Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chapter 10: The Women Who Carried a Pickaxe to a Speech

A translation of Chapter 10, courtesy of Scott. Thank you!

I arrived at a desolate ferry crossing on the banks of Xiangjiang River (湘江).

It was dusk and wisps of fog were beginning to emerge from the river's surface. Thin strips of sunlight merged with the mist; a hazy, soft hue illuminated the houses on the opposite shore mirroring the colors of sky and water. A slice of illusion.

One thousand years ago, the Confucian scholars Zhu Xi (朱熹) and Zhang Shi (張栻)stood at the same ferry crossing on the banks of this great river. Their lectures would cause such a sensation in academic circles that “multitudes on horseback would appear, their horses drinking the waters of the Xiangjiang until not a drop stood."

[ Translator's Note: The reference here is to the Yuelu Academy (岳麓书院) in Changsha, Hunan; one of the four great academic centers in China and one of the world's first universities. When Zhu Xi and Zhang Shi lectured it is estimated over 1000 scholars would come to attend. ]

It was in 1916 when a 23 year old Changsha Normal University student named Mao Zedong also arrived at this ferry crossing on this big river. Together with his good friend Xiao Yu (簫瑜)they tied cloth satchels to the end of their umbrellas and wandered about like vagabonds, like hitchhiking hippies in our nation's first days. Without any money they walked over a thousand li to toughen themselves and to better understand their own land. The two young men were somehow able to cajole their way aboard a ferry to cross the river. They reached Yiyang (益陽) on foot, where Xiao Yu recorded what he had seen of the conditions facing the local peasants.
Mao Zedong and I boarded the ferry, but soon we felt the river rise rapidly as if it were reaching for the sky. Countless homes and trees were submerged and all before us changed. Only the tops of roofs and trees could be seen amongst the cascading flood. The boat was overflowing with people, their cries of grief shaking the heavens. Mothers cried out for their children. Children cried out for mothers.
Mao Zedong was not a stranger to the peasants' sufferings. After walking a thousand li, both men's clothes and slippers were in tatters. When they went separate ways, Mao Zedong urgently returned home because his mother "had made two pairs of shoes for me, and I know my parents are waiting for my return".

In 1925, 32 year old Mao Zedong wielded his pen and wrote the poem "Changsha" in ode to the Xiangjiang's vast and expansive misty rolling waters:
沁園春, 長沙
Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Hsiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide in the limpid deep;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this boundless land
Who rules over man's destiny?
[ Translator's Note: Poem sourced from this link. ]

In November, 1926 the Kuomintang leader Wang Jing Wei (汪精衛)supported Mao's appointment as a committee member to the newly established Kuomintang Peasant Movement Committee and to a concurrent position as head of the Guangzhou Peasant Movement Institute. Under Mao's direction, the Institute journeyed village to village inciting peasants, establishing more peasant associations and instructing the poor to rise and fight the landlords and the rich. Following the occupation of Hunan by the Kuomintang's Northern Expeditionary Army, the Hunan Peasant Movement spread like wildfire. When the children of Changsha played in the streets, young voices sang, "Down with the imperialist powers! Down with the imperialist powers! Remove the warlords, Remove the warlords..." Sixty years later children would also sing this tune, only this time the words would be different: "Two pair tigers, two pair tigers, running very fast, running very fast..."

[ Translator's Note: (1) Your understanding will be enhanced if you watch this video. (2) I consulted a dictionary of Chinese Communist Party terms but was unable to verify the exact English names used for the peasant movements described above. In lieu of that I have translated the names word for word from the Chinese. ]

Yingyang and I were sitting in a small boat on the Xiangjiang river. The wizened punter put down his punt-pole; letting the boat bob freely on the surface of the river. I took off my shoes and socks, stretching my feet into the Xiangjiang. It was very cold. There was so much I wanted to ask Yingyang.

"Dad's memoirs said when he was seven or eight he often went out with his mother to all sorts of places to listen to speeches and attend mass gatherings. He also said his mother had worked at a cotton mill in Shanghai. Grandmother was a typical Hunan peasant woman, she couldn't even read. Why would she go listen to these speeches? How did she travel from a village like Hengshan in 1927 all the way to a cotton mill in Shanghai?"

Yingyang told me, "It was because she was a part of the Peasant Association. You knew she was a member of the Communist party, right?"

I was shocked. "She joined the Communists in the twenties?"

"Yes." Yingyang said, as if it was nothing was out of the ordinary, "She once told me she had even seen Mao Zedong speak. She even brought father when he was only seven or eight."

"Ah?" I was dumbfounded.

"Mao Zedong came to Hengshan to give a speech to the peasants, to encourage revolution. Grandmother carried a pickaxe and went to listen to him speak. But that's not all, she also joined the local Peasant Association. She would join the masses and break into landlords houses and beat the landlords. She did everything. Afterwards things got too intense, other landlords had seen what happened and wanted to come capture these peasants. So the party helped our poor country grandmother flee to Shanghai.

I understood.

At the beginning of 1927 Mao Zedong came to Hengshan district for a 32 day on-site investigation. Afterwards he issued his classic work "Report of an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan". This is how Mao described the beating, smashing, and looting carried out by the peasants of Hunan:
This amounts to striking the landlord down to the dust and keeping him there. The peasants threaten, "We will put you in the other register!" They fine the local tyrants and evil gentry, they demand contributions from them, and they smash their sedan-chairs... People swarm into the houses of local tyrants and evil gentry who are against the peasant association, slaughter their pigs and consume their grain. They even loll for a minute or two on the ivory-inlaid beds belonging to the young ladies in the households of the local tyrants and evil gentry. At the slightest provocation they make arrests, crown the arrested with tall paper hats, and parade them through the villages.
Afterwards Mao resolutely stated, these peasant actions were "very good" because "a revolution is not like having a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be refined, leisurely and gentle, temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous... it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area, or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside."

[ Translator's Note: Sourced from "The Question of Going Too Far" ]

A country woman carrying a pickaxe, bringing along a six or seven year old child to a public square to hear Mao Zedong speak. And apparently you were also there too, Huaisheng.

Seven year old Huaisheng started school soon thereafter. Without shoes, he walked the mountain trails barefoot. Only when it snowed would mother sew him a pair of thick cloth slippers to keep his feet warm. Everyday he would travel several miles of mountain roads until finally reaching the confluence of the Xiangjiang and Mihe rivers to attend class at Chengnan Elementary School. He begin to recognize characters at school, and it wasn't long before he and his class of extremely poor but innocent classmates would begin to read the Guwen Guanzhi (古文觀止). The clear and sonorous sounds of the schoolchildren reciting text in a Hunanese dialect traveled far and wide, reaching all the pickaxe wielding peasants walking along the banks of the Mihe river.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter 9: A Most Ordinary Year

A big thank you to Teresa (also a fellow NTU ICLPer), who took on the challenge to translate this very tough passage! I enjoyed reading this translation very much, and I hope that you all do too.

I walked with Yingyang on the footpath through the paddy fields. Faintly colored buds had sprouted up along the dried branches of a few peach trees, and pitch-black rolling mountains lined the gray sky further in the background. Like an oversized, beautiful canvas, a water buffalo sat in the open space of the foreground, languorously swaying its tail at a fruit fly. It evoked peace, leisure, a pastoral vision. Huaisheng had grown up here in China’s rural areas, in these rice paddies of the Lung Family household where I now tread.

For a child born in Hunan in 1919, what kind of place was this place?

I opened the “Hengshan County Records.”

1918, the year before Huaisheng was born, this kind of world awaited him:
April. The Beiyang Army under Wu Peifu (吳佩孚) waged a civil war with the southern army along the Xiangjiang and Mi Rivers, raping and pillaging. Able-bodied men and women fled to the mountains, leaving a stretch of rice paddies to lie in waste. July. Too much rain, the ravages of war and flooding all accompanied one another. The farmers suffered untold misery. Burdened with children, they fled.
When Huaisheng was two years old, Hengshan experienced:
More than fifty days without rain. The fields and ground were completely dried up. Suffering from famine, they ventured out in great numbers to beg for food or eat wild grass to appease their hunger.
The year he was 5, heavy rains surged down from the sky:
Along the banks of the Xiangjiang and Mi River, only a few houses had not collapsed. The victims of the catastrophe slept out in the open for up to two or three months.
The year he was 11:
Rain for 20 days. Flash floods occur.
The year he was 15:
A long spring without rain. The dry spell became a disaster… Those suffering from famine plucked wild grass, peeled tree bark, dug for soft white clay (觀音土) to assuage their hunger. In autumn, the drought was disastrous and nearly a hundred schools canceled classes.
The year he was 17, a flash flood erupted:
The farmers went out in great numbers to beg.
The year he was 18, there was an outbreak of filariasis. The waters of the Xiangjiang and Mi Rivers rose and fell sharply, and Hengshan experienced a natural disaster.

1945 was the year China won the war of resistance against Japan. The ravages of war, on top of a severe drought, left a large portion of the fields unharvested. In autumn, an outbreak of malaria killed more than 4,000 people in Hengshan. The civil war erupted everywhere, and the beacon fires and scorched earth of 1946 were recorded as such in the county records:
A severe famine occurred within Hengdong county… people foraged for grass stems, tree bark, and white clay. In the town of Xialiu, 189 died of hunger. Countless people rode the Yuehan railway fleeing the famine.

In June, there was an outbreak of smallpox and cholera. By autumn, more than 24 percent of the residents had fallen ill, and the death rate exceeded 5 percent. In the remote, desolate areas and the edges of the mountainous region, doctors and medicine were in short supply, making the situation even worse. Of the 8,355 people in Mojing village, 4,211 caught malaria.
Ay. I flipped even further ahead, to more than 10 years before Huaisheng’s birth, to see the world in which Hunan’s children grew up. The county records seemed to be exactly the same:
In 1914, the warlords were at war. Hengshan’s 160 elementary schools shrunk to 18. In Xuantong’s (宣統) first year (1909), drought, accompanied by a swarm of locusts, decimated the crops. The farmers relied on tree bark and wild grass to appease their hunger. They ventured out en masse to beg, and sold off their sons and daughters. The dead lay in gullies everywhere.

In 1906, Guangxu’s (光緒) 32nd year, a continuous rainstorm overflowed the Xiangjiang and Mi Rivers, leading to the “Guangxu 32nd” flood. A drought in his 21st year (1895) resulted in disastrous damages.
[ Translator's Note: Xuantong (宣統) is the reign name of the last Qing emperor Puyi, who ruled from 1909 - 1911. Guangxu (光緒) is the penultimate Qing Emperor, ruling from 1875 - 1908. In addition, the "Guangxu 32nd" flood in Big River Big Sea is written as 光緒丙五. The 五is most likely a typo, and should be written午. 光緒丙午 references 1906 in the Chinese 60-year calendar. ]

Shen Congwen, a child of Hunan, was older than Huaisheng by 17 years. He was born in 1902 in Fenghuang, a town in Xiangxi. When he was nine, during the time of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, the wild child Shen Congwen saw the town as:
a large pile of filthy, bloodstained human heads. There were heads atop the fences of the government offices and along the outer gates. There was no place without a human head.
After the revolution failed, the authorities went everywhere, killing off the rebels. The execution grounds were selected to be on the same riverbank where Shen Congwen often went to play when he skipped school. Every day, they executed around 100 people; about 30 came to watch the festivities.

Most of the people captured and decapitated were ultimately innocent farmers. After the authorities realized they had killed too many, they brought the prisoners in front of the emperor’s large temple hall and cast divination blocks. An affirmative answer meant the prisoner went free; a negative outcome resulted in decapitation. The farmers marked for death obediently walked to the left and lined up while those meant to live walked to the right. No one complained.

[ Translator's Note: Zhi4 jiao3 (擲筊) are half-moon-shaped blocks with a rounded side and flat side, used in Taoism and Buddhism to ask questions of the deities. A supplicant asks a yes-or-no question, then casts a pair of blocks to the floor. If one block lands on the rounded side and the other on the flat side, then the answer is considered an affirmative. A negative answer is indicated when both blocks land on the same side. The same answer must come up three times in a row to be considered definite. ]

The mischievous children went down to the riverbank every day to watch them chop off heads. One, two, three, four, they counted the number of corpses on their fingers. Otherwise, they jubilantly raced up to the temple with the prisoners to watch the divination blocks being cast.
After the prisoners’ heads were chopped off, the beach was full of blood. Those adults who had come to watch the excitement and enjoy the beheadings launched into a detailed criticism of the proceedings. Some went forward to kick the dead bodies and trample on their stomachs. When boredom finally set in, and they decided they’ve played enough, the adults dispersed.

In 1918, 16-year-old Shen Congwen enlisted in the army. He followed the regional forces to the “Qingxiang” program, whose purpose was to seek out bandits. As soon as they arrived at a village, they bundled together the farmers with rope. First, the farmers were beaten with a wooden plank until their skin was torn and flesh gaping. Then they groaned and shrieked as they were squeezed in a leg vise. Under torture, more than half of the prisoners signed written confessions to their crimes; on the second day, prisoners were efficiently and methodically pushed out and beheaded.

Within just a little more than a year, Shen Congwen saw 700 heads spurt blood as their bodies fell to the ground. Two years before, the regional forces leader had already killed more than 2,000 people. In 1917, the commander of the Guizhou troops slaughtered 3,000 more people. Now it was Shen Congwen’s squad’s turn.

From beginning to end, they only killed 1,000 people, that’s all!

Floods, droughts, famines, plus consecutive years of war all triggered large masses of people to flee. The roads wound around China’s vast mountains. Migrant refugees filled the roads, and along the sides, the bodies of the dead stretched for miles.

Before I came back to Hengshan, I thought 1949 was a singular, bitterly desperate period. After flipping open the county records and reading through the night under candlelight, every word was a cry. Only then did I understand, ah, just how ordinary a year 1949 really was!

Knock Knock

Hello, it's been awhile hasn't it?

I am still in Taiwan, but things have been hectic recently, mainly due to life-changing decisions and such. But luckily there are some very smart and curious people at my school (NTU's ICLP) that have asked me whether they could partake in this project. So the translation blog lives... thanks to Teresa and Scott! You will probably notice some stylistic differences, but I think it is very interesting to see how people digest the Chinese language and rehash it in their own way.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Chapter 8: The Child Who Chased Trains

We were on the midnight train from Guangzhou's East Station, bound for Hengyang Station, which left at 11pm and was due to arrive early morning at 5am. This leg of the journey totaled 521 kilometers, a length of distance that I had once traveled before. In 1987, I made my first trip to Berlin from Frankfurt. The distance from Frankfurt via car to the still-barricaded city of Berlin was 560 kilometers back then.

The moment we drove into East Germany, the so-called public road morphed into a narrow path lined with steel wire fences and and flanked by watchtowers, with searchlights vigilantly sweeping the passage. Our car was shepherded into a tunnel leading to the next inspection point -- there was no turning back. We were frozen with terror, bombarded by shrill whistle cries and surrounded by uniformed border guards that suddenly emerged into plain sight.

Was there a family reunion I didn't know about? Guangzhou's East Station was filled with at least a thousand travelers... everyone congregated in the lobby and spoke with the same familiar Hunanese accent. Most were workers, and they all carried bulging burlap sacks with the same red, white, and blue stripes and same wide opening. Travelers each had many burlap sacks strapped onto their bodies, covering them like hanging Christmas ornaments. I imagined that it was the first time in two, three years that these workers had the opportunity to go back home. These former village children would probably suddenly find themselves now changed beyond recognition.

People kept to themselves and quietly filed into the train cars. Once their luggage was stowed away, they climbed into their assigned bunks and promptly turned off the lights. The exact moment the lights went off, the entire world succumbed to the rumbling rhythm of the train tracks. Travelling on a midnight train is quite romantic... the train car transforms into an impenetrable cradle that guards your state of perfect repose and sways your tired body to sleep; the machine's steady rhythmic flow draping over you like a gentle mosquito net, tucking you into this magic rocking cradle.

Mei-jun boarded a train from Guangzhou with Li Fo-sheng (李佛生), one of the two young soldiers that accompanied her from her village of Chun'an. Mei-jun saw many families torn apart in the six months that she was in Guangzhou, and was now determined to pick up the child that she left in Hengshan. Never did Mei-jun realize that after just half a year, her son would no longer recognize her as his mother.

Fifty years later, I mirrored the same route, the same 521 kilometers, that Mei-jun traveled to fetch her son in 1949.

Mei-jun arrived at Hengyang in the early hours of the morning, but the train could not go any farther because the tracks were blasted apart. The train's panicked passengers faced a hard decision: Do we sit and wait or do we get off and walk?

During that period of time, even the most seemingly minute, most seemingly insignificant decision could barrel you towards a certain irreversible fate.

It was 5am. I stepped out of Hengyang Station and deeply inhaled the cold brisk morning air, which awakened me like a strong breath mint. We were locked in a thick borderless mist. Even though it was still dark, there were many people waiting by the platform, carefully listening to station attendants announcing the next series of destinations:

You County! You County! (攸縣)
Qiyang! Qiyang! (祁陽)
Changning! Changning! (長寧)
Yongzhou! Yongzhou! (永州)

Yongzhou? I rushed to locate the person who shouted "Yongshou", and found an old hunchbacked man amidst the thick dense fog.

I stood there in a daze, staring at him blankly -- if I went with him, then I'd find myself on my way to Yongzhou, the place quoted in the famous Tang poet Liu Zongyuan's (柳宗元) most famous works, Eight Records of Excursions to Yongzhou 《永州八記》 and Discourse of the Snake-catcher 《捕蛇者說》. Inspired by Liu Zongyuan, I followed the old man for a little while, and meditated over the "Yongzhou" sign that stood at the edge of the plaza.

Yingyang (應揚) met me at the station. We left the street-lighted town of Hengyang and drove onto pastoral roads that led us straight into an impenetrable blanket of fog. It felt like we were swallowed whole by a wet cloud as we swam blindly through, our headlights rendered completely useless. It was a miracle we didn't drive into any giant potholes.

Mei-jun made a quick decision: walk the remaining distance.

Mei-jun and Fo-sheng jumped off the train and walked north along the tracks; it was approximately 40 kilometers from Hengyang to Hengshan. They walked and walked, noting that rails were broken into shards and wooden sleepers burnt and blackened throughout the track. Fo-sheng supported Mei-jun as her feet started to blister. After the second day, the two finally got a glimpse of Hengshan station in the far distance. Mei-jun breathed a sigh of relief, and in that brief moment of ease, her legs gave way and she collapsed onto the tracks.

I never thought that in 2009, the Hengshan Station that I stood in was almost exactly like the old Hengshan Station that Mei-jun had once described. A thick layer of dust accumulated on the wooden grid windows, lending the place a slow and sleepy aura. There was even an old attendant clutching a broom and dustbin, absorbed in the task at hand. Faint winter rays beamed through the glass grids at such an angle that our shadows became very very long, so long that they brushed against the ticket counter. The ticket counter was actually just two wooden handrails, very modest indeed.

There were no trains running in any direction at this time, nobody in the waiting room aside from us. It was quiet, so quiet that I could hear the wall clock's second hand making rounds around the dial, maybe even hear the light scraping along the floor.

I pretended I was a passenger and glided through the ticket collection stand, walking towards the edge to lean over and take a peek at the train tracks. They extended towards the horizon, disappearing at a bend. This platform was where Mei-jun and Yingyang went separate ways.

I suddenly had a strange impulse.

I wanted to jump off the platform onto the train tracks and press my ear to the rails to see whether I could hear ghost trains come closer and closer...

... and pull off into the distance.

Mei-jun and Fo-sheng walked along a dirt path towards the Lung Family's mountain valley residence. Tung oil trees with unopened blossom buds covered the mountain slopes. Rice paddies lay dry and fallow with stunted half-grown stalks. Members of the Lung Family welcomed Mei-jun on a narrow upraised dirt bank that separated their rice fields. Even though Mei-jun didn't recognize them individually, they remembered her as Lung Huai-sheng's Hangzhou wife. One relative, who was hoisting a carrying pole with two water buckets on her shoulder, put her heavy haul aside to ask how brother Huai-sheng was doing, how far along the war was.

As I stood there on the same dirt bank, Yingyang introduced me to that same water carrying relative as our uncle's wife (大嬸). "This is my younger sister (mei4mei, 妹妹)," he said to her. The second mei was said with a heavy falling 4th tone such that it sounded like "This is my sister demon (mei4mei4, 妹魅)." Soon, I was encircled by curious villagers who all had the same last name Lung. Yingyang introduced them to me one by one:

This person is your older brother (哥哥).
This person is your cousin (表姊).
This person is your uncle (叔叔).

By the time Yingyang finished introducing me to each relative, we had used every kinship title possible.

[Translator's Note: The author points out Yingyang's pronunciation of "younger sister" to emphasize his local accent, which she also pointed out with Mei-jun in an earlier chapter. On another note, those familiar with Chinese family structures will find it extremely impressive that Yingyang was able to apply all these different kinship titles to everyone in the Lung village. Older cousin (表姊) means older female cousin, uncle (叔叔) means father's younger brother. This of course also connotates that this side of the family have generally stayed in their ancestral home, maintaining their traditional farming way of life.]

"I remember your mother, a Hangzhou lady with permed hair," an old woman said.

"Right, I remember, she brought a radio in from the city," an uncle said.

"We liked her because even though she wore a cheongsam, she never complained when she stayed in our shabby homes."

I stood in front of a crumbling abandoned red brick house that lacked windows and a door. Wild untamed grass invaded the dilapidated hut, sprouting freely on the roof. This was where Mei-jun came to pick up her son Yingyang in 1949.

But the terrified child hid behind his grandmother's skirt, clutching to her hand for dear life as he stared wide-eyed at this strange woman who wanted to take him away. He cried and howled, kicked and punched, refusing to come close to Mei-jun.

They set off for Hengyang Station the second day. The train tracks extended towards the horizon, disappearing at a bend. The train was completely mobbed on the south-bound platform, with people climbing and securing themselves onto the curved tin roof. People tightly grabbed onto metal poles, their bodies hanging out of the car, faces pressed against the windows. The train was practically bursting at the seams.

Distressed and uneasy, Mei-jun reached her hand out towards her son to pull him in, but her son started howling once again. But his grandmother, who could not bear to give up the child in the first place, took this opportunity to suggest, "Wouldn't... wouldn't it be better to leave him here?"

The typically steadfast Mei-jun, facing a hysterical red-faced child, faltered. She reached out her hand, and then pulled it back, then reached out, then pulled back.

The train whistle sounded and the train groaned, burdened by its terrific weight. Everything happened in a blink of an eye.

Mei-jun let go.

She turned to Fo-sheng, "Well then, let's board the train."

Then she held Grandmother's hand and promised, " We will -- come back soon."

Fo-sheng hoisted her up like a sack of goods and wedged her through the train window.

Everyone went back to work, heaving buckets of water back onto their shoulders, leaving Yingyang and me back to our conversation. I asked Yingyang, "After that day, did you have any lasting impression of Mother?"

Yingyang instantly teared up and choked down sobs, unable to speak. 60 years later, he was still overcome with emotion whenever he recalled that event.

"I only have one image, which is -- Mother in the train with curly permed hair. After I grew up, I realized that I was the only child without a mother. It was very difficult. At first, Grandmother would trick me and say that she was my mother, but of course I eventually figured out the truth."

Yingyang had bright deep-set eyes. The first time I met him in 1985, I made a special trip from the United States to Guangzhou to find my long lost brother. I picked him out easily from the middle of the crowd, identifying him the moment I saw his face. Yingyang, darkly tanned and wearing rough peasant clothes, carried himself in a modest and unassuming manner. He spent his lifetime hoisting water buckets and tilling fields, but underneath it all he had Mei-jun's bright deep-set eyes. I knew that he was, even amongst the flood of swarming people, my brother.

Yingyang paused to gather himself, and then continued, "When I was little, everytime I was picked on, for example, when the teacher accused me in front of my classmates, 'Your father is a Kuomingtang!' it would hurt so much, just as if someone had cut me down. I would always imagine how nice it would be if Mother were here so I could have someone to cry to, but then that thought would make me even more sad. Trains that left Hengshan Station always passed through our family residence very slowly. I would hear the train pulling away from Hengshan from our house, and run as fast as I could to chase that train down. I ran after trains, calling out "Mother Mother Mother Mother Mother Mother"....... begging to be heard, believing that every woman with short permed curly hair was our mother -- but my mother was always on a moving train that I could never catch..."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chapter 7: Not Seeing You Is an Impossibility

I'm very pleased to introduce our guest translator, Scott! He's a friend of mine from NTU's International Chinese Language Program and has taken an deep interest in participating in this translation project. I think it is very interesting to see how others read and interpret Lung Yingtai's writing. Thank you Scott for your contribution in bringing this Big River Big Sea's stories to the English-speaking world.

I arrived in Guangzhou. When I asked the locals if they had heard of Tianhe Airfield they all shook their heads. No one seemed to know.

Finally someone said "I haven't heard of Tianhe Airfield but there is a Tianhe Sports Center." and so I went there.

It was an enormous stadium bounded by streets jammed with cars and people. I wondered where among all this chaos would I find the remains of an old military airbase. But when I turned around my heart almost stopped. Across the street stood a solitary old wall next to a deserted bus depot. On the wall was written neatly "Air Force Logistics - Guangzhou Office." To my surprise, the characters were in the traditional style no longer used after 1949.

Well. This is definitely the place.

Mei Jun's husband Long Huai Sheng, had once brought his military policy company here to defend Tianhe Airfield. Soon thereafter, he would feel his life's most glorious duty had arrived.
?May 1949, the President has taken Zhong Mei 1 (中美一號)and arrived at Tianhe Airfield. Vice President Li ZongRen (李宗仁), Administrative Head Yan Xi Shan (閻錫山), and other high level senior officials were waiting at the airfield to greet him. During this time, we are heightening surveillance and urging everyone to maintain increased vigilance. We are prepared for any contingency."
I leafed through Huaisheng's handwritten memoirs, thinking to myself, Dad, in May 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek had already stepped down and was no longer president. How could you forgot that May? The capital Nanjing had already fallen and Shanghai would soon follow. Chiang Kai-Shek had taken the warship "Taikang" (太康) with Jing Jiang Lun (張靜江) and was scouting the islands between the Taiwan and Zhejiang coast; investigating the conditions and considering how best to deploy his forces for an eventual counterattack. In May he was nowhere near Guangzhou! Look: in Chiang's own diary, May 18th 1949, he's written his investigation of Penghu.
"Yesterday in the late afternoon I went sightseeing along the coast near the hotel. I looked out over the coast of Yu Weng Island (漁翁島). Although the area was vast, nowhere was its elevation more than 50 meters and on the beach were very few trees. It does not appear vegetation grows easily here. In regards to animals while it appears that there is some abundance of Indian cows there does not appear to be enough excess feed to raise other livestock. The salinity of the soil appears to be quite high. Whether livestock or crops, neither will be easy to raise. This area is also frequented by a great many typhoons. Nevertheless this location is of prime importance as it is the center point of Taiwan, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Shantou; not just a protective screen for Taiwan. As I had overlooked the heat and extreme humidity of this island I took a bath upon my return and listened to Xia Gong Quan (夏功權) report on the situation in Xiamen. Afterwards I went to bed at 10."
As a thirty year old Military Police Company Commander, Lung Huai Sheng was earnestly defending Tianhe Airfield he naturally didn't know that on the larger historical chessboard matters were already settled: He was a pawn in enemy territory. But at that time he merely stood looking out over the streaming crowd of people, this tide of refugees, pouring along the large road in front of Tianhe Airfield and bound for the HuangPu docks. He definitely didn't know, that in that crowd of people rushing before his eyes were over five thousand high school students from Shandong. In exile for thousands of miles, their principals at that moment in talks with the national army generals, how could these children board the boats before them bound for Taiwan? And yet that island whose "salinity of the soil appears to be quite high. Whether livestocks or crops, neither will be easy to raise." The Penghu island "frequented by a great many typhoons" was opening its mouth, awaiting their arrival.

That year, as the President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was setting a new record in high temperature superconductivity, famous physicist Zhu Jing Wu (朱經武) was a seven years old boy; a child who liked to play in the mud, catch mud fish, and do electricity experiments with broken bits of iron and bronze. He had followed his parents and siblings, eight of them as well as a grandmother, from Wuhan on boats and in cars on a road steadily bound for the South. Before leaving the gates of their city they had taken a small yellow dog with them, carried him seemingly to the ends of the earth. But Jing Wu didn't realize, as soon as they boarded a train, that the dog would leap out the window and vanish without a trace. Our little Jing Wu almost cried.

Zhu's father was a Chinese-American who had studied piloting at Portland Aeronautic University (波特蘭的航空學校). In 1931, after the 918 incident broke out the then high spirited 26 year old Zhu Gan Ting (朱甘亭) felt his blood boil. His mind was in tumult day and night until finally he made a fateful decision: giving his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a good friend (this friend was shocked at Zhu's new found [Warrior with a cut wrist*] mentality) Zhu Gan Ting turned and left San Fransisco; flying to Nanjing where he enlisted in the Chinese Air force.

[Translator's Note: The idiom "壯士斷腕“, which I have translated as "Warrior with a cut wrist" is far superior in the original. In the Chinese the idiom refers to a certain type of warrior spirit; that of a warrior who if bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake would chop off that hand so as to continue fighting. Here it is used somewhat facetiously.]

In May of 1949 as the Zhu family reached Guangzhou Second Lieutenant Zhu Gan Ting helped them to the Huangpu docks where they could directly board the ships and wait for his return. Because Zhu was responsible for handling surplus goods and materials, he needed to pledge a case of gold belonging to Airforce Logistics to get on the boat. He told his family, I'm going to hurry up and do this and then I will see you on the ship.

"But," Jing Wu said, "We waited and waited, straight till midnight, but dad never came. The docks were full of people who couldn't board the boat. Outside the refugees slept in the open air and soon the boat was to start. But dad was still nowhere to be seen. My Mom was anxious and scared and my grandmother's face was etched with worry. Finally, at two in the morning, my father finally appeared. Our tension was released. His entire face was covered with sweat. Apparently, when my father's Jeep was passing Tianhe Airfield, somehow, for reasons he couldn't explain, the gold trunk fell off and scattered over the ground. He was stopped by one of the MPs attached to Tianhe Airfield. No matter what, they were not going to let him go. He negotiated till midnight but still they wouldn't release him. Finally, empty handed and lacking other options he made his escape."

"What?" I asked, "Are you saying the military police at Tianhe Airfield?"

"Yes," Jing Wu answered, "That case of gold was taken by the military police. He almost wasn't able to escape. If he hadn't hurried back to the boat it's probable our family would have been broken up. From there the fate of the family- including myself- would have most likely been of two types"

"Slow Down Jing Wu," I said, "Are you saying my dad stole your dad's case of gold?"

He laughed, somewhat pleased with himself. "You could say that."

"Don't laugh, I remember my Dad's memoirs brought up gold. Wait a second."

From the written works room of Hong Kong University's Robert Black College I again took down my father's memoirs and found the section on Tianhe Airfield.
"May 1949. Stopped over in Guangzhou waiting for orders. In charge of Tianhe Airfield security. In addition all along the road from the airport to Hong Kong we will be doubling the watch, in order to ensure the airports security. There is a smuggling organization here headed by a man named Liu (劉) who has provided 500 ounces of gold as a bribe in exchange for our letting 30 trucks of smuggled goods through. Although I am not charged with suppressing smuggling I immediately refused in no uncertain terms and reported the matter to higher authorities."
I noted this part and read it to Zhu Jing Wu word by word, line by line. Then I asked him "What's this? Was your dad "Zhu" named "Liu" in those days?"

A Personal Note: Biking Along the Da Han River

Hello to my (one, maybe two?) loyal readers. :)

A couple of chapter translations are on its way -- things have been a bit hectic on my end recently, mainly because I'm preparing to go back to New York for a couple weeks to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. It's been almost one year since I left New York for Asia, and I find myself to be fairly anxious to be coming back home... like I'm blanketed by this nervous energy. When I was still in the city, everytime I came back to Flushing I'd always find something new/different/gone with my dynamic neighborhood. Things change, that's a fact. Another fact is that my previous statement is especially true in this particular half-century, as illustrated in Big River Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949. Our young generation is a mobile one, and this has become the standard, the status quo, even the expectation. Personally, I'm incredibly grateful for this mobility, but with new opportunities come hard choices. Or perhaps it's only hard because we have so many to decide from...

Last week I biked from Wanhua (萬華) to Yingge (鶯歌) with my father. Recently he's taken to staying in Taipei for months at a time; this city has truly become a very comfortable (and cheap!) place for an old retired man to live in. We explore Taipei's bicycle paths quite often because they're extremely well-paved, thought-out, scenic routes. Anyway, this particular trip was special to me because we passed by my father's old neighborhood of Shulin (樹林) on the way to Yingge. Here are some thoughts that I would like to share with you all --

We passed by a sign that said "樹林高中" -- my father was quite the delinquent back in the day, the kind of kid that none of the teachers expected anything out of! Apparently his grades were so low that his teacher told my grandmother that he would never pass the High School Placement Exam and should just shoot for a local high school -- 樹林高中. My grandmother was a formidable lady who fiercely loved her children... one of those rare Chinese parents who never let a teacher beat their child with a ruler or exact any sort of punishment what-so-ever. She basically said "F you" to that teacher and pulled my father out of school for a year to better prepare for the placement exam. I was totally shocked, "You got LEFT BACK?!!!!"... to which he responded, "Taking a break from school for a year isn't the same as getting left back, okay?!!" Not a convincing argument there! I am the proud daughter of a middle school delinquent. :)

What's my point here? My dad not only eventually went to high school, but passed the College Placement Exam, which was a huge deal during his day. Most students couldn't pass the exam back then. Afterwards, he came to the United States to get his Masters Degree, became a computer programmer, worked at Wall Street, raised two children in New York, sent them both to college. Surely his teacher never expected this out of his worst student. I write this to remind myself that current setbacks don't determine your life path, and that success can also be loosely defined.

I asked my father, "Why don't you ever go back to Shulin and take a look at your childhood home?" He let out a sad sigh, paused for a bit, and said, "Things have changed so much since I left. My childhood home doesn't exist in this particular world anymore... only in my dreams. That's why I never want to go back, because then I'd see that everything's gone and changed, and because I'd rather keep living in this dream."

And as if the world wanted to prove him correct, right after he said this we came upon this section of the Da Han River (大漢溪):

"Oh my god! I used to play here when I was a kid! This used to be a waterfall, like Niagara Falls, with huge boulders and the cleanest water. The kids who were stronger swimmers could jump in right where the arc is, while the weaker swimmers would play in these shallow pools farther downstream. During sunny days, you could jump into the water and look straight to the bottom. There were so many fish, all these schools of fish! Even your grandmother would come play sometimes... she'd put on a bathing suit and catch shrimp."

"Clean water? That's a far reach... how about just WATER?" I thought to myself. Readers -- can you imagine this place teeming with shrimp and schools of fish? That is the Da Han River that exists in my father's dream.

My father took this picture on January 20, 2010. Check out this website that I found that shows pictures of this section of Da Han River just a couple years ago. Shocking stuff.

I feel like this experience with my father closely mirrors some of the themes that Lung Yingtai conveys with her stories of Mei-jun, Chun'an, and the Xin'an River. Change is a common phenomenon -- it's a catalyst for improvement, a opportunity to reflect upon choices. I could feel my father sadly ruminating upon the past for those moments, but then we biked along to Yingge and marveled upon the vast improvements Taipei has made since he left the country in the 1970s. Overall, it was one of the best days I've ever had with my father, and I'm sure he feels the same way too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chapter 6: The Woman Left Behind

Mei-jun passed through Chun'an's city gates, securely cradling her baby to her chest. She arrived at the Hangzhou train station, a departure point mobbed with refugees desperately jamming themselves onto the next departing train; people were strapped onto the train roof, suspended from the doors, crushed against the windows, crouched under the seats, crammed on the aisles. The train was headed towards Guangzhou, but stopped mid route at a small desolate town -- the train had run out of coal. To keep the train moving, military officers appealed to the passengers for donations, collecting money to replenish their fuel supply.

The train continued to Guangzhou again, but not for long. The train tracks before them were twisted and needed to be realigned. Everyone must wait. While waiting, Mei-jun narrated, the mother sitting next to her, a woman who on the entire journey tightly held her four, five year old child, said to her little boy, "Darling, wait here, okay? Don't move."

The woman crawled over the other passengers and climbed out of the train car, walking a fair distance along the tracks. She squat behind a small shrub to relieve herself. Finished, she straightened up and headed back to her train car, but it was too late. The train was moving again.

"All we could do was stare in horror as this woman futilely tried to chase the train down. She called and ran after us, and upon realization that the train would not slow down, was reduced to crying and stumbling along the train tracks. Her little boy in the train car howled for his mother, but no one had any power to make the train stop..."

"Do you remember what she looked like?" I asked.

"I remember the image of her trying to chase down the train, hair disheveled, flying in all directions..."

Mei-jun opened her mouth to say something and then stopped herself. Then she started again, "I often wonder how that child is doing today."

At Hengshan (衡山), Hunan Province, Mei-jun and her two escorting soldiers protected her baby from the throng of people as they pushed their way off the train.

Thinking back to the woman left behind on the train tracks, Mei-jun decided that she would entrust the baby cradled in her arms with his grandmother at Hengshan. The surrounding panic and chaos left her deeply worried that her child could accidentally be crushed to death or die of an contagious disease on the poorly ventilated train cars. Mei-jun saw with her own eyes the number of infants and elderly that never made it to the next stop.

Yingyang (應揚) was passed along to his grandmother at the Hengshan station and watched his mother depart. He was too young to know how to even wave back.

Mei-jun continued down south until she finally reached Guangzhou. Her husband, leading a troop of military police, were stationed at Guangzhou's Tianhe Airfield (廣州天河機場).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chapter 5: 96 Upper Zhi Street

[Translator's Note: Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR! New decade, new beginnings, a fresh start. :)

After recently seeing several English films with Chinese subtitles, I've come to the realization that translating does not mean that we have to faithfully maintain the original sentence structures and word usage. Different languages have their own unique modes of expression, and a translator's value is his or her ability to transition certain feelings and nuances successfully such that those readers of another cultural background can understand what's being conveyed. Otherwise, we can run everything through Google Translate, case closed! Anyway, I'm going to try to employ this strategy and see whether I'm more satisfied with the results.]

It's been a few years since Mei-jun forgot who I was.

Now after accompanying her on walks, she politely turns to me and says, "Thank you, come again."

I need to reintroduce myself every few minutes, to which she first reacts with flashes of confusion and then quickly gathers herself. Civil and poised, she replies, "Hello."

Even though she cannot remember her only daughter, she strangely enough still remembers Chun'an.

One time while taking her on a drive through Taiwan's Pingtung county, she remained completely reserved, quietly taking in the mountain scenery through the car window. Suddenly, she broke out of her silence, "Straight down this road is Hai Gong Temple (海公祠), and after the bend, drive towards the river and you'll find my house."

[Translator's Note: 海公祠 is the temple erected for Hai Rui that Mei-jun walked by everyday as a child, as mentioned in Chapter 1.]

I took a peek at her from the rearview mirror, noting that although she was already eighty-four years old, she was indeed still handsome and charming.

I asked her, "Are you Ying Mei-jun?"

She happily replied, "Yes!"

"Are you from Chun'an?"

She was pleasantly surprised, "Indeed, I'm from Chun'an. How did you know?"

The sky turned dark and I tucked her into bed. She timidly asked, "Where is my father? My mother?"

I decided to make a trip to Chun'an and find Yu Nian-chun (余年春).

For Mei-jun, I searched for the old village that she would never see again.

Yu Nian-chun was of the same age and village as Mei-jun. In the few years before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese government moved and resettled millions of residents in the surrounding area. Even after going through great pains to build completely new towns and allocate compensation funds, there were still those lifelong residents who refused to yield a single inch. Yu Nian-chun had stood there with hot tears streaming down his face, knowing that he could not change this grim reality.

He recalled the manner in which the people of Chun'an were forced to relocate in 1958 and 59, how they were coerced to leave their ancestral homes, the same homes their families had lived in for thousands of years.

In 1957, Mao Zedong promoted the slogan "Surpass England, Catch Up To America" (超英趕美) and during the Eight Big Preparation Conference fervently declared that the Communist Party must "completely turnover the backward state that we've been mired in for the last hundred years, in which other countries feel like they can look down and take advantage of us. We will catch up to the world's most powerful capitalist nation: The United States of America. This is one of our responsibilities such that Chinese people do not remain unworthy compared to other races, and that we maintain our membership in the world community."

This eager line of thinking triggered rapid development plans of the Xin'an River. It was deemed that "nation's prosperity" required the relocation of three hundred thousand Chun'an townspeople, thus erasing each and every village, demolishing each and every house. Chun'an, which for thousands of years was many people's very definition of "home", had its society dismantled and villagers displaced to the most barren and remote corners of the world.

At the end, no matter where those from Chun'an resettled, local residents would always see them as a collection of unintelligible, haggard, and utterly destitute "refugees". They no longer owned fragrant cypress dining tables that seated eight, no longer had any way to convince the wary-eyed and indifferent locals that: "Hey! The bowls that I used to feed my dogs were all Song dynasty porcelains!" Those from Chun'an who had previously basked in the glory of cultivating the most erudite scholars were now degraded to miserable impoverished refugees, nameless residents who were all alone in the world, slowly picking up shattered pieces and starting over again.

If Mei-jun had not left Chun'an in 1949, she would have met the same fate as her father, mother, and even her own child. Those villagers who were forced to resettle experienced the following:

Lian Village (練村) is by and far the most renowned village in Chun'an, with 214 households, 883 residents. It is a very prosperous place that was built with the riverbank in the front and mountain range in the back, where houses boasted black walls, blue-green tiles, and carved beams. On March 1959, they informed us that we would be compensated only 1.21 yuan for a carved amoire. We would receive 0.64 yuan for a cypress dining table. Tthe demolition crew arrived at our village on April 3rd, moving day. Grandmother Shao, a hundred year old lady, sat firmly on her chair crying and howling, refusing to budge a single inch. While the demolition crew worked on dismantling the beams of her house, others went to fetch the old grandmother, carrying both her and her chair out as one unit. The house collapsed as soon as they dragged her over the threshold.

Unable to fully accept his village's fate, eighty year old Yu Nian-chun spent five years to bring his submerged village back up to the surface, one penstroke at a time. Every ancestral hall, temple, government building, every piece of open space, every irrigation canal, every street and alleyway, even every household and storefront -- where was where, who was who, what was what -- Yu Nian-chun carefully gathered all these discarded details, leaving nothing behind. He sought out Chun'an's old scattered residents and interviewed them one by one, verifying each and every account. Then, just like a city planner, he took a pen and carefully composed an intricate blueprint of old Chun'an, bringing back the features of their village that was once so swiftly wiped away.

In front of me was a scroll, a well-ordered map of old Chun'an. It was the first time I laid my eyes on Mei-jun's beloved Xin'an River.

Facing this extraordinary map, I asked, "Do you know where Mei-jun's house is?"

"Yes," said Yu Nian-chun, "96 Upper Zhi Street."

He bent over the scroll and pointed to 96 Upper Zhi Street. Ah, so it was where Mei-jun had said... on the bank of the Xin'an River.

"This is accurate, no?" I asked.

"100% accurate." The old man was completely confident. "Look at this, Mei-jun's father was named Ying Fang-gou (應芳茍). This is what the map says!"

Stooping down to take a better look, I saw that the little grid scribbled 96 Upper Zhi Street indeed boasted those three words: Ying Fang-gou.

"Hmm..." I reflected, "when Mei-jun left Chun'an in 1949, there were two stone lions sitting by the city gates. She left through the entrance that faced Hangzhou (杭州) and then never looked back. Do you have those city gates on your map?"

"Right here." The old man pointed them out with his finger.

The three meter long scroll was splayed on a narrow wooden table, barely illuminated by the sunlight filtering through an old clouded window. Observing that this simple and crude room lacked a desk, I suddenly realized that this old man created this masterpiece standing on his knees. Yu Nian-chun painstakingly recreated Chun'an one penstroke at a time, this old village sunk beneath the waves that no one but those in his and Mei-jun's generation cared to remember anymore.

I returned to my hotel located on the bank of Qiandao Lake and watched a documentary on Chun'an.

To promote tourism, local government officials hired a film company to go to the bottom of the lake and investigate the village's aftermath. Enveloped by a forest of seaweed, Chun'an was fast asleep, discarded by history and man alike.

In the lake's abyss, everything was covered in a vast veil of darkness. The dark had no boundaries, rendering the camera's lights as effective as a small flashlight, leading blindly with a humble disc of light. Among the gently quivering patches of murky algae, an old room indistinctly appeared before our eyes. Carefully chiseled flowers... thick substantial wood -- this, could this be an image of Mei-jun's long lost world with carved beams and blue-green tiles, completely untouched?

The slow crawling light failed to reveal the two stone lions, but in my heart I knew -- without a doubt they were still faithfully sitting at the city gates, right where Mei-jun turned and looked back in 1949.

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