A Cultural Revolution
Ti Chi Wing is on
a journey. This is his first departure from home and family in
Canton, and he would feel better about it if his sister Lang is not
also on another dusty bus traveling northeast. Chi Wing travels
northwest to Gansu, below the Mongolian border. As he boards the
bus, his mother reminds him of Confucius’s day when scholars are
sent into the backwaters of the empire. Their rise in the
bureaucracy is as much determined by calligraphy and poetry as
office skills. Chi Wing’s mother thinks Confucius is a wise man for
affirming the causal relationship between art and power. His
professor father is absent; he is confined at home in disgrace.
Chi Wing is on
the bus with classmates. There is little talk. Chi Wing looks out
the dirty window at countryside. Learning about farming is
interesting. It is a course in botany. The commune in Gansu is
another country. Chi Wing jumps down off the back of a truck. The
bus he boards in Canton breaks down days earlier. A deep scolding
voice approaches. They are led to a long one story stone building.
The unpainted blocks have few windows. A windmill turns at one
corner of the commune. Even at this distance, Chi Wing hears its
machinery needs oiling or readjustment.
Sounds in the
barracks wake him from dreams. Always, he is traveling. Moonlight
filters through rolled-down black cloth curtains. The sound of the
windmill is the rattle of his vehicle.
comrades use thick ropes and canvas belts to move boulders. Chi Wing
works in a wide field, mounding earth around clusters of white melon
seeds. He calls out to a boy from his barracks whose little red book
is falling out of his pocket. The boy growls, and fear clutches Chi
Wing. The boy is from Chengtu, a slum tough who hates Chi Wing’s
southern, educated voice. He pinches Chi Wing and would punch him if
he would not be beaten by Lao Shen who hates everyone from the
cities and sees no difference between beggars and bright boys. They
are all counterrevolutionary, you can’t get a good day’s work out of
any of them, and that’s what’s wrong with this country. Mao leads
the way and only the peasants are strong enough to follow; the soft
grabbers and readers and measurers of air can’t put fishhead to
melon mound worth a fart.
Chi Wing sees
where Chengtu is looking, to the field where girls work. Chi Wing
blushes; now he knows what Chengtu is doing. Lao Shen stamps about
the melon mounds.
says we have enough bastards like you,” Lao Shen says, but he enjoys
the boys’ lust and ogles the girls, too.
At red book
meetings, they sit with girls in circles of eight with a leader who
is older. Bump Girl has the biggest breasts that push out her blue
jacket as if melons are inside. Needles always says, “The point is…”
Tongueless never speaks, and the others Chi Wing knows are Giggler,
Bad City Girl, and Flowerface, who receives real ribbons from
Shanghai where someone is not afraid to buy capitalist-roading
gifts. All the boys have romantic fantasies about Flowerface, but
they talk about getting into Bad City Girl. Her name is Lin; she
also comes from Chengtu. Their leader often slaps Lin’s face.
each other, Chi Wing means to help Lin. “All you do is mock. That
does not build China.”
“Fuck China and
fuck you,” Lin says she starts sex when Chi Wing starts measuring
air. “Put that little red book back in your pocket and take out
what’s bothering you and stick the rest of that shit in with the
Chi Wing is
staring at? Wha’d’ya think Mao’s doing here? Fucking without paying
– at least I get coin for it in Chengtu!”
Chi Wing looks
away to the windmill. “I can fix that,” he says.
“What else can
So begins a
period of deceit Chi Wing realizes much later is the elementary
school for his escape. He learns Lin’s reverse-rules, her world of
mirrors. When he lies in his bunk at night before he sneaks out to
meet Lin, he remembers his sister playing the piano under a mirror
in the common room at the university in Canton. He listens to Lin’s
plan to escape from the commune and agrees to improve it. She dreams
of doing sex in Hong Kong, “Where Western coin buys the melons you
stick in the mounds here.”
finish, he is soon ready but hesitates.
Lin reaches over
in the dark and strokes his ear. Chi Wing thinks she likes him after
all. Then the hardness of her voice hardens him more. “Any woman can
take it ten times more than a man. The half of the sky Mao says we
hold up? That’s the heavy half.”
They are taken on
a trip to Peking, to Tienamen Square. Chi Wing is overcome with
nostalgia for city life. They parade by a reviewing stand, part of
the dark blue waves of China. At a signal, they are released and
scatter. The immense square empties. Its hollowness fills him. When
they return to Gansu, Lin is gone. She did it! In bed that night, he
decides that when he escapes to leave directions behind for
repairing the windmill. At first he does not believe he has courage
to do it like Lin, but then word of his father’s capitalist-roading
suicide arrives, fixing the plan in Chi Wing’s mind, an incantation
of the three rivers he must cross: Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl. It takes
Chi Wing two years to walk across China. Along the way, he loses his
pipa, two teeth, and his few illusions about the New Order.
On a warm, misty
October night in 1968, Chi Wing hides on a wooded hill within view
of a small harbor of fishing boats. Here he cannot see the Nine
Dragons of Kowloon, the mountains that shape the land to the south.
His father’s capitalist-roading spirit urges him forward. Behind him
is the dark flow of the Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl.
In the water,
there is only one thing to do: swim. He forgets to fear sharks. His
arms reach a slimy piling. He smells tires, hears no voices. No
gogangu teenage Gestapo on this side of the water! His chest
aches, but he hauls himself onto the wooden dock. He awakens in a
white-sheeted bed in the Holy Carpenter House in Hong Kong.
Three members of
a panel from the National Cancer Institute are lunching at Chi
Wing’s apartment on Long Island, NY. The panel’s senior member is
Nobel winner Paul Whitney. The future of the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory where Chi Wing does research relies upon the grant
Whitney has the power to withhold or bestow. The task of
entertaining the investigators belongs to Chi Wing as first
assistant to the lab’s chief, a woman Whitney despises.
The men sit
around a table cleared of grant application documents, now covered
in a dark cloth.
“I’ve never met a
woman with a first-rate mind,” Whitney says. “Why are your walls
bare? I never saw bare walls in China.”
Chi Wing brings
tea things to the table. “Do you know dazibao?
posters, yes. I saw them in Peking in ’79. I was taken to see them,
as a matter of fact.”
“You were there in a time oasis. My
father’s name is on dazibao.”
understands. “I have only good memories of China. Of the rock in the
garden of Yu Yuan in Shanghai.”
Wing says, imagining this notable Westerner officially posed by the
memory is of climbing Tai Shan,” Whitney says.
“I remember in
Gansu, we raised melons no Chinese outside of Hong Kong tasted.” Chi
Wing pours tea. “Our field director was Lao Shen, an old man who had
been given big white dentures by the ‘barefoot doctors’. He wore
those teeth only on formal occasions, but he carried them with him
all the time. He said the girls’ monthly curse withered the melons.
But the girls joined in true communist fashion and their harvest
dwarfed ours. He went crazy and the leaders became worried about his
behavior when visitors came to our model commune. High Party
officials did come from Peking itself. Lao Shen roared into the
meeting room and began screaming about women. He had a stroke and
his teeth fell out of his pocket onto the table, chattering before
the scandalized guests.”
Like a magician,
Chi Wing reaches into his chino slacks and pulls out fake false
teeth with plastic gums, sets them on the table where they jump and
rattle. The three startled guests recoil and then explode with
and pockets the false teeth.
“What can be done
about the grant proposal to improve its chances?” Chi Wing asks.
Whitney says, “have us rewrite it.”
“That is too much
to ask,” Chi Wing says.
and smiles at Chi Wing. “Is it?”
“It is an honor
to see how it is done,” Chi Wing says.
Copyright © 2013 L.S. Bassen