Stories from the Cultural Revolution Era - Part 2

In Part 1, the unresolved question was whether the uncle who committed suicide would be remembered.  Indeed, he would be remembered in front of a mass audience who were deeply touched by what they saw but probably never realized the personal significance.  But it is necessary to first recount the parallel story of the family of a very strong-willed woman.

At the time when my uncle committed suicide by slitting his wrist in Bangbo, another man was facing a serious problem in Taihu County, also in Anhui province.  He was about the same age as my uncle, but he did not have the option of terminating his own life.  He was married and he had three children.  His whole family depended on him.

The man had a better education than my uncle.  He was a university graduate, so he was actually the best educated person in the whole county.  Very early on, he was branded a "rightist."  Things then got worse during the Cultural Revolution.

Ordinarily, he would not tell his children that he was being subjected to mass criticisms.  Then one day, he was told that there would be a mass <<Struggle Against The Enemies>> session.  He knew that he and his wife would be criticised right out in the streets of the county.  There was no way to hide this scene from the children.

What would the three children think when they see their parents wearing placards and being beaten in the middle of the street?

He had no idea what to do.  He thought about talking to them, but he could never bring up the subject with them.  So he determined to get the children out of the city.

He remembered that he had stayed at a small village known as Yejiawan in 1954 while he was a cadre in charge of flood control.  So he decided that to send his children there.  He found a peasant who came to town from there and he sent his children to the village where he in fact had no relatives.

The smallest of the three children was a 5-year-old girl.  One day, she encountered a peasant who told her that he had seen her parents being criticised by the mass in the middle of the street in the city.  When the little girl heard that, she screamed at the peasant and accused him of lying.  Actually, she must surely have wondered: Why did our parents sent us away to this remote little village?  And how come they didn't come to see us?  When she heard the news, she knew that it was the truth but she would not admit it.  She just screamed at the peasant.

Eventually, the word came that the parents could take their children back to the city.  So the little girl performed some dances and songs for the villagers who took care of her.

Years later, whenever there was a festive occasion in Yejiawan village, the villagers would show a movie of hers in order to celebrate. 

That little girl would become my wife, Ma Lan (馬蘭).

The villagers of Yejiawan all refer to her as "Our family's Ma Lan."  She is considered family to all the families of Yejiawan.

When I learned of this story, I asked my father-in-law, "Why didn't you send the three little children to stay with your friends or families?"

"I did not want to create problems for my friends and relatives.  This kind of problem does not matter to peasant villagers," my father-in-law replied.

"Did you have any relatives, no matter how distant, in Yejiawan?" 

"None at all."

"Were you afraid to send these three children to this small village?" I asked.

"I would be more afraid if I didn't sent them away," my father-in-law replied. " You know how headstrong Ma Lan is.  I remember that when she was just past one year old and she had just learned how to walk.  One day, she saw me coming home looking none too happy.  So she offered to light up my pipe for me to smoke.  She used a long joss stick, but she burnt her hand.  She did not cry or scream.  She just wanted to get that joss stick.  We did not know what she might do with it, so we hid it from her.  But she searched all over for it.  When she found it, what did you think she did with it?  She squashed the joss stick with her little feet.  She grounded it until there was absolutely nothing left.  At one year old, she was already like that.  If she saw at age five how her parents got abused, you can imagine that she would rush out and fight for us."

"That is for sure," I agreed with my father-in-law's assessment.

"The more important thing is that when children see their parents get abused, they may resent people and society.  I don't want Ma Lan to have those kinds of resentment." 

This touched me deeply.

At the time when this young couple was being criticised in the middle of the street of Taihu County, Anhui province, what was going through their minds would be completely unexpected to those people who were surrounding them: "Go ahead and persecute us!  Our children are not here, and they will not seek revenge against you."

Over the years, Ma Lan has asked me about how my uncle died in her home province of Anhui.  She took long pensive looks at photographs of my uncle.

Ma Lan was the star in the 15-episode serial drama <<Yen Fengying (嚴鳳英)>> and she used it as a memorial ceremony for that famous Huangmei Opera actress who perished during the Cultural Revolution.  This serial drama was broadcast on CCTV and it was immensely popular.  This meant that she introduced the historical memory of Yen to the whole country, thereby affirming her moral and artistic positions.  For this role, Ma Lan won both the Feitian (飛天) and Jinying (金鷹) awards for best television actress.

Yen Fengying and my uncle were only one year apart in age and they died at around the same time in the same province.  Although my uncle was not in the cultural industry, he died for the sake of art -- <<Dream Of The Red Chamber>>.  So the drama was for both Yen Fengying and my uncle.

<<Yen Fengying>>

But Ma Lan would do something more for my uncle.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of my uncle's death, the Huangmei Opera version of <<Dream Of The Red Chamber>> debuted in Anhui and it was a national sensation.  In the final scene of the opera, Ma Lan got on her knees on stage and sang the verses that I wrote.  Her knees were bloodied and her hands were swollen from the effort.  

The members of the audience were crying their eyes out while clapping with their hands.  But only I knew her silent words: "Dear departed elder, can you hear me now?  We are performing <<Dream Of The Red Chamber>> here and now."

<<Dream Of The Red Chamber>>