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.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP