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Authors: Xinran

Tags: #Social Science, #Anthropology, #Cultural, #Women's Studies

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices (9 page)

BOOK: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices
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On my return from Beijing, I could not stop myself from going straight to the scrap castle instead of heading home first. Before I knocked on the Scavenger Woman’s door, I hesitated. The Chinese say, ‘In this world, there is no love without a reason, there is no hate without a cause.’ How could I explain the thought behind my gift to her, when I could not explain it to myself?
The Scavenger Woman took the box respectfully in both hands, deeply moved. Normally impassive, she was clearly shaken by the sight of the chocolates. She told me that her husband had loved this type of liqueur chocolates – just as I had guessed, people of that generation thought the best things were Soviet – and that she had not seen them for more than thirty years.
Calm gradually returned to her face, and at last she asked why I had given her such an expensive gift.
‘Because we are both women, and I want to hear your story,’ I said with a frankness that surprised myself.
‘. . . All right then!’ The Scavenger Woman seemed to have come to a momentous decision. ‘But not here, there are no walls here. Nobody, least of all a woman, would allow everyone to see the scars on their breast.’
We walked to a small hill in the botanical gardens, where only the trees and I could hear the Scavenger Woman’s tale.
Her story was fragmented. She did not expand on causes or consequences, and I got the strong impression that she was still unwilling to put her experiences fully on display. Her words only opened the box that she enclosed herself in, but did not lift the veil from her face.
As a young man, the Scavenger Woman’s husband had studied in Moscow for three years, and entered politics not long after he came back. This coincided with the terrible events of the Great Leap Forward. Under the care of the Party, which pulled strings and built bridges for him, he married the Scavenger Woman. Just as her whole family was rejoicing over the birth of their second child, her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. By the end of the following year, her younger child had died of scarlet fever. The pain of losing her husband and child made the Scavenger Woman lose the courage to carry on living. One day she took her remaining child to the bank of the Yangtze River to seek a reunion with her husband and baby in her next life.
On the bank of the Yangtze, she was just getting ready to bid life farewell when her son asked innocently, ‘Are we going to see Papa?’
The Scavenger Woman was shocked: how could a five-year-old know what was in her heart? She asked her son, ‘What do you think?’
He answered loudly, ‘Of course we’re going to see Papa! But I didn’t bring my toy car to show him!’
She started crying, and did not ask her son any other questions. She realised that he was very much aware of what she was feeling. He understood that his father was no longer in the same world as they were, but like all young children, had no clear understanding of the difference between life and death. Her tears revived her maternal feelings and sense of duty. She cried with the child in her arms, letting the rushing of the river wash away her weakness and give her strength. Then she picked up her suicide note and took her son back home.
Her child asked her, ‘Aren’t we going to see Papa then?’
She replied, ‘Papa’s too far away, and you are too little to go there. Mama will help you to grow up, so you can take more, and better, things to him.’
After that, the Scavenger Woman did all that a single mother could to give her son the best of everything. She said he had gone on to achieve great success.
But why did her son, who must be married and established in a career by now, allow his mother, who had toiled for him all his life, to be reduced to the condition of a scavenger? ‘Where is your child? Why . . . ?’ I asked falteringly.
The Scavenger Woman did not give a direct reply. She only said that no one could describe a mother’s heart. She hinted firmly that I was to enquire no further.
The New Year was over and Spring Festival was approaching. This is the most important festival of the year for the Chinese, and many people use it as an opportunity to solidify their business contacts. Every year, officials in the media do particularly well out of the festival. Irrespective of rank, they receive stacks of presents and dozens of invitations to social events. Even though I was only a humble presenter at the time, with no official power, I was still sought after by wealthy and influential people because of the popularity of my programme. Their attention was not a recognition of my own achievements, but of the importance of my listeners. All officials in China know the ancient teaching passed down from the Tang dynasty: ‘Water supports a boat, it can also capsize it.’ Ordinary people like my listeners were the water, and the officials were the boat.
Among the bright red-and-gold invitations I received was one from a newly appointed high flyer in the city council. Rumour had it that this young man was capable of great things; he had hopes of becoming one of the chosen few who went on to become cadres at provincial level. I very much wanted to know what special qualities this man – who was only a few years older than me – had, to be able to negotiate his way through the labyrinth of Chinese politics. I decided to attend his reception dinner; the invitation specified a Western-style self-service buffet, which would be something new.
The dinner was held at the politician’s home, which, while not a mansion, was very impressive. The sitting room alone could have made four or five bedsits for single people like me. Because I had arrived rather late, the room was already filled with the chatter of the crowd and the clink of glasses. My hostess carefully introduced me to several important people in order of their rank. An irreverent thought flashed into my mind: when these exalted personages went to the toilet, did they have to go in hierarchical order? If so, the lower ranks must suffer terribly.
The Western buffet was sumptuous, and seemed authentic enough, if the pictures I had seen in magazines were anything to go by. To demonstrate that she was giving the women from the media special treatment, the zealous hostess, in a show of intimacy, called the few female news journalists to her bedroom, and brought out a box of liqueur chocolates she had put aside specially for us.
I was thunderstruck: the chocolates was identical to the ones I had given the Scavenger Woman. The hostess opened the box. Inside the lid were the lyrics to the Russian folk song ‘Grasslands’ that I had copied out by hand for the Scavenger Woman as a gesture of goodwill for the new year.
This powerful family was as far removed from the Scavenger Woman’s scrap castle as the heavens from the earth. How had the chocolates arrived here? My brain was feverish with questions and my pulse quickened. I had no desire to stay any longer at the banquet, so made a hurried excuse and set off for the scrap castle, running like a woman possessed.
The Scavenger Woman was not there. I waited for a long time until she returned late that night. As soon as she saw me she burst out excitedly, ‘New Year and Spring Festival are the busy season for collecting rubbish. In all the litter bins, big or small, there is a lot of food still in its packaging, and useful everyday things that people have thrown out. Honestly, the age we live in . . . People have forgotten what hard times are like.’
I could contain myself no longer, and interrupted her to ask baldly, ‘Why have I just seen the box of chocolates I gave you in the house of an up-and-coming politician? Did someone steal them? What’s been going on?’
The Scavenger Woman listened to this torrent of questions with a complex expression on her face. She was shaking visibly, but with a great effort she brought herself under control and replied, ‘After Spring Festival we can fix a time, and I’ll tell you.’
After that, she shut her door and paid no further attention to me. I stood there stunned. The wind chimes tinkling in the freezing wind finally roused me from my trance, and I started for home.
Spring Festival seemed to drag on endlessly. I was filled with remorse. Living alone in that flimsy shack battered by the wind and rain, with no friends or family, the last thing the Scavenger Woman had needed was the burden of my insensitive questions. I thought about going to visit her, but I knew that her words had been final: after Spring Festival it would have to be.
On my first day back at work after the holiday, I hurried to the office very early. When I passed the scrap castle, I saw that the door was padlocked. The Scavenger Woman always left very early too. This was not surprising: who would want to sleep late in a tiny shack that gave protection from neither heat nor cold? At the entrance to the radio station, the gatekeeper called out to say that someone had left a letter for me the day before. Many listeners took the trouble to deliver their letters personally. They seemed to think this was more secure, and more likely to get my attention. I thanked the gatekeeper, but took no particular notice of the letter, dropping it in my in-tray as I was passing.
That day I nipped outside four or five times to check on the scrap castle, but the door was always locked and the Scavenger Woman was nowhere to be seen. I was beginning to feel slightly put out that she had not kept her word, but was determined to wait for her. I wanted to apologise, and to clear up the incident over the chocolates. I decided to stay at the office until the late shift, and read my letters.
At about 8.20 in the evening, I went out once more, but the door to the scrap castle was still locked. I wondered why she was still out. Were the pickings so great? Back in my office, I continued reading my letters. The next letter I opened was written in a delicate, beautiful hand. The writer was obviously a highly educated woman, one who had received the very best education. I was rooted to the spot by what I read.
Dear Xinran,
Thank you. Thank you for your programme – I listen every day. Thank you for your sincerity – it has been many years since I have had a friend. Thank you for the box of Russian liqueur chocolates – it reminded me that I am a woman who once had a husband.
I gave the chocolates to our son. I thought he would enjoy them as much as his father once did.
It is very difficult for a son to live with his mother, and very difficult for his wife. I do not want to disrupt my son’s life, or give him a hard time trying to keep the balance between his wife and his mother. However, I find it impossible to escape my female nature and the lifelong habits of a mother. I live as I do in order to be close to my son, to catch a glimpse of him as he goes to work early every morning, Please don’t tell him this. He thinks that I have been living in the countryside all this time.
Xinran, I’m sorry, but I’m leaving. I am a teacher of foreign languages, and I should return to the countryside to teach more children. As you once said on your programme, old people should have a space of their own in which to weave a beautiful old age for themselves.
Please forgive my coldness to you. I have given all the warmth in me to my son, his father continues in him.
Wishing you a happy and peaceful Spring Festival,
Scavenger Woman
The Rubbish Hut
I could understand why the Scavenger Woman had left. She had allowed me to see into her heart and her shame would not let her face me again. I felt sorry that I had driven her away from her carefully constructed world but also sorry that she had burned herself up to give light to her children, only to resign herself to being cast aside. Her sole faith was in her identity as a mother.
I kept the Scavenger Woman’s secret, and never told her son how she had watched over him. But I never went to his house again, since the Scavenger Woman, whose memory I treasured, had never even crossed its threshold. Although he appeared so wealthy, she was the one who was truly rich.
5
The Mothers Who Endured an Earthquake
When my colleague Xiao Yao had her baby, I arranged to visit her in hospital with several other women from the office. Mengxing was very excited, as she had never been to a maternity ward. Director Zhang from the External Affairs Office warned her not to go: in China, women who have not given birth are believed to bring bad luck to newborn children. Mengxing dismissed this as an old wives’ tale, and went to the hospital ahead of us.
We arrived at the hospital laden with food for Xiao Yao: brown sugar and ginseng for her blood, pigs’ trotters and fish to help her breastfeed, and chicken and fruit to build up her constitution. As we entered the room, we saw Mengxing chatting to Xiao Yao. She was eating one of the boiled eggs dyed red to symbolise happiness at the birth of a new child.
Xiao Yao’s parents and parents-in-law were there too, and the room was filled with gifts. Xiao Yao looked happy and surprisingly fresh after her ordeal. I guessed that having given birth to a boy was one reason for her glow of well-being.
For countless generations in China, the following saying has held true: ‘There are thirty-six virtues, but to be without heirs is an evil that negates them all.’ A woman who has had a son is irreproachable.
When Xiao Yao was in labour, she had been in a ward with seven other women. Xiao Yao asked her husband several times to move her to a private room, but he had refused. On receiving the news that she had given birth to a son, her husband had immediately arranged for her to be moved to a single room.
The room was cramped but brightly lit. Each of us found a place to perch, and my colleagues began talking animatedly. I am no good at such conversations because I don’t enjoy talking about my own life, which is a tale of incomplete families. As a child, I was separated from my father and mother; as an adult, I had no real family of my own – only my son. Listening quietly, I folded a piece of wrapping paper into an origami rabbit.
Over my colleagues’ conversation, I heard voices from the corridor.
A man spoke in a low but determined voice. ‘Please change your mind. It will be far too dangerous.’
BOOK: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices
5.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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