the village the people waited together in the cold for the elders to return. But not long after they had departed, the boy returned alone, crying and out of breath. He had run all the way from the road. There was no Chinese army, he screamed. There were only the short devils, thousands and thousands of them. The elders were dead. The boy had watched the short devils order them to kneel in the road, and then stab them with bayonets and then run over them with their trucks. Now the short devils were searching everywhere. Some of them even chased him and shot at him. They were spread across the countryside and would be in the village within minutes.
The wives and children of the murdered elders cried out and shouted “No, no, no, no” and some of them tried to break away and run to the road but others restrained them and calmed them and told them there was nothing that could be done for their elders at the moment. The important thing now was to save the living. The dead could be found and buried later. But with the elders gone no one was sure what to do next. The short devils were really coming to Lishi! And it was too late to run.
One of the older women suggested a plan. The short devils, she said, would no doubt be like invading warlords in the past. They could see the village was poor and would know that there was no gold here. They would look instead for young girls and would carry them off if they found them. They would leave everyone else alone if there was no resistance. The young girls were in the most danger. They had to be hidden carefully. There was not much time. Around the village were dozens of stacks of rice straw left from the fall harvest. In the past, the woman remembered, people had hidden the village girls in the straw. They should do that again. Everyone else could hide in their homes until the danger passed. Perhaps in their haste to get to Nanjing the short devils hurry through Lishi. They would find nothing here worth taking.
All of the young girls were bundled in several layers of clothing. Parents, brothers and neighbors then rushed about burying them deep inside the haystacks, carefully covering them and making sure they could breathe and that nothing betrayed their hiding place. The youngest of the girls were often placed beside older sisters in the haystacks -- two or three of them together -- so that they could be calmed and kept quiet if they became frightened. The girls were told not to move or make a sound and not to come out until their parents returned to uncover them. In only a few minutes more than one- hundred girls were buried in the haystacks. The debris that might indicate the stacks had been disturbed was carefully picked up or swept away. When they were sure their meticulous deception could not be detected, the villagers scattered to their dwellings, blocked the doors and huddled under their beds or in the corners, clinging together waiting for the short devils.
Only minutes after hiding they heard voices outside speaking 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 voices. Laughter. Loud voices in a tone that indicated anger and perhaps cursing. Some soldiers entered dwellings, kicking the door down, turning over tables and pots, breaking water jars, picking up food and tasting it before throwing it against the wall or to the ground. They pulled the covers away from the huddled villagers and laughed at them, imitated their terrified expressions and laughed some more. They pointed guns at them, shouted things, and made threatening gestures. Some soldiers kicked or slapped the cowering men and women and boys and others tried to pull them outside. The villagers whimpered and squealed and clung desperately to each other and begged for mercy in phrases the soldiers could not understand. Some wet themselves when the soldiers grabbed them and tried to pull them outside. The soldiers punched them and jabbed them with their rifles and kicked them or spit on them before finally letting them go. Terrified, the people then scurried back to their hiding places, covered themselves again and made no sound except for the chattering of their teeth.
A soldier found a small boy concealed under a large iron pot inside one home. He picked up the boy and carried him outside where other soldiers surrounded him and asked him questions. The boy stared at them wide eyed. He understood nothing they said. The soldiers made exaggerated gestures and funny faces and laughed loudly. The boy smiled when they laughed. The soldiers laughed even more and one of them handed the boy a chunk of rock candy. The boy tasted it once, spit out a tiny piece and then handed it back. The soldiers laughed again. They made hand motions, and spoke slowly, scrunched up their faces and spoke in high squeaky tones like young girls. They painstakingly mouthed words in Mandarin. The boy simply stared back at them and said nothing. Then a soldier noticed something unusual. He meticulously picked several pieces of straw from the boys hair and then examined his fingernails, sweater and shoes, where he found more bits of straw. He said something to the others excitedly, and then pointed to the haystacks. The soldiers laughed again as if they’d suddenly discovered the solution to a riddle. They shook their heads and chuckled at the primitive resourcefulness of these crude peasants and then with something like affection pinched the boy on the arm or patted him on the shoulder. Some of them walked to the nearest haystacks. Others followed part of the way to watch. A soldier plunged his arm into the hay, felt around and pulled out nothing but a fistful of straw. He gave his comrades a look of disappointment. He walked part way around the haystack and repeated his action, moved around further and probed again. 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’d felt something or someone inside the haystack -- and it frightened him, momentarily. Now he was embarrassed as well as angry. He shouted at the haystack as if it were a living thing. He listened for a response. Silence. He called out and the tone of his voice indicated that he meant both to tease and threaten. Again there was only silence. Some of the men walked back to the path through the fields that led out of the village, shaking their heads in disappointment . Others were not yet ready to give up their quest. They conferred for a moment to decide what to do. One of them affixed a bayonet to the end of his rifle and prodded a haystack. He found nothing. He shook his head in disgust. Then, impatiently, he walked to another and jabbed it in again and again, violently. Then another. There was no sound, no movement, no resistance to the long pointed blade. But after jabbing a fourth haystack he noticed something unusual, examined his bayonet closely and showed it to the others. There was a thin vermillion smear along the entire length of blade. He turned and shouted at the haystack. Again silence. He methodically shouldered his rifle, aimed it and fired into the place in the haystack where he’d stuck his bayonet. The loud explosion echoed back and forth across the desolate fields and finally faded away in the distance. There was no response from within the haystack. The soldiers conferred again. They were running out of time. An officer summoned them and ordered them not to linger any longer. A soldier emerged from a house carrying a can of kerosene. The others saw him lugging the large container and shouted their approval. He sprinkled the kerosene on several of the haystacks. When it was empty he threw the can aside. Another soldier struck a match and walked through the field igniting the hay. The fires blossomed quickly. The soldiers stood and watched for a several minutes. There was still no sound or movement from the haystacks. Several of the men backed away from the flames, shielded their faces from the heat, shook their heads and cursed again. Some went to the other haystacks, prodded them with bayonets, doused them with kerosene and set them afire. Still there was no movement and no sound from within. Then, growing increasingly frustrated, the men fired their guns at the dwellings. Several of them shot at a water buffalo quietly watching them from a nearby clearing. They laughed when they saw it stumble and then fall over. They shot it several more times as it lay crying and dying. Then they too continued on their way. One after another all of the haystacks exploded into flame. More short devils arrived and walked through the village without stopping, staring at the blazing mounds as they passed.
Inside their dwellings, the villagers huddled together and waited to be assaulted or killed. Many kept their eyes closed tightly as if this might in some way ward off the short devils or hasten their departure. When they opened their eyes, they saw on the walls the flickering reflection of the flames outside. They thought it must be the thatched roofs of other homes burning. Some recognized the smell the burning hay. And some also smelled an unfamiliar odor that was not hay.
They feared that the short devils had found some of the girls in the haystacks and were probably now doing male things to them. Knowing there was nothing they could do and that they were certainly doomed if they went outside, they stayed inside until the sounds of the soldiers faded away and darkness fell.
Finally, a few of the bolder villagers peered outside to see if it was safe. When they were sure it was, they ran from house to house and shouted to the others that it was clear, 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 at them. They blistered and burned their hands and arms but didn’t feel the pain. Acrid smoke hung in the air. They breathed the smoke and choked on it and cried and called 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 bloody and blackened flesh of the little girls who clung to each other as the fires consumed them. Mothers and fathers tried to pick up what remained of the bodies, but when they did it fell apart in their hands like overcooked meat.
Here and there found a melted metal button or a drop of copper that was once a tiny ring. But mostly they found only bones and ashes and clumps of scorched flesh. 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 was gathered the next day and buried in a common grave on a rise overlooking Mirror Lake. The bodies of the murdered elders were also recovered and buried near the girls.
In the dialect of the people of Lishi and there is no word for love. In place of that word, the people use the word “respect.” They say a husband and wife respect each other. For their parents they have profound respect. Children have great respect for their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. The people of Lishi had great respect for their daughters, who were lost in the fires that day in November, 1937. And they grieved their loss for a long time. Mothers blackened their faces with ashes for weeks . They wept loudly and could not be consoled. Then they spoke of each of the girls who were gone and would never be mothers, never be the women they were meant to be, never produce sons to help care for their parents and grandparents in their old age, would never worship their ancestors and preserve the village, would never remember Lishi. The villagers made up lives for the little girls and described how those lives might have been lived had the short devils not strayed from the road to Nanjing.
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 that day there would forever be an emptiness, an ache, that would, as long as they lived, remind them of their loss.
In Lishi that tragedy is remembered as "The Day they Burned the Virgins." It is commemorated each year with recollections of the girls. Children in the village school to the present day are told of the 1937 tragedy to remind them of the horrors of the Japanese occupation and of the tradition of bravery and obedience of the village girls to their parents. Their purity and their piety are praised and remembered. “They are in heaven now,” everyone says, even though we were atheists and officially did not believe in heaven. Still, people say, “They are all in heaven now.”
A few weeks after they passed through Lishi the short devils captured Nanjing and then butchered its inhabitants. They occupied all of Jiangsu province and established a district headquarters near Lishi in the town of Danyang. They came again and again in Lishi but they never stayed for long. They only wanted the rice and wheat and other crops when they were harvested. But they did not burn or stab any more of the villagers. They needed them to work and to grow crops. They left the villagers a small portion of the crops each year to feed themselves. When that was not enough, the villagers ate the grass and the bark from the trees and the wild animals they could find and finally they ate the earth itself. The villagers were always hungry. Many villagers starved to death in those years. And many of them did not.
As in all of the villages and cities throughout China, baby girls are considered a burden and baby boys a blessing. In difficult times the mortality rate for newborn girls climbs to nearly 100 percent. Yet in Lishi, because of the tragedy of 1937, girls were prized as much as boys during the years of the Japanese occupation and the mortality rate for newborn girls dropped nearly to the same as that for boys. This was unheard of both before and since that time.
For that reason, when my mother was born in the spring of 1941, in the fourth year of the Japanese occupation, she was warmly welcomed by her mother and father. They could not deny that they had hoped for a boy, however, and they expressed their wish in the name they gave to her. She was called Rongdi, which means, "glorify younger brother." A cousin, who was born six months later was also a girl. She, too, miraculously survived, and was named Dongdi, or “winter younger brother," indicating that she would remain to welcome a younger brother some day. Later, both families were blessed with sons .
The girls, Dongdi and Rongdi, grew up side by side in Lishi. When they were still very small they worked together in the fields with the other villagers. They were very close. People even said that they looked alike and sometimes mistook them for twins. They were, everyone realized, despite the fact that they were not boys, blessings to their family and to the village and worthy successors to the little burned girls.
Four years after the defeat of the short devils, the Communist armies liberated China from the Nationalists. When the liberators passed down the road near Lishi, Dongdi and Rongdi dressed in their finest clothes and danced and sang with other village children and threw flowers at the feet of the young soldiers. Later they joined the Young Pioneers and became leaders in the Communist youth movement. They were very red. In their late teens both girls became members of the Communist party and enthusiastic leaders in the local red brigade.
During the years of the Great Leap Forward, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two girls left the village, which was suffering from a severe famine. They rode the train to Shenyang and found work in a textile factory. They labored for three years in Shenyang, saved every cent they earned and sent it home. They lived on nearly nothing during that time. They ate only one meal each day -- breakfast. After work each day they were too tired to do anything but return to their dormitory room and sleep. They gladly made this sacrifice for their families and for the village.
They returned home in late 1962 and both of them married the next year. Rongdi, my mother, married a young man from the village who was trained as a veterinarian. She continued to work in the fields as a peasant on the collective farm that had been established after liberation. My aunt, Dongdi, married a man from Shanghai who had been a capitalist before liberation. He was sent by the party to our village for rehabilitation through labor in the fields. His family, two generation earlier, had lived in Lishi. He was accustomed to a soft life in the city and was very unhappy in our village. He was not a good worker. But the villagers accepted him because his roots were in Lishi. They believed that marriage to Dongdi would help rehabilitate 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 Dongdi did and would then carry his own weight.
I was born in the last week of 1963. Mao had said he wanted the people to have as many children as possible. My patriotic mother heeded his appeal and bore two more children in the next five years. But Dongdi and her husband had no children.
Four years after she had married him, Dongdi'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 official. A very serious complaint was required before officials granted a divorce. But Dongdi's husband, who wanted to move back to Shanghai and did not want to take his peasant wife with him, had just such a complaint.
To all outward appearances, Dongdi was a perfect wife. She was a hard worker and good cook. She kept her small home clean and a large picture of our great leader Chairman Mao Zedong was displayed prominently on each of its walls. She was a leader in community activities. Her only outward shortcoming was that she was childless, a source of great unhappiness for her. But the inability to bear a child was not an acceptable reason for a divorce.
When Dongdi's husband appeared before officials in Danyang to apply for a divorce he was asked the reason for his petition. "I demand a divorce," he said, "because my wife is not totally a woman.”
a moment of silence followed his blunt allegation. The officials were not sure what he was saying. One of them asked, “What do you mean when you tell us, ‘my 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 or a man. She is both. And I can no longer share a bed with her."
The officials were both stunned and scandalized by this revelation. During the rest of that day and the next news of his petition quickly spread. Soon everyone whispered about it, some blushed at the accusation, some shook their heads in disbelief and some laughed out loud. Dongdi became an object of curious attention. When she was told of her husband’s complaint and heard that he refused to return to live with her any longer, she went inside her house, closed the door and stayed there for several days, too ashamed and hurt 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. Dongdi was silent as they described, as delicately as possible, the details of her husband’s petition. When asked if what he said was true, she said nothing and covered her eyes with her hand and cried.
Dongdi was a simple woman. She was a peasant and a party member and had never aspired to be anything other than that. She actually understood little of the things that these two men told her. But she knew enough to be ashamed as she heard their words.
The officials saw that she would not respond to their questions directly so they said there was a way to demonstrate that her husband's charges were not true. She could go to a doctor in Danyang -- a woman doctor, 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 what her husband charged was true, and in that case the divorce would be granted.
Dongdi had never before visited a doctor. And she did not now respond to the request by the authorities. She was reminded several times that she could go to the hospital in Danyang for the examination. Ashamed as well as frightened, she stayed in Lishi. Four weeks later, Dongdi's husband was granted his divorce. He departed immediately for Shanghai. He never returned to the village. We never heard of him again.
In the next years, Dongdi's life was particularly unhappy. Villagers whispered and joked about her. Many of them avoided associating with her in any way. She became increasingly isolated. Children overheard fragments of the stories about her and, without understanding all they heard, whispered that Dongdi was not really a woman and not really a man. She was something else. They had no idea what that was. Occasionally, when Dongdi was working in her garden or in the common fields on the collective, there was snickering and whispering around her. Some children threw stones at her when her back was turned, called her names, and ran away. She was suddenly a freak in the village where her family had lived for centuries and where she had always been a good and faithful 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 did not go swimming with the other village women in Mirror Lake again, not even on occasions when the entire community, in honor of Chairman Mao, who swam in the Yangste river, went swimming. She lived alone, without children and without a husband.
Yet she struggled to remain a model party member. She was invariably the first to arrive at party meetings and the last to leave. She shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao!” louder and more enthusiastically than anyone else. She worked hard in the fields. There was no denying that she was very red. Yet no one openly expressed praise or admiration for her as they had in the past, or, with the exception of my mother, visited her in her home.
In school we read the story of a prince in ancient China who was so beautiful that the people stared him to death. I felt that the way people stared at Dongdi without speaking to her might also kill her. Or, at least, it might make her move away from our village. But she did not move. She stayed in Lishi. And I was happy about that because I respected my red aunt very much.
In a way, I followed in Dongdi’s footsteps. I was very red as a child and I believed absolutely in the words and ways of Chairman Mao. When I was seven, I became the lead dancer in the Little Red Flowers dance troop that performed at party meetings and at commune functions. I sang the loudest when we sang praises to Chairman Mao and told the heavens above that the East was Red and that Chairman Mao was the Sun. I was always happy, always smiling, always memorizing simple statements from Chairman Mao. At a local party meeting I stood on a chair and shouted out twenty directives from Chairman Mao, perfectly, to the delight and pride of my parents, my aunt and all other villagers. I wore a vermillion scarf around my neck every day to attest to my beliefs and dedication. For me, and for the other villagers, Chairman Mao was God.
As I grew older I became aware that Dongdi paid more attention to me than to my sister or brother. She gave me gifts -- new shoes and pencils, paper, ink and brushes for school. I had never owned real leather shoes until Dongdi gave me a pair. She wanted to give me everything I needed from her saved wages. She went without in order to give gifts to me. Finally, she wanted me to be her daughter.
Shortly after the birth of my younger sister, Dongdi visited our home. She pointed out that my mother had three children and a husband and a full and happy life. She worked hard and served the people and the party, she said, but she had no children and no husband. She was lonely, she confessed, and her personal life was empty. She wanted a child. She said, "I would like you to give me Meihong to be my daughter." She respected me, she said. She could provide for me better than my parents could. She also said she needed someone to care for her and provide for her in her old age.
My mother, somewhat surprised by the request, promised to talk to my father about it. She said she understood Dongdi’s feelings. Everyone needed a child to care for them in their later years.
And so my mother spoke to my father about this. At first he said he would never give away any of his children. My mother cried out of pity for Dongdi and reminded him of her kindness and her loneliness. Finally, my father agreed that if Dongdi would take my younger sister, then perhaps they might reach an agreement.
When Dongdi was offered my sister, she said no. She said she wanted only me. My father refused. My mother agreed with him. So there was nothing more to talk about. Throughout the next years, however, Dongdi treated me as her daughter. She continued to provide me with school supplies, and books and clothing. Many times she walked to the 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. She had a respect for me that I welcomed. I enjoyed her attention and I responded to it. She took me to party meetings and then brought me to her home to cook for me. She was not just my aunt. Dongdi was my special aunt, my red aunt.
My mother was not always happy with this situation. Sometimes she was embarrassed. She asked Dongdi, several times, not to give me so much. I was being spoiled, she said, and my younger brother and sister were becoming jealous. Again my mother offered Dongdi my sister to raise as her own child. But again Dongdi refused. She wanted me she said.
So Dongdi became my second mother.
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 renewed revolutionary rapture. Especially Dongdi. She became a leader of the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards, shouting out support for Chairman Mao with ever more conviction and enthusiasm. At night there were torchlight parades and rallies and denunciations of revisionists, rightists 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 and the countryside. On weekends, the children were organized to scour the surrounding area in search of landlords plotting against the revolution. For a child, it was a very exciting time as we hunted down the monsters in our midst.
Then a troubling series of incidents began. Just as the posters appeared praising Mao and the revolution, counter-revolutionary graffiti appeared in our village and in surrounding villages. Some of it was simple: a picture of Chairman Mao or Comrade Jiang Qing, his wife, might have an X across it, meaning they should be killed. Executed prisoners always had their names or pictures X'd out in public. Then several smaller posters appeared stating simply, "Down With Chairman Mao. Down with Jiang Qing. Down With the Party.”
The source of these counter-revolutionary signs was a mystery. Mass meetings were held to show the defaced banners and graffiti and to denounce the counter-revolutionaries responsible.
No one was above suspicion. Anyone could be the criminal. 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.
A friend of the girl's family saw this. She reported the teacher to the local party cadres. The teacher was summoned in the middle of the night to appear before party officials. She was questioned about the public anti-Mao graffiti. She was shocked by the accusations and denied having anything to do with it. She was asked why she had drawn an X through the name of Chairman Mao on the student’s paper. She tried to explain that this is what she always did when a character was misdrawn. The excuse seemed suspicious to the party officials and that very night the teacher was removed from her post and judged unqualified to teach. She was sent into the fields to work as a peasant and replaced by a more politically alert teacher.
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 to describe our feelings about Chairman Mao. We were asked as a group and then individually if we had written the counter-revolutionary slogans. We were asked if we knew who might have done this. We were admonished to watch each other, to report any suspicious statements or actions of our family and our classmates. We were encouraged to denounce each other, just as we had seen the adults denounce each other in the village and the brigade rallies. We were encouraged to report our teachers if they said or did anything suspicious or in any way demeaned or questioned Chairman Mao or Comrade Jiang Qing. We were reminded that we were surrounded by rightists and counter-revolutionaries. They might be our teachers or our parents, our brothers or sisters or classmates. We were thrilled by the delicious prospect of uncovering and punishing the counter-revolutionaries.
Each day we attended political rallies at the school. We sang -- or rather we shouted --revolutionary songs and denunciations of rightists! Yet the counter-revolutionary graffiti continued. And whenever it appeared all of the students were marched outside to examine the signs and slogans and then we were asked to 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 startled from our sleep 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 attempting to infiltrate our village.
My mother returned several hours later . I listened from my bed as she whispered nervously to my father. She was 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 often stored and where general party gatherings were convened. It began at 8:00 AM 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 small wooden stage stood at one end of the square. A very somber looking party official finally appeared, walked to the center of the stage and announced that the meeting was postponed for one 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 anti-revolutionary activities.
Then the local party secretary came to the stage. She announced that the counter-revolutionary responsible for the anti-Chairman Mao graffiti had been identified. This was a serious crime, she shouted, 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 Dongdi! Down with Xu Dongdi! Down with Xu Dongdi!"
There was a moment of silence and an audible gasp from the crowd. But then everyone joined in the chant, “Down with Xu Dongdi! Down with Xu Dongdi!” which became louder each time it was repeated.
The words, the loud hateful chanting, hit me like fists. I became momentarily dizzy and leaned against my father. I didn't understand. I stood there stunned by the sound of her name. I had never heard her say anything disparaging about the party or Chairman Mao. On the contrary, she was the model party member and revolutionary, the model peasant. My red aunt was a counter revolutionary and an agent of the rightists? She had always been so kind and so generous. Maybe that was why, I thought! Of course, it was. She had been attempting to recruit me into the ranks of the counter-revolutionaries all along. She had been above suspicion -- the perfect cover for a rightist.
The party secretary waved to stop the chanting. Then she said, "Xu Dongdi has admitted her crime. She has confessed! And she will be punished severely."
During the next days the details of the arrest and confession spread through the village. From the moment the first graffiti appeared, officials began detaining and interrogating suspects. Some were held in jail for several days. The police initially pursued the most obvious suspects --a group of boys identified as hooligans and trouble makers. These were boys who were never serious at party brigade meetings, who flirted with the girls when they should have been paying attention to speakers, were lax in their field work and did poorly in school. Most of them dressed in a defiantly unrevolutionary style and a few even curled their hair. The party had, in response to this, decreed that no young man who curled his hair could become a party member. But the hooligans laughed at that and told people that they were glad about the policy because they never wanted to join the party anyway. Eventually a dozen hooligans were held in the local jail and questioned over the course of a week. But none broke down and confessed, even when they were beaten. While they were detained the slogans continued to appear.
The police decided to charge three of the hooligans with the crime and to punish them anyway as a warning to the real criminal. This was the practice known as killing the chicken to frighten the monkey. It worked. During the first day of the secret trial of the boys, Dongdi appeared before the party secretary and said that she was the real criminal. The party secretary refused to believe her. She said she believed that Dongdi, out of a misplaced patriotic desire to save the village from denunciation by higher party officials, was willing to take the responsibility for the crimes. It was a selfless gesture, she said. But it would not work. The authorities wanted the real criminal. Dongdi was ordered to return home and told to stop confessing to crimes she could not possibly have committed.
Dongdi persisted. She returned the following day and confessed again and was again reprimanded and sent home. She returned a third time with newspapers from which the pictures of Chairman Mao had been cut. She said that she had cut out the pictures and pasted them up and then X’d them out.
The party secretary examined the newspapers. She was dumbfounded. What Dongdi said was true! Then she asked how Dongdi of all people could do this. Dongdi only said that she was confessing because she felt that the young innocent men being tried for her crimes should be released. One of them was her younger brother. She said her mother’s heart was broken by his treatment. He was suffering for her crimes. Dongdi was placed in a jail cell and the boys were sternly warned about their behavior and sent home.
Several weeks after the rally announcing the capture of Dongdi another brigade rally was called. This time, the village square was surrounded by red flags the size of bed sheets and by huge posters denouncing the crimes of Dongdi and all other enemies of the revolution and the people. Posters proclaimed in large characters that if she was not severely punished, the "anger of the people will not cease." One sign I remember particularly proclaimed: “Dongdi is not a woman! Dongdi is not a man! Dongdi is a traitor! Death to Dongdi!”
At the start of the rally the party secretary and other cadres pushed Dongdi onto the stage. She was wearing a tall pointed dunce’s cap and from her neck hung a placard with her name X’d out and a description of her crimes. The characters for “woman” and “wife” were also X’d out on the placard. She stumbled when she walked. She was barefooted. Her hands were bound tightly behind her at the wrists and elbows. She was bent forward at an awkward angle -- the “airplane position”-- and stared blankly at the ground. Whenever she raised her head just a bit, I could see that the left side of her face was swollen and bruised and her eye was completely shut. Her lips also were swollen and cracked. She'd lost weight, and her clothes hung loosely on her body. One after another the party cadres stepped forward, denounced her, and then slapped her face. When they slapped her, the crowd cheered.
Finally the sentence was read: Dongdi was stripped of her party membership and sentenced to ten years in prison. She was told she was lucky to escape the death penalty.
Dongdi’s mother stood in the front row of the rally surrounded by a dozen Red Guards. She was a good hard-working widow who worried about her daughter because Dongdi was divorced and had no husband or children to support her in her old age. During the denunciations and the slapping of Dongdi she became ill. She fainted and fell to the ground. She was revived and the party cadre screamed from the stage for her to remain standing. When she tried to look away, one of the Red Guards held her by the ears and kept her facing the stage. They demanded that she denounce her daughter. In a whisper she said what they told her to say -- “Down with Xu Dongdi! Long live Chairman Mao! Long live Comrade Jiang Qing!” Then she fainted again and was once more propped up by Red Guards who continued to berate her, condemning her for fainting, shrieking that she was an enemy of the people, that she was betraying her sympathy for a criminal. A Red Guard stepped to the stage and shouted that Dongdi’s mother was “revisionist trash” and should be punished for it. Dongdi stood silently listening to the denunciations of her mother.
Finally Dongdi was shoved from the stage. Red Guards dragged her mother home and continued to denounce her for showing sympathy for her traitorous daughter. The next day they checked to see that she was at work in the fields beside her hooligan son who, several days after Dongdi’s arrest, was severely beaten and had his head shaved by the Red Guards. Dongdi’s mother tried get a medical excuse for three-day absence from labor but the Red Guards made sure that no doctor dared issue the document. For days Red Guards followed her and admonished her, and whenever anyone approached her to say a word or to speak to her about anything, they jumped in to warn him off. She was shamed before the village because of the crimes of her daughter. And even though she was not sent to prison, everyone agreed that she should not escape punishment. So she became an outcast. Everyone was told to avoid her, to denounce her, to have nothing to do with her. She had raised a daughter who was a traitor and a son who was a hooligan and brought shame to the entire village.
I saw her often after that. She was always alone and frightened it seemed, even of the children. I stayed away from her. Sometimes when I saw her, I could see she had been crying. But I didn't understand what was happening. I was young and indoctrinated by the Party. I was still very red.
I felt especially uneasy because I had once been very close to this woman. My sister had been sick and needed constant medical attention during her first year of life. My mother worked each day in the fields and spent her spare time with my sister in the hospital. Dongdi lived with her husband at that time and did work for the Party every evening. So I was sent to live temporarily with Dongdi’s mother. She kept me in her house and I slept beside her in her bed. Many nights she took me to see the operas of Comrade Jiang Qing that were performed by traveling companies in nearby villages. At the performances she bought me fruit and other good things to eat. At night, when it was cold, she filled hot water bottles and put them in bed with me, two of them, one for my hands and one for my feet. I fell asleep each night beside her and I felt safe. I remember her waking some times in the middle of the night to put extra blankets over me. I promised myself that when I grew up I would do good things for this woman, too.
But when terrible things happened to her, I did nothing to protect her. Instead, I shunned her. I was afraid and confused. I didn’t know what else I should do. My heart was torn between my love for Chairman Mao and the revolution and my memories of this woman’s kindness. But in the end I loved Chairman Mao more than I loved her.
I was leader of the Young Pioneers in school. Each day the students read aloud short articles about things that were happening in the country. The stories always concluded with warnings about the enemies among us and then gave instructions on how to capture rightists and make them confess. Theoretically, that seemed easy. But when Dongdi and her mother were named enemies of the people I had difficulty sorting out in my feelings. Dongdi in particular had always been my special auntie, but on the other hand she sought to destroy the society around us by destroying Chairman Mao. I really didn’t understand why.
Nevertheless, I wrote articles about Dongdi and read them aloud in class. I wrote that I hated her and that all students should hate her. But this was nonsense. I copied the articles about other accused criminals from the party newspaper and I changed the names. Yet that was accepted as scholarship for the young during the Cultural Revolution. We were instructed to copy official party publications and put our names on them. We were praised for this. Sometimes several student wrote word for word the same essay, and all received the highest grade. The teachers dare not give anything less than an “A” for such work, or risk their career and their lives. Some students didn't have access to the newspapers so they had difficulty putting together colorful denunciations. My father, however, received the People's Daily at his office each day, and I copied it.
In one article I wrote that after the death of Lin Biao I saw Dongdi “cry as hard as she would as if her own mother had died.” At that time, Lin Biao, formerly a hero of the revolution, was considered an arch-traitor to Chairman Mao. I copied the denunciation from the description of another woman in the People's Daily and inserted Dongdi’s name in it. The teachers, as expected, lauded my plagiarism. But my mother was unhappy with the piece. She asked me to stop writing denunciations of Dongdi. “Dongdi is guilty of no crime,” she said. “None!”
I could hardly believe what I heard. Until that moment I thought of my mother as a faithful and spotless revolutionary. Suddenly, I suspected my mother was a counter-revolutionary, along with my red aunt. It seemed obvious. They had been so close over the years. They had probably worked together to discredit Chairman Mao. I thought about becoming a People’s Hero by turning in my mother at school and telling my new revolutionary teachers what she’d said. I was almost convinced that such an action not only would help correct the thought of the counter-revolutionary individual, but also would save the village and the country.
I became more suspicious when I overheard conversations between parents late at night, when they thought I was asleep. Our house had just one room divided by curtains. So I could hear any conversation, even one that was whispered. During the day in public my mother was a proper revolutionary. She was head of the party village committee and denounced Dongdi in public, properly and with the prescribed phrases but without enough genuine enthusiasm, I thought. But at night, with my father, I heard her say things sympathetic to my aunt. She said she knew that Dongdi was innocent. She said that the hooligans had caused all the anti-Mao mischief and that Dongdi took the blame for them. She said Dongdi’s brother had tearfully told her this and had asked her what he should do. She said she told him to say nothing more about it, ever. Nothing could be done to help Dongdi now, she said. It was too late. But she was deeply troubled. She knew that when she did not go directly to the party secretary with the story, she had become a criminal, too, and could be punished.
She did consider visiting Dongdi in prison. My parents discussed what repercussions such a visit might have on their status in the village. My father was against it. But my mother brought it up again and again and pondered the implications of such an action. In the end, she did not make the visit.
I became the leading student in my school in speaking out against my Dongdi. After one of my more colorful denunciations, however, another girl asked if we should not be suspicious of those who were related to this traitor. We should open our eyes and look around, she suggested, and see who these people were. We should ask if these people might not try to avoid suspicion, despite the fact that they were infected with counter-revolutionary ideas, through their own criticism of Dongdi. I ignored what she said and pretended I didn't understand. But I was frightened by this direction in the discussion. The other students looked at me differently after that, I felt. I decided that turning in my mother might actually backfire and bring me under more suspicion. So I kept my concerns to myself and gave up the idea of becoming a hero of the people. In doing that, I knew I secretly shared in my mother’s guilt.
The teachers ignored my relationship with my aunt, and that saved me. I continued to copy articles and give speeches warning other students about the traitors in our midst. I knew I had to stay very red and I did. And so I survived the scandal of Dongdi’s crime.
Following the death of Mao and the fall of the Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four in the autumn of 1976, thousands of political prisoners were released. But my aunt remained in prison. She was not freed until 1978.
She had been sent to the Li Yan labor camp about 100 miles from our village. Many political prisoners were sentenced to this camp for reeducation through hard labor. She worked in a factory there that made gloves for export and for domestic consumption. The idea behind the sentence was that criminals have to be made to work and to work hard. But when she returned to the village she never talked about her prison camp years. And we never brought it up.
I heard later that when they were about to set her free from the camp, she asked them to be allowed to remain in the camp. She said she didn’t want to go home. "I have no home but this one", she told the camp supervisor He was surprised by her request and asked her more about her reasons. "I have lived here for several years and I know the people. I want to stay with them." If she returned home it would be a shame for her elderly mother, her brother and her cousins to have her nearby. She explained that she had been an outcast in the village long before she was sentenced to the camp. She would suffer more if she was sent home than if she stayed. She didn’t want her old life back. "I have no husband and no children. Why should I go back. I want to stay here."
The supervisor was sympathetic. But he explained that there was no policy for letting people stay in the camp who had served their time. She had to return to her former work unit. The state, which had sentenced her to the camp, required that she go home.
When she came home, I hardly recognized her. Her hair had turned grey and her posture had deteriorated. She walked with a slight tired stoop. Several of her teeth were missing. Her nose had been broken at some time and was thick and slightly crooked in the middle where it had not healed properly. She seemed to have become old and looked more like my mother's mother than like a twin sister.
There was little forgiveness for her in Lishi. She had spent time in prison. To the people of the village this was a stigma that stayed with you all of your life, no matter what the crime. And there was the added stigma, which wasn’t forgotten, from her divorce and from the accusations of her former husband.
She moved into a small dwelling beside the rice paddies. In her spare time she tended her own garden. She visited her mother and cooked for her. But except for my mother she had few visitors or friends herself. My mother visited her, often, late at night. They sat at a table in the dark and reminisced and drank tea. But my mother appeared not to want others to see this. And we didn't talk about it to others.
My aunt continued to respect me very much and often demonstrated it. She approached me, sometimes, when I was nearby and waved or motioned to me to come to her. But I pretended that I didn’t see her. I kept my distance. I was warned at school that she had a political disease, and the germs were dormant but still deadly. Anyone close to her might catch the disease and be infected by the it. Like almost everyone else in the village, I suspected her and I feared her.
In 1981, I was one of 12 girls selected nationwide to attend the People's Liberation Army Institute for International Relations in Nanjing. This meant I was to be inducted into the PLA just before school began and upon graduation would be commissioned as an officer. All of the village was proud of me and celebrated. When my mother told Dongdi of our good fortune, it seemed she was more animated in her joy than anyone else in the village. She asked if she might give me a banquet before I left for the military academy. My mother said it was impossible and that the family and other friends had already taken up all of my spare time with banquets. Dongdi then suggested that instead of a banquet, she could buy me new clothing for school. My mother told her I was going into the Army and that I would be wearing a uniform, that I had no use for new clothing. She said that I needed nothing for school and that all of my needs had been taken care of.
Then late one evening as we were preparing for bed, there was a soft tapping on our door. It was Dongdi. She said she had a gift for me, and she pressed a small red envelope into my hand and left as quietly as she had come. I opened the envelope as my father and mother looked on. It contained 200 Yuan(about $40). Usually, on special celebrations, family members and relatives in the village gave a five Yuan gift, which was considered generous. Dongdi’s gift was incredible -- a huge amount of money for that time. I, as a young girl, was delighted even at holding this much. My mother, however, insisted that I could not keep it. So we walked to my aunt's house to return the money. My mother knocked softly on the door and my aunt answered without lighting a lamp. The two old friends whispered to each other in the dark as I stood beside my mother. They spoke softly and rapidly, sometimes their voices breaking. My aunt didn't understand why I could not keep the money. It was her life’s savings, she said. She had no use for it, herself. She asked if she could buy me a watch instead. My mother said she had already given me a good watch, a Dr. Sun Yat Sen brand, Chinese made, that cost 25 Yuan, very expensive. Dongdi begged my mother to let me keep the money. My mother pushed it back again and again and said I could not accept it. Finally, I heard my auntie’s voice break and she began to cry. "I have always respected this little girl. Since the day she was born. I wanted her. She is like my daughter, my only child. I am proud of her, too. I am as proud as you. I just want to contribute something to make her life easier -- easier than my life. If you refuse this now, you are totally denying me. You are like everyone else in this village. I will be deeply hurt. I won’t want to live any longer."
I listened to her crying and then watched her drop to her knees before my mother, wrap her arms around my mother's legs and between sobs beg my mother to let me accept her gift. My mother stood silently and I watched her hands gently caress Dongdi's hair as she cried. In the starlight I saw the shimmer of tears on my mother’s face. And then I heard her say,”Ok. She can keep it.”
Dongdi rose, embraced my mother and thanked her. We turned and walked back to our house. As we walked my mother told me, "Never forget your auntie, Meihong. Never.” She was crying as she said this. “Remember what you saw tonight. Dongdi has always had great respect for you. Always. No matter what she has done or what is said about her, she is a good woman. She has always respected you. Remember that."
Three years later, during my junior year at the military academy I received a letter from my mother telling me that Dongdi was about to be married. I was naturally shocked when I read this. When I returned home for the spring festival, I learned what had happened.
Dongdi was over 40 years old at the time. She told my mother that she wanted to be married, but there were no suitors. There was a blind man in our village, and he could find no wife. He was very lonely. My auntie let my mother know that she would marry him. My mother agreed to become the go between and went to this man and his family. But when she proposed marriage to Dongdi, they were insulted. "How dare you," they said. "She is not even a woman! How can she marry our son?"
Dongdi's mother also opposed the idea. "You no longer need a man in your life," she said. "You are too old. Forget it. You have no need for that kind of trouble again."
In 1984, however, a suitor appeared. He was an elderly man -- 15 years older than Dongdi-- who had been born and raised in our village, and then had moved to Shanghai where he had become a successful manufacturer. He had four daughters who were married and lived with their husbands. His wife had died and left him alone. He wanted a wife from his home village and so he returned to Lishi to find one.
Someone -- we didn’t know for a while who it was-- let him know that Dongdi too was seeking a spouse.
Dongdi was told of the man and she asked to be introduced to him. One afternoon he visited her. He was immediately attracted to her and she to him. They talked all afternoon and into the evening. She prepared dinner for him and the two sat in chairs outside her house talking most of the night. They did not light the lamps when it became dark.
Then the man proposed that rather than return to the home of his relatives, he stay the night with Dongdi in her house. This was unheard of in our village. The man explained that they were both adults and they should not care what others said now. They had both been married, and they obviously respected each other. They should do what they alone believed was proper in this special case.
Dongdi, naturally, had fears about this. But it was not the censure of the villagers that gave her pause at this moment. She already had that. She still had doubts, however, about her own feminine nature. Her life had been little more than misfortune and tragedy. But she had strong feelings for this man now, powerful feelings she had never before felt, and she said yes, he could stay in her house, in her bed, that night. And so he stayed that night with her.
The next morning, as always, the adults and children walked to the open market to buy vegetables and meat for the coming day. The man came to the market alone, and people caught glimpses of Dongdi cooking in her house. Had he abandoned her? Was he angry? Disappointed? What had happened? Everyone was curious. But the man bought some meat and vegetables, said nothing, and returned to her house. They were not seen again that day and that night.
On the following day, again, early in the morning, he walked to the market, bought a few items, and returned to Dongdi's home. Again, they were not seen for the rest of the day and night.
On the next day he walked to the market again. Then he came to our house. He knew my mother had been Dongdi's best friend, knew of their growing up and travels together. He said he had news for my mother. She invited him in and served tea. He sat down at a table, lit a cigarette and sat quietly for several minutes. He said there was something he wanted to discuss with her. My mother suspected the worst --questions about her knowledge of Dongdi's past. But instead he said, "Dongdi and I are marrying. She is moving to Shanghai with me. We plan to marry as soon as the necessary paperwork can be done. I wanted to thank you for sending me to her."
My mother was surprised and delighted. "Good," was all she could say. "Good." She smiled broadly when she spoke.
"Something else," he said.
“What is it?” my mother asked.
"About her ex-husband and the stories he told. About the divorce. You know the story," he said.
"Yes, I heard the story," my mother admitted and avoided looking into his eyes.
"Well, I want you to know that her husband was a lying bastard. He made up that story. And Dongdi has suffered for nearly 20 years because of it. Dongdi is a woman. All woman. More than that. She is a perfect woman."
In the next days, Dongdi and her fiancee were very romantic. He gave her a wedding ring--and few people in the village gave a ring at that time when they married. Few could afford one. They took the train to Nanjing one morning and returned that night with new clothes and jewelry. Then they departed for Shanghai, where they were married.
They returned to Lishi for the spring festival that year. I saw her then for the first time in more than two years. She was smiling and laughing like a girl again. I noticed right away that she walked straighter and held her head higher. She was happier than I had ever seen her before. My wedding gift to my auntie and her new husband was a small red envelope containing 200 yuan.
That summer they came back to the village permanently. They moved into her small house. He gave his apartment in Shanghai to his daughters. He worked in her garden with Dongdi and in the fields beside her, like a peasant. In the summer, women carried umbrella's to protect their skin from the sun. But he always carried Dongdi’s umbrella and walked beside her. Most shocking of all, they held hands, when they walked in the countryside. Sometimes they even paused and Dongdi’s husband kissed her on the hand or on the cheek. The villagers were scandalized. They had never before seen this kind of brazen behavior. Indeed, I had never before seen a man and woman embrace or hold hands or in any way publicly reveal romantic feelings. I was utterly fascinated when I watched them.
Naturally, people whispered about them. There was something very different about these two. They made people uncomfortable.
In the autumn, they walked each night down the winding paths, along the shore of Mirror lake and past the haystacks piled high in the fields. They held hands as they walked. Now and then they paused and Dongdi told him things she remembered about life in the village. She told him about time the short devils came to Lishi and about the little burned girls. One of the girls was her older sister. And when she told him they both cried. She told him how she had been welcomed to the village when she was born, even though she was a girl. He told her about his life in Shanghai and about the rise and fall of his family there, and about his loneliness before he met her.
People who watched them couldn’t understand why they never seemed to tire of each other’s company and why they continued to behave the way they did. It was a mystery. They tried to explain it -- but they couldn’t. In our dialect, after all, there was no word to describe what this man and woman felt for each other. But everyone sensed it was something much deeper than respect.