SOUND IS BETTER THAN SILENCE
The title of this piece of reportage, which carries in Chinese the connotation of “after all, sound is better than silence” (bijing yousheng sheng wusheng), is immediately recognizable as a dramatic reversal of the famous line “at that time, silence was more powerful than sound” (cishi wusheng sheng yousheng) from a Tang Dynasty poem by Bo Juyi (772֊846) called “Song of the Pipa.” Bo Juyi’s line evokes the poignancy of pure silence when the sound of the pipa, a stringed instrument, ceases. The protagonist of Liu Binyan’s piece, Zhou Jiajie, speaks in neither the sweet tones of a pipa nor the glass-shattering shrillness of die kleine Oskar in The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, but he refuses to talk in the same way that Oskar refuses to grow during a twenty-year period in which his country and its leaders are pursuing ever more disastrous policies. In the end, his patience and his labors are rewarded; but clearly he will have to speak up loudly for what is right, because his former critics still hold powerful positions.—TRANS.
The cacophony of gongs and drums, the earsplitting explosions of firecrackers, and the elated laughter and shouting of the populace filled every corner of the small county seat of Xinjin County in Sichuan Province. It seemed as though all 203,000 county residents had descended on the county seat on the same day, and everyone was quite obviously willing and able to express his emotions through the tumultuous noisemaking. Perhaps percussion instruments and even firecrackers were invented for precisely such occasions, when speaking and singing cannot fully express the intensity of people’s emotions.
I really don’t know at what time the people began to fear the sound of their own noisemaking and chose to remain silent . . . But during the New Year’s Festival of 1980 in Sichuan everyone was talking and laughing to their hearts’ content. During the New Year’s Festivals of recent years, all of the well-wishing was essentially over by the fifth day of the first lunar month, but this year people were still visiting back and forth even after the fifteenth.1
In both the county seat and the commune, several groups of dragon and lion dancers burst forth on New Year’s Day. The entire populace turned out to squeeze in around the wildly dancing dragons and lions and to catch a glimpse of which group would be the strongest and most daring in climbing up the tall pole to retrieve the prized red paper package hung there by a local shop or government office—this was an ancient custom, probably a rite of spring. Everywhere the older people could be heard to exclaim nostalgically, “Haven’t seen this in over twenty years ...”
It was an all too familiar refrain. Had not even the County Committee secretary and the commune and production brigade secretaries, describing the changes in the people’s lives and production in 1979, remarked that “this hasn’t happened here since 1957”? No question about it: in only one year the peasants’ net income had increased an average of 40 percent, and town and country bank savings had increased more than 50 percent, not to mention a large increase in the rations of grain and edible oils. In what previous year had such good things ever happened?
For some thirteen hundred plus families, however, the greatest jubilation was not on that account. During many repeated campaigns since 1957, the heads of these households had been repeatedly branded as this or that sort of “bad element,” and their families had had to suffer through ten to twenty gloomy and miserable years. This year marked the first time that these people could stand forth in the light of day and celebrate New Year’s on an equal footing with their neighbors. Relatives and friends who had been forced to break off all relationships for ten to twenty years in order to “draw a clear line”2 were once again able to visit together. They were constantly repeating a single refrain: “We never thought we would see this day! ...”
One person in the crowd received particular attention. The people crowded around the Fangxing Commune’s lion-dancing troupe, continually pointed to a certain lion, and happily yet quietly exclaimed: “He’s the one, he’s the one, Zhou the Mute ...”
In 1968, at the season for making grain deliveries to the state, an insignificant person from a small village in Sichuan’s Xinjin County took sick. The illness was very strange: all he did was trip and fall, but it made him deaf and dumb.
The sick man’s name was Zhou Jiajie, and he was a member of Production Brigade Number Eight of the Fangxing Commune. At that time, following the entire nation, the county seat was a flurry of activity—busily clearing out the class ranks.3 As his family was helping this mute man along the central street in the county seat, they were met by a gaggle of people, among whom were some unfortunate ones done up with various colored streamers, clothes, and makeup to represent “class enemies.” The former village elder was dressed up in a long Confucian robe, carried a water pipe, had a sword hung at his side, and was followed by a retinue of young village men. The getup of the KMT [Nationalist] army officers made them look as if they’d just stepped down from a movie screen. A “female spy” was so rouged up that she looked, a little too unrealistically, like a prostitute . . . The booming of gongs and drums, the chanting of slogans, and the repeated shouts of derision by the crowds who had gathered to join the fun and enjoy themselves laughing and yelling at that group of despicable enemies all blended together. The ink was not yet dry on their long banner, and Zhou Jiajie could only make out the last line,”... The struggle between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party continues,” as he was helped down a narrow little lane.
That was a particularly noisy era. The sounds of slogans, drums, speeches, arguments, laughter, sobbing, bloody battles, and explosions being emitted from the Chinese mainland fiercely shook the apathetic and unfeeling world of men as well as the dark chaotic universe, announcing the beginning of an unprecedented period in history. Not only was the Chinese nation to be wrenched off of its historical track, but the entire world was to be remade. The whole world concentrated its gaze upon this homeland of our ancient civilization and awaited with joyful expectation or fearful trepidation the advent of a great miracle.
Living in the midst of this world revolution, Zhou Jiajie must be considered most unfortunate! It was right then that he suddenly lost the ability to speak or hear . . .
He spent his meager savings on a month in the hospital, but his illness was not in the least improved. His family was most anxious and the villagers felt completely confused, but only Zhou Jiajie himself appeared quite unconcerned by his illness; and that was because he knew that his was an absolutely incurable malady. At that time, he was only worried about one thing: “I must never never let anyone find out that my deafness and dumbness are feigned . . .”
The autumn in West Sichuan had been quite lovely. All the grasses, trees, and various argicultural crops were greedily breathing in the sunshine in anticipation of the coming six-month-long season of darkness. The year’s harvest had been fair, and one could more or less make it through the fall and winter; as for the coming year, in those days there was no reason to make any plans, and no way to carry them out even if one made them.
It was during that time that Zhou Jiajie took his son to deliver his grain allotment to the state. Father and son had each walked about seven miles carrying their load on shoulder poles. On the way home, their shoulders felt much lighter, and they should have been talking and laughing, but Xinqiang noticed that his father was frowning darkly without saying a word. Just as they were passing by a burial ground and the sky was already growing dark, Xinqiang suddenly heard the sound of something very heavy dropping on the ground. Turning back quickly, he saw that his father had fallen down by the side of a grave. The ten-year-old boy was scared to death. Later on the villagers brought a wooden door and carried the still unconscious Zhou Jiajie back home.
When Zhou Jiajie finally woke up it was already after midnight. He still had a slight headache. He tried to think back on how he had happened to fall down. If he had not had a head full of worries, had not been imagining all sorts of troubles as he walked along, he probably would not have taken such a tumble. A thought that had been pounding in his head constantly for the past few days now mercilessly drove out every other idea, even overriding the sporadic throbbing of his headache: “What am I going to do? They are going to beat me to death . . . Not even those leading cadres could escape . . . and that school principal lady . . .”
He had already seen many other people tied up and beaten, but this one he remembered with particular clarity. He knew her, that school principal lady. She had her hands tied behind her back and was hung there on a tree. Her attackers used a three-foot-long wooden club with a length of coarse rope tied to the end; the rope seemed to have been carefully soaked in water first. In the beginning the woman cried out sadly, but very quickly lost her breath and grew completely silent. Zhou Jiajie could see only the faint twitching of the twisted little finger of her right hand (either a birth defect or the remnant of a childhood accident); only that slight trembling of one limb showed that she was not yet dead. He had secretly wiped away his tears and quietly stolen away.
“They will force me to explain4 everything. But I’m not an escaped landlord at all and I’ve never cheated anyone. Starving other people to death was never my mistake, but all of that is impossible to explain, and talking about it will only increase the weight of my crime. How can I explain it all? But if I don’t explain myself, they’ll beat me . . .”
This man of thirty-six years of age feared only two things: being humiliated or causing others humiliation; being beaten or beating others. He was too sensitive and could not bear to feel himself or others suffering either mental or physical pain. It was precisely this mortal weakness of his that made him quite ineligible to play the role of a hero of that age. If his heart had only been a little harder during those years, he would not have fallen into his present plight . . .
He felt a loud buzzing in his ears. Some people said that sort of a fall could bring on a stroke, one so bad a person might die or become an invalid or even become deaf and dumb. “Mute?” Zhou Jiajie׳s heart beat faster: “If I really became mute, that would be fine. If I could not talk when they beat me and ‘struggled’5 against me, then they wouldn’t beat me half to death . . .”
In this manner, then, this Chinese Communist Party member, this excellent rural cadre, this man who had given his entire youth to the great enterprise of socialist transformation, on this piece of land that he had watered with the sweat of his brow, in order to allow himself and others to go on living, was forced to make a final resolution to seal up his own mouth!
Early the next morning when his son Xinqiang called him for breakfast, he did not answer. Thinking he was still sleeping, his son came over and patted his blanket, but he still did not move. His son grew agitated and shouted at him, but he only opened his eyes slightly, shook his head, and made a gesture to indicate that he could neither hear nor speak. When his wife ran in and saw the way he looked, she was so anxious and afraid that she began to cry.
The villagers helped to take Zhou Jiajie to the county seat, but in the end they carried him back again without any appreciable change.
Feigning muteness was just a hasty expedient to deal with a pressing problem. When he “became” a mute, he did not even have time to think about what sorts of situations he would have to deal with once he “really was” a deaf mute. He had quietly contemplated that once this campaign was over he would just open his mouth and start talking again. But who could have imagined that the rape flowers would bloom and fade, fade and bloom again—that this particular campaign would last longer than the Anti-Japanese War?
Actually, when the Cultural Revolution began, Zhou Jiajie had long since become a “political corpse.” In 1960 he was expelled from the Party, deprived of his position as production brigade branch secretary, and branded an escaped landlord and alien class element. In those days he worked very hard and was even given a model-commune-member evaluation, but he was still a nonentity as far as political and social life were concerned. Eight years as a political mute was no doubt very good preparation for actually “becoming” a complete mute later on.
He had originally thought that the storm of the Cultural Revolution would pass over such a political invalid as he was then. He never imagined that he would be unable to avoid trouble. The village Rebel Faction leader, Wang Quan, came to visit him, urged him to join their “organization” and promised, “We can settle your case.” Zhou Jiajie knew very well what sort of a character Wang was and so he diplomatically declined his offer. Of course he hoped to get himself exonerated, and he never gave up hope that some day he could return to the Party ranks, but that was an internal Party matter that had nothing at all to do with the likes of Wang Quan!
A short while later, Zhou Jiajie went to market and saw a bulletin listing twenty targets of the class “purification” campaign. He immediately tensed up and an inauspicious premonition seized hold of his mind. Just as he expected, in a few days׳ time big character posters appeared reading, “Drag out the alien class element Zhou Jiajie!”
In 1960, when he had been expelled from the Party and branded an alien class element, Zhou Jiajie believed that that was the final blow. He thought that he had fallen to the lowest level of society. Who could have imagined that they would have to “continue the revolution”? This new attack made it impossible for him to express his hopes, desires, opinions, or feelings, or even to associate with other people.
This was not the end of his troubles, however; misfortune itself seemed to possess the ability to grow naturally. When you are forced to pretend to be deaf and dumb, you in fact leave yourself open to even greater calamity: if it is ever revealed that you are only pretending, then you will never be able to escape even greater punishment. That a class enemy like you could have the effrontery to escape from struggle and trick the revolutionary organization! Redoubled humiliation and heavier blows from revolutionary clubs might descend on Zhou Jiajie at any moment!
Zhou Jiajie could do nothing less than prepare himself thoroughly for whatever circumstances might arise at any time. Living among other people, he had to sever all natural relations with them. That was no easy task!
When he walked down the road and people approached him, he ignored them if he could; if not, he simply nodded his head. If he met a close acquaintance he could smile a little. That became Zhou Jiajie’s only opportunity to smile. A smile in any other situation could give rise to suspicions that he had heard something.
Most frightening were sounds that came from behind; there was almost no way that he could guard against them. Once when he was cutting bamboo and a woman came up close behind him and gave a fierce shriek, Zhou Jiajie shuddered all over. The woman began to wonder: How could this deaf man hear my shout? Luckily, his nephew, Zhou Zhongci, was sitting beside him and spoke up, “How could that be?! I’ve tried it many times, he simply can’t hear. When he moved just now it was only because he wanted to move.” In that way the woman was just barely mollified.
While working in the fields together, people like to banter back and forth and come out with humorous quips. Everyone could laugh when this happened—everyone except Zhou Jiajie. Not only could he not laugh; even if his face twitched slightly or the expression in his eyes changed, he could be giving himself away!
Zhou Jiajie was not being overcautious. He had already heard peopie angrily exclaim many times, “He’s faking pretty well all right, but if we dragged him down to a struggle session we’d see if he could talk or not!”
Sometimes Zhou Jiajie actually envied true deaf mutes. “I’d be a lot safer if I were really deaf!” Sure, he could close his eyes and not see, he could cease to sniff with his nose, and he could keep his mouth shut; but how could he stop up his ears? How could he hear something and yet have no reaction? Nevertheless, Zhou Jiajie knew in his heart that he had to succeed at this. He knew that his own ears had already changed from an indispensable organ of life into a dangerous threat, a tool that other people might use to harm him.
His new life was not completely without compensation. After he had broken off all associations with other people, he found that he had more time to think about himself and his past experiences. The one thing that he kept pondering over and over again was how he, Zhou Jiajie, had come to such a sad pass.
At Liberation the seventeen-year-old Zhou Jiajie was still in school, but from the time Land Reform began he was an activist. He led the way in setting up Mutual Aid Teams. When others chipped in one or two thousand square feet of land, he threw in a whole acre. And when the autumn harvest was counted up, his team had the highest productivity, with an average of thirteen hundred pounds more per acre than all the other teams—one acre produced over two tons of grain, a feat that was not to be repeated for more than twenty years. It created a sensation throughout the district and people came to the grain distribution station to learn from them, asking them to summarize their experiences. Young Zhou Jiajie’s organizational skills and economic abilities became apparent that year.
In 1953 Zhou Jiajie joined the Youth League and the Communist Party. He was the first middle peasant Party member to be recruited by the rural Party branch office. Naturally, this could not have been without good reason.
Zhou Jiajie also led the way in organizing early Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives. When these were transformed into advanced APCs, his responsibilities increased, and his economic abilities were given even greater scope to develop. His cooperative organized a collective pig farm, a noodle factory, and an apiary, all of which were well administered and made a great deal of money, once again becoming the most outstanding enterprises in the district. Everyone said that Zhou Jiajie was the district elder’s “big-headed hammer,” and that was the simple truth.
How could he help becoming the district elder’s “big-headed hammer”? For every campaign, mission, or important undertaking, the district leaders called upon Zhou Jiajie to strike the first blow; and he really could strike a resounding blow. All the Party had to do was put out an appeal and he, Zhou Jiajie, was certain to respond. Whenever he made promises or issued challenges to other cooperatives, he always had a very practical plan in mind and never made idle boasts or went off half-cocked.
It was really quite hard on Zhou Jiajie to continue to press forward as single-mindedly as he did. At that time his family consisted of his old father, a widowed sister-in-law, and his wife; he was the only able-bodied male laborer. But so much of his time was taken up just attending meetings! It was often three or four in the morning before the meetings let out. When he returned home, the cooperative members were already preparing to start work. His family always complained. With his strength he could easily make three or four thousand work points a year, but as a cadré he only received a four-or five-hundred-work-point subsidy. Besides that, he didn’t really think about his own family; if the cooperative lacked for anything, he would often take it from his home and give it to them. One time the cooperative needed some lumber and Zhou Jiajie simply told them, “Cut down my willow trees; cut down my pine trees!” His old father was so angry when he saw him light the lamp at night that he yelled at him, “What the hell are you reading? Put out the lamp!” The old man felt that their family had already suffered enough losses and was unwilling to add lamp oil to the list.
The pressure from his family had occasionally given Zhou Jiajie second thoughts: “Maybe I’d do better not being a cadre, just working my farm instead ... A lot of people have gotten rich these last few years.” But then as soon as he considered that he was a Party member, considered that the local people trusted him and put the heavy responsibility for all of their property on his shoulders, and then remembered the commitment he had made to the Party and the local people—when he considered all of these things, his enthusiasm was rekindled and he began to work even harder.
That period seemed like a long, long time; it was actually no more than five short years, but what exciting years they were! Year by year life was improving right before one’s eyes, and everyone worked with great enthusiasm. In Party meetings one felt just like a child beside its mother; you could say anything you thought and never worry about offending the leadership. When the state monopoly of purchasing and selling began, the leadership had criticized Zhou Jiajie as part of their effort to fulfill the state purchasing quota; but it was only a gentle reprimand and nothing came of it later.
Actually, Zhou Jiajie had been wronged even in that situation. When the state monopoly began in 1953, he made a careful estimate and decided to sell 1,650 pounds of his own grain, no small amount at that time. But the “work cadre” Han who was sent out from the county seat tapped his pencil on that 1,650 pound figure, mulled it over a few minutes, and then sort of mumbled out loud, “1,650, that’s a little short, isn’t it?” When Zhou Jiajie heard that, he felt hurt and immediately blurted out, “Then I’ll sell 2,200 pounds!” as if he had really done something to let the Party down. In his eyes everyone sent down from the leadership ranks was the embodiment of the Party itself. If the Party felt the figure was too small, it must be because the revolution needed the grain. One result of his action was that his family complained bitterly to him. They had to live on short rations for several months that year.
Everyone says that 1958 was a turning point, but actually, many things were beginning to happen much earlier; it was just that no one really understood them.
Nineteen fifty-eight was certainly an historically unprecedented year. For a few months a carnival atmosphere prevailed. And how could people help being ecstatic? Suddenly they discovered that the communism they had thought was still in the distant future was right there before their very eyes! Everyone, even the Chinese Communist rural cadres so long noted for their extreme practicality, was caught up in the foolish intoxication of those days. Even Zhou Jiajie was slightly influenced in that direction.
Everything in those days had to break with convention—immediately, as quickly as possible, and as thoroughly as possible. Take Party meetings, for example. This most familiar activity of rural cadres took on a new form that year. Party meetings themselves were regarded as a magnificent method of “production.” You see, every time a meeting was held, the per-acre grain production could shoot up several times. This kind of labor should not be slighted; it wasn’t easy. The leadership had to apply great pressure; the grassroots cadres had to squeeze for all they were worth; then more pressure; then squeeze again . . . over and over until the production figure reached unprecedented levels and could be gloriously announced—say ten tons or even thirty tons per acre—and then their great work was accomplished and the meeting could be adjourned. Until they came up with a “big increase in production,” the grassroots cadres could not even dream of leaving the meeting.
After a meeting in those days (when a meeting occupied many consecutive nights), even a strong young man in his twenties like Zhou Jiajie staggered down the road on the way home. When he got back to the production brigade at two or three in the morning, he still had to wake up all those commune members who had just closed their eyes after the nighttime struggle for production in order to announce where the next day’s ceremonial “battle in the fields” was to take place, how all the tools and implements were to be arranged, etc. By the time everything was arranged properly, it was time to go to work again.
Zhou Jiajie’s commitment to communism was beyond question; he wished that it could be realized tomorrow morning. With his great faith in the Party, he carried out every directive with his usual alacrity; but there was one thing that was very different from previous years: he often felt a struggle going on in his mind. There was one voice that accused him of being too conservative, backward, and unable to overcome superstition. This was an extremely gruff and frightening voice, though somewhat abstract. Another voice kept saying other things: The crops are sown too close together, aren’t they? The production target is set too high, isn’t it? We’re going too fast, aren’t we? Is this right? Can it be done? . . . This voice was rather weak and timid, but it accorded with Zhou Jiajie’s experience and the things he understood so well. For some reason, the more the conflict continued, the more he began to listen to the second voice.
At first, when the leadership asked him to do something, no matter what it was, he would carry it out, just as in the past; but gradually his faith in them weakened. Finally, he began to hold back a little and even to resist them in varying degrees. The orders he carried out were to collectivize hogs, to collectivize furniture and tools, to abandon work points, and to take meals in big communal mess halls. When the leadership went on to promise that everyone would soon move into “big buildings,” each with an upstairs and a downstairs, electric lights, and telephones, he completely approved in his heart, but at the same time he felt somewhat confused. Where were the bricks and lumber to come from? When the order was issued to tear down the old houses, he couldn’t do it. Although the houses were not his, he knew full well how much bamboo, wood, and labor it had taken to build them. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t help feeling skeptical: Why all this haste? If we tear down our old houses before we have any way to build new ones, where are we going to live? But he had to tear them down—it was a question of his attitude toward the “Three Red Banners.”6 Zhou Jiajie had to be resourceful; he chose only the oldest and most dilapidated houses for destruction. After he did that for a while, his conscience began to trouble him: was he not merely feigning compliance with the leadership? He should rightly report his own opinion and the actual conditions to the Party.
Recalling that period of history ten years later [1968 recalling 1958], Zhou Jiajie was much more aware of what had happened. The seeds of his present calamity had been sown mostly at that time. His thinking had been, and still was, too “conservative.” He could not break the habit of “seeking truth from facts.”7
At the district meeting called to report production figures, Zhou Jiajie screwed up his courage and reported, “Our commune production this year will average 3300 pounds per acre.” Before he’d even finished speaking, he could see that Party Secretary Cai’s expression had changed abruptly. His heart sank and he knew he’d never get away with it. As expected, Secretary Cai pounded the table. Not long ago a county investigating team had discovered that Zhou Jiajie’s commune was not planting the rice sprouts close enough together. They had criticized Zhou on the spot and made things embarrassing for District Branch Secretary Cai. And now Zhou Jiajie was reporting this disappointing figure; no wonder Secretary Cai was angry. He bellowed out: “Zhou Jiajie, you must be sleeping! Commune Number 21 has already reported six and a half tons per acre, and a progressive commune like yours comes up with less than two; how can that be?” Zhou Jiajie bowed his head and remained silent. Of course he knew if he reported six and a half tons he would win a prize—he could take home a brand-new bicycle and make a good impression on the leadership. But what would they do at autumn harvest time? He was responsible for over 130 families, with more than 500 mouths to feed; after the state grain purchases, could he ask them all to go hungry? . . . Later on, a female cadre from the county office told him: “You’d better report at least five tons; otherwise you’ll never pass inspection.” Zhou Jiajie hardened himself as much as he could: All right, if I have to report, I’ll report three tons. How could he have known that the next day the ante would skyrocket again? One commune secretary actually reported a figure of thirty-three tons per acre! Zhou Jiajie once more became a midget. County Work Organization Director Zhang was extremely dissatisfied and kept staring at Zhou Jiajie. Not long after that meeting, the rumors began to fly: Zhou Jiajie used to be an outstanding district worker, and always understood the leadership’s plans very quickly, but now he’s no good: there’s no question that his feelings about the Great Leap Forward are wrong. Zhou Jiajie did not know that he was already being closely watched.
There certainly were many “new things”8 that year. For the previous few years Zhou Jiajie had always taken the lead in developing “new things,” but that year he could no longer do it. He could no longer lead the way in burning up the people’s firewood in order to scorch the earth and carry out full scale “militarization,” in ordering old women to perform morning calisthenics and running, in making everyone sleep in their fields at night, in wasting perfectly good trees in order to make “wooden tracks” and carry out full-scale “vehicularization,” in eliminating work points and changing to a fixed-wage system,9 and even in smashing all private household cooking utensils in order to secure the “changeover to communal eating without any thought of turning back.”
Zhou Jiajie felt extremely perplexed. Wouldn’t he be happy to enter into communism tomorrow? That was why he joined the Party in the first place, but now he felt a certain uneasiness and suspicion. His keen insight into agricultural problems, handed down to him by generations of his ancestors, automatically made him respond negatively to those formalistic work methods that did not pay close attention to practical results: using up so much firewood to scorch the earth, tearing down the commune members’ walls in order to fertilize the fields,10 cutting down perfectly good bamboo for use in the mess-hall cooking fires . . . was all that worth the effort? What were they trying to accomplish? Why did they want the commune members to smash up their perfectly good pans and dishes? Were they supposed to eat out of their hats in the mess halls?
His greatest anxiety concerned the food supply. As a leader of mutual aid teams and agricultural cooperatives for several years, he had always had a certain balance sheet in mind: one acre can produce so much grain, one person can eat so much, and the state will purchase so much. Therefore, no matter how much the leadership kept on shouting, “What do we do if there’s a surplus of food? Loosen your belts and eat up; build up your enthusiasm and produce,” he continued to separate the food rations into three parts and ordered the mess hall to supply reasonably measured amounts. That only made the commune leadership angry again, and they sent down an order abolishing measured amounts. What could he do? Zhou Jiajie watched the commune members consume more than two pounds of grain per person each day, and he grew terribly anxious: when the autumn passed, what would they eat in the spring? A short while later it was time to pay the commune salaries. Where was the money to come from? The leadership sent down an order: cut down the commune members’ bamboo and sell it in the marketplace! When this was done there was barely enough for each person to receive $1.30. The “communal mess system” had been in effect only two months, but the food ration was already exhausted. The best they could do was return to the system of rationing. By this time each person was to receive only three and a half ounces [two Chinese liang] per meal. But even these rations were not available. Originally over seventeen acres of red potatoes had been planted, but Secretary Cai did not have them harvested. He said, “Don’t be so short-sighted; there’s more rice than we can eat, so who wants those damn red potatoes?” But Zhou Jiajie continued to have some people secretly dig up a few and store them; in that way he could barely fulfill those “three and a half ounce” rations.
More and more things grew incomprehensible to Zhou Jiajie, and he became increasingly depressed. His production brigade was located at a road that everyone had to use to go from the commune center to all of the other production brigades. Consequently the leadership asked them to give a particularly large number of “performances”—night tilling, close planting, deep plowing . . . Even Zhou Jiajie, a grassroots cadre who had always been a devout believer in the leadership and in every directive they issued, finally arrived at a day when he simply could not take it.
One day another investigation team arrived from County Central. Commune Secretary Cai ordered Zhou Jiajie to take the deep-plowing team to the east side of the village to perform and then, after the investigation team had passed, to rush his people to the west side of the village so that the investigators could witness the performance again on their way back to the commune center. Before the commune official had finished conveying the order, Zhou Jiajie lost his temper and yelled at him, “What are you trying to do? Treat us like actors? We’ve got water buffaloes and plows and there are so many ditches to cross over—you know how much work it is to move from one side to the other? . . . You tell Secretary Cai we’re not going to do it!”
A short time later, Zhou Jiajie lost his position as production brigade branch secretary and was sent to be a substitute principal at the production brigade’s agricultural middle school.
By the beginning of 1959, a famine had already developed. Zhou Jiajie’s Fifth Brigade could sell to the state only half the grain that they had been obliged to promise. This was hardly surprising, since, according to the inflated quotas, Fangxing Commune was supposed to complete a grain sale to the state of 4.4 million pounds. But that year’s harvest amounted to a total of just over that amount—where were they to find all the “surplus” grain? According to the false production reports there was still supposed to be more than four million pounds in the people’s hands even after subtracting their grain rations. If you said there was no more grain, would the peasants believe you? Thus the County Committee issued an urgent order: all of the grain currently stored at the various production brigades could not be moved, but must be gathered up and put into “people’s granaries” in preparation for sale to the state.
What about seed grains then? There were no seed grains. The seedling fields had long since been made ready and were only waiting for the seedlings. Mosses and weeds began to flourish there, but there were still no paddies planted with seedlings . . .
In the last month of that year a struggle meeting was called by the production brigade to criticize and denounce Zhou Jiajie. The meeting was run personally by Ji Weishi, the former Party committee secretary of Dengshuang Commune. As it turned out. Secretary Cai of Fangxing Commune, the one who had believed Zhou Jiajie was too “right,” had himself already been declared guilty of “rightist deviation” and deprived of his office. As an expert in class struggle, Ji Weishi had been sent down by the County Committee to rectify this backward commune. He brought along a great troop of people and took over the power and authority of several production brigade branch secretaries and bookkeepers.
“Zhou——Jia——jie——,” Secretary Ji poured as much hatred as possible into his enunciation of those three syllables. His booming voice, which belied his short stature, immediately quieted the entire hall and established his authority and status as the embodiment of the Party: “This evil person who has wormed his way into our Party ranks is trying with all his might to topple our great, glorious, and correct Communist Party and ruin the work of socialist construction. We call on him now to confess to the criminal activities he has carried out from October of this year until this moment, activities intended to oppose the Three Red Banners/ to topple the Eighth Production Brigade, and to injure the welfare of poor and lower-middle peasants!”
That was the first time that the twenty-eight-year-old Zhou Jiajie had stood in the accused’s box. He was firmly convinced of his innocence and integrity, but the atmosphere of the meeting and Secretary Ji’s tone made him feel unusually nervous. He was willing to admit his mistakes, even those mistakes that it was not really his responsibility to admit, but there was no way that he could accept the charge of being an “evil person” and confess to “criminal activities.” While he was still trying to figure out just how to respond to such accusations, the agenda was advanced to the stage of “denunciation by the commune masses.” He realized quite sadly: “I’ve been made a landlord!”
It seemed as if everything had been carefully prepared beforehand. The bookkeeper stood up and “confessed” that twenty dollars of the hundred and thirty dollars he personally had embezzled had been taken by Zhou Jiajie. Zhou Jiajie remembered very clearly that this bookkeeper had lent him twenty dollars two months ago when they went to market together. He had asked him specifically if it was public or personal money. The bookkeeper said it was his own money, and only then had Zhou borrowed it, saying very clearly, “I’ll pay you back as soon as I sell my hog.” Another person stood up to accuse him: “What do you mean only twenty dollars? The cooperative’s noodle factory was ruined by him alone with several thousand dollars going into his own pockets; where else would he get the money to dress so well?” Zhou Jiajie laughed to himself: that would be easy to clear up. All the money had gone to buy fertilizer. It hadn’t been as much as that, either. Yet another commune member stood up and said that Zhou Jiajie always sat his ass on the side of the landlords. Once he had borrowed a hoe from a landlord, a broken hoe at that, and Zhou Jiajie had made him guarantee compensation to the landlord.
All that was only a prologue. The play proper was just about to unfold . . .
Wang Quan—who would become a rebel faction leader seven years later—volunteered to reveal Zhou Jiajie’s family history in order to supply Secretary Ji’s needs. He also incited a crowd of people to join in his accusations. At that moment he jumped to his feet and shouted: “Zhou Jiajie himself is nothing more than a dyed-in-the-wool landlord element!”
This was something one could not afford to be vague about. Zhou Jiajie knew very well the weight of that word “landlord.” He wanted to explain before the district people that there must have been some mistake. At the time of the land reform, his family owned only two and two-thirds acres of fourth-class land, a little over a third of an acre per person, which was less than the average amount per person in the village as a whole.
“Tell us, what relation do you have to Zhou Sanma’s wife?” Wang Quan asked accusingly.
Zhou Sanma’s wife? She was pretty famous. Right, she was Zhou Jiajie’s great-grandmother. Zhou Jiajie began to explain that the family fortune completely declined during his grandfather’s generation.
Before he could even finish speaking, a loud “thump” resounded through the hall as Ji Weishi took his revolver out and pounded on the table. This was Secretary Ji’s favorite ploy for stifling the opposition and encouraging the masses’ fighting spirit. He raised his voice:
“Namby-pamby! You won’t admit it? Take him away!”
Several guards who were stationed nearby rushed in around Zhou. That was the “organizational conclusion.” The next act was the “mass denunciation.” Having been a leader for several years, it would be hard not to have offended some people, but even as loudly as a few people shouted and screamed, the general meeting was surprisingly quiet.
It was then time for Secretary Ji to sum things up: the landlord element Zhou Jiajie had wormed his way into the Party, disrupted socialist construction, and committed a multitude of crimes. At this time, in response to the demands of the masses, he would be sentenced to perform supervised labor.11 His last few words made the greatest impression on Zhou Jiajie: “Zhou Jiajie, listen to me: you can forget about ever returning home in this life—unless every pot in your house rattles and shakes as you do!”
Ji Weishi was famous for his eloquence. A few short and forceful words had expressed everything he felt about struggle with the class enemy. After he finished speaking, he looked over to see Zhou Jiajie’s reaction, then waved his arms in satisfaction to indicate that the meeting was over.
Zhou Jiajie was visibly stunned, his face deathly pale. He understood what Ji’s words meant, “unless every pot in your house rattles and shakes ...” He would never return home unless it was as a ghost. Vicious! Even in earlier struggle meetings against the landlords, Zhou Jiajie had never said anything like that. And besides, was it not an announcement of the death penalty? When was that ever a Party policy? ... As he thought to himself, he looked around the meeting hall; at least his son had not come. He could see only his wife’s back; she had drawn in her shoulders and seemed smaller and thinner than ever . . .
In a short while Zhou Jiajie was sent to West Ditch to “assemble for training.” At that time he learned that with the exception of Chen Jiaci and a few others who were in college, all of the commune branch secretaries had become “evil persons”—even the commune director and two undersecretaries. All of these people were of poor peasant ancestry.
Everyday life at West Ditch consisted of three routines: hard labor, writing confessions, and holding struggle sessions—“evil people” struggling against “evil people.” Confessions were written every day in exactly the same way. Struggle sessions were basically identical too: one person would stand on a bench and explain various “problems” while an audience of a couple hundred others would criticize and accuse him. The next day someone else would go up and the one who was accused the day before would then accuse others. It was certainly a case of “being both the target and the moving force of the revolution.” It was nothing less than a theatrical farce, but every one of the “actors” was himself taking a tragic role: when they were chaotically and mechanically shouting, “You’re not being honest!” or “Leniency to those who confess, severity for those who refuse!” every one of them felt an enormous sense of pity for the “protagonist” standing up there on the bench.
When no one else was near them, Zhou Jiajie quietly asked Lan Jixuan—a former production brigade branch secretary who had only recently been nominated for commune undersecretary—what his problem was. At the end of 1960, Commune Secretary Ji Weishi had falsely reported, during a county-wide telephone conference call, a grain sale to the state of 275 tons. But later on he dumped his dirty water in Lan Jixuan’s lap by saying Lan had made the false report. In that way Lan was branded a “sub-landlord” during the commune rectification drive.
Lan Jixuan and the recently branded “degenerate element” Liu Nancun (his crime was “placing evil persons in positions of importance”—he had allowed a man who had been a township official for several years before Liberation and another young man who had been pressed into the Nationalist Party’s army to occupy positions as production team leaders) had worked together closely ever since land reform days. They had stayed up together many a night during that unforgettable year of 1958: sitting miserably through district and then commune meetings, trying to eke out a production target figure that would satisfy the district or county leadership, then carrying bamboo torches into a “night battle” for production. Finally, they went back to all-night commune meetings when they had to come up with a state grain requisition figure to satisfy county or commune leadership. In order to spur them on, they were brought before on-the-spot meetings: Look at such-and-such a brigade! Their grain stores are full to overflowing. How come you alone have no grain? You must be cheating on production figures and dividing it among yourselves! Everyone knew very well that the stores of the other brigades were full of straw with reed mats thrown over it and a thin layer of grain sprinkled on top to fool people. Someone had made a bitter joke about this: if only people’s stomachs could pretend the same way—if filling them up with straw and tossing down a couple of grains of rice could prevent hunger—that would be wonderful.
In the middle of August, Zhou Jiajie’s chief worry was: What is to become of the people now that power in Fangxing Commune has fallen into the hands of a man like Ji Weishi?
Cadres from the County Committee often came on assignments to West Ditch. From fragmentary reports Zhou Jiajie heard, he surmised that rural conditions did not seem to be improving, even though all of the “evil people” had already been locked up. On the contrary, the situation seemed to be growing more serious. Just after all of the “evil people” were overthrown, the “swollen foot sickness” [malnutrition] broke out all over the countryside.
That was precisely the time when the people’s beloved leader Comrade Peng Dehuai was toppled from power and Lin Biao took total command of the armed forces after several years of convalescence. It seems that there is a fixed amount of light in the universe. Just after one star falls from the sky, another star shines with blinding brightness.
Ji Weishi was a clever man, but his was a cleverness completely opposite from Zhou Jiajie’s. His feelings and thinking in response to external events consistently took a completely different course from Zhou’s.
It was right in 1958 that he jumped all the way from credit union director to commune secretary and then carried the “royal sword” of the County Committee into the battle to “rectify” Fangxing Communе. Ji Weishi received the highest commendations from the County Committee in 1958 and 1959. This single fact explains many things.
In 1958—just at the time when cadres like Zhou Jiajie were beset by physical and spiritual anxiety, were suffering from many internal contradictions, going through repeated struggles, coming into direct conflict with and incurring the dissatisfaction of the leadership, and heading step by step toward destruction—Ji Weishi was as happy as a fish discovering water: the “current situation” was molding him into a “hero of our times.”
From the tone of voice and subtle facial expressions of the County Committee leaders, he very perceptively sensed the tenor of the times. Thus he lost no opportunity to send up bold and loftily ambitious plans, magnificent production targets, and outstanding figures on the completion of state grain purchases. That was precisely the time when those production brigade and commune cadres who did not understand “the mission of the age” were frowning and sighing all the time and revealing their “right-wing,” “conservative,” “narrow-minded peasant selfishness.” Thus Ji Weishi’s character stood out heroically like an eagle among sparrows and attracted the particular attention and respect of the leadership.
At the grassroots level, whatever place Ji Weishi visited was immediately transformed from backward to progressive. His main point was always to get more money and food so that the masses would be easier to manipulate.
There were times, however, when some small misfortune would occur. Ji Weishi reported that the seedlings had been successfully planted slightly ahead of schedule, but when the County Committee investigated, the work was still far from finished. He reported grain sales to the state of 275 tons, but an investigation turned up a shortfall of 93.5 tons. That was easy to explain, of course: it was all the fault of the deputy secretary and the bookkeeper, who were careless with figures; “I did not check” this or “they didn’t consult with me” on that. Ji Weishi had a pair of slippery shoulders, and responsibilities just naturally slid off them and onto those of his assistants. Ji Weishi’s mistakes never involved anything more serious than “I didn’t investigate thoroughly enough.”
He only had one irremediable failing: he couldn’t stand the scrutiny of thousands of pairs of eyes or the private evaluation and discussion of thousands of mouths. Once he realized what was happening and turned around to look, his expression, voice, and actions were completely different from those seen by the County Committee secretary. In 1959, a Dengshuang Commune member named Yuan Ping’an was eating in the threshing yard when Ji Weishi passed by (he was secretary of Dengshuang Commune at the time). Someone at the table called Ji Weishi over to eat with them, but Yuan Ping’an stopped him: “What’re you calling him over to eat for? That bastard takes more and eats more; after he gets through with us, we won’t even have enough potatoes to eat our fill!” Ji Weishi heard every word. That night Ji Weishi went to the production brigade to round up a few henchmen, told them to cut some tree branches, and announced that “we simply have to get rid of these unhealthy trends and evil practices!” Then he personally convened a meeting of all commune members and ordered Yuan Ping’an to confess: “What kind of trouble are you trying to stir up with all that fucking talk? What have you got against the People’s Communes and the Three Red Banners?” When he didn’t come clean, they tied him up. When he tried to explain himself again but did not make a full enough confession, four or five of Ji’s henchmen tortured him with whips made of five tree branches tied together. At the same time an old man who had said the wheat was sown too closely together and a married couple who had dropped a few vegetable seeds during shipment received the same fierce beating.
Ji Weishi not only beat or cursed those he didn’t like or who didn’t like him. He also employed more “civilized” methods. For example, he once ordered a commune member to wear a big mud cake on his head and walk from one production brigade to another, “parading himself through the streets to expose his crimes to others” for five or six miles. The farthest production brigade had to check the mud cake on his arrival to make sure he hadn’t moved it.
Actually the masses could see only a very small portion of Ji Weishi’s true activities. All the rapid changes in production relations, the wild and chaotic work pace, the constant ups and downs in policy, just like sudden shifts in the earth’s surface, naturally produced a number of cracks; and through these cracks Ji Weishi unceasingly sucked up oil and water [i.e., personal advantage]. And he had no qualms about the taste of human blood in what he sucked. During the great movement to produce homemade steel in residential back yards, every family was assessed two dollars. Accordingly, Ji Weishi had thousands of dollars in ready cash. Vast amounts of foodstuffs and material goods, together with several hundred state workers, were also at his disposal. When production brigades fell short on seeds and chemical fertilizer, another large sum of money passed through his hands. Tens of thousands of dollars in relief grain and workers’ compensation were also under his control. He knew what sort of contacts he needed, and those people knew what they wanted from him, and thus everybody worked hand-in-hand to one another’s advantage. It is still a mystery just exactly how much money he embezzled, how many things he stole, how much relief grain he sold for high prices at the market, or how much rice and lumber he secretly had shipped home. During the first Socialist Education Movement of 1963,12 he was forced to confess to a certain figure, swearing he was “absolutely honest” and would “pay it back immediately”; but during the second Socialist Education Movement of 1965, he admitted to a much larger figure.
When all of the cadres of Fangxing Commune were cut down like grass and Ji Weishi became the commune secretary, he made an already calamitous situation even worse. It was as if the voices of all those cadres who had been forcibly silenced were concentrated in Ji Weishi’s throat, so that this born orator now had a louder voice, a higher pitch, and much greater breath: “There aren’t enough rations? Nonsense! The swollen foot sickness is nothing but the swollen foot sickness; it has nothing to do with hunger! State grain sales must be completed, and only ahead of schedule, never behind!”
Ji Weishi measured others by his own circumstances, and thus his words were not entirely lacking in sincerity. From 1959 on—at exactly the same time that the masses entered a state of semistarvation—Ji Weishi had fresh milk and eggs for breakfast every morning. He went to Fangxing Commune and used their crucible to decoct for himself special medicines that he wrote off as operating expenses, despite the fact that they were a disallowed item. He could go to the commune ponds whenever he liked and take home fresh fish; he could take free pork, duck eggs, and goose eggs; he could go to the old people’s home or any of the production brigades and eat with them as often as he liked without paying anything . . . Matter becomes mind; thus it was quite excusable that he simply could not understand that there was such a thing as “starvation” in this world.
People now say, “If Ji Weishi had not come to Fangxing Commune that year, our losses would not have been so great.” Obviously the role of the individual in history should still not be underestimated.
In Ji Weishi’s dossier, however, the record of these “historical contributions” is unfortunately too brief. Look at his final evaluation: “This comrade is an activist worker, has great enthusiasm and spirit, and is able to thoroughly carry out the Party’s policies and complete his every Party assignment. His class stand is resolute and his class view accurate; he is able to boldly carry out class struggle against evil people and their activities” (of course, that included Zhou Jiajie and those wronged ghosts of the nether world like Yuan Ping’an and others) . . . Ji Weishi’s own assessment of himself is somewhat more detailed in its description of his “historic contributions”: . . . standpoint resolute; always struggled against individualistic thought, discussion, or behavior; never wavered pn the question of policy direction. While at Fangxing and Hua Jiao Communes, always resolutely struggled against the advocates of the household production contract system;13 never wavered, never gave in, and took full responsibility for solving such problems”
All of these “resolute struggles” and so forth refer, of course, to his performance during the historical periods of 1958 to 1960 and 1962. But what about his embezzlement, stealing, beating and cursing of the masses, and false accusations of good people? There were two years when his evaluation read “engaged in embezzlement and stealing.” This was written in the section on “shortcomings,” but a “dialectical” change was also noted, and the “negations” of his various shortcomings also constituted “strong points” :“. . . but he was able to confess voluntarily (?) and frankly (?), make just compensation, and make proper self-examination; and his work attitude was always correct (!).”
Thus, whenever the leadership of some commune was not forceful enough, Ji Weishi, “based on his political ability and integrity,” would be sent “to strengthen the leadership and give full play to the Party’s function as a revolutionary bulwark . . . etc., etc.”
None of this is at all surprising, considering that by 1966 Ji Weishi’s dossier no longer contained the slightest hint of wrongdoing. His thinking and his virtue were both pure and unblemished; his only minor fault was that “on occasion he is rather one-sided in his evaluation of certain problems; he lacks thoroughness and attention to details in his style of work, etc.”
Why did those comrades sitting in their County Committee Organization Office writing such evaluations never go down and look around? Why did they never go to the production brigades, the grassroots cadres, and the commune members and listen to what they had to say? For example:
“Flattering toward the leaders, but arrogant and oppressive toward the workers . . .”
“He’s an expert liar; always reports good news, never bad; always reports unfinished work as having been completed ahead of schedule.”
“A small man with a big head (a self-important official). His word alone is law.”
“Always cursing, beating, and locking people up or sending them to do forced labor for the commune.”
The simplest and most devastating evaluation was: “He gets ahead by climbing over the dead bodies of the masses—totally without shame!”
The only weapon that the masses, who could always see things clearly, could use against such a man was to despise and ignore him. They would greet anyone on the street, but somehow “didn’t see” this particular corpus of flesh and blood.
The position a man occupies in the hearts of the masses can actually be greatly at odds with the position he occupies among the ranks of officials.
Working all day with the commune members and living at home with his family, Zhou Jiajie could not really be considered isolated; but spiritually he was living far away on a very small island, an island so small that there was room only for him alone to dwell there.
Among the masses he was regarded almost as a recluse, and everyone gradually got used to ignoring his existence. Sometimes this made him feel very bad, but it also gave him an important opportunity—he could hear things that other people couldn’t, and he was extremely interested in every piece of intelligence about the outside world. Such news was related to his personal security and to his hope of someday returning to normal life.
He had already fallen to the status of the lowest of the low. He was politically equal to landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, and other bad elements, but he lacked even their ability to speak and thus suffered more fear and anxiety than they did. He lived in constant fear of falling into some sort of trap. All he wished for was to avoid harassment, accusations, and beatings . . .
His fears were, of course, not unfounded. Whenever he collected manure with the other commune members, even though he had carried six loads, the brigade leader would mark him down for only four loads while marking everyone else down for six loads. The others would receive four work points, but he, only three. He was extremely angry, but could not speak; he could only force himself to calm down and let it go. Nevertheless, the brigade leader noticed his dissatisfaction and cursed him: “You’re only acting crazy!” At that he became over-excited, forgot himself, jumped up, and beat violently on his own chest. The brigade leader took a close look at him, thought a moment, and said, “You’re only pretending to be a crazy fool. If we gave you a beating, you’d talk all right!”
He couldn’t sleep at all that night, he was so angry with himself for losing his composure. It was clear now that the brigade leader already suspected him of only pretending to be deaf and dumb. He must be extremely cautious.
He went on to consider that merely pretending to be completely deaf and dumb was not sufficient. He had to build the walls of his little island even higher and plan thoroughly for any eventuality. When a couple of close friends who had unreliable class backgrounds paid him one of their frequent visits, he wrote a note to his son: “In the future, these kinds of people should not come very often.” After that, in order to protect himself he decided not to associate with three kinds of people: cadres, people with political problems, and people who were too clever for anyone’s good.
His wife and son were talking about buying a radio. At first he thought this would be a good idea to liven up his family’s silent world and give them some relief from boredom, but when his son wrote him a note asking for his opinion, he wrote down very clearly: “We cannot do it! Didn’t you see what happened to Zhou Zhongci?” That was the end of that.
Zhou Zhongci was a nephew. He had been branded a rightist in 1958 because he said the peasants did not have enough to eat. He was later sent to work at the Mianyang Agricultural Machinery Station. There was a radio there with a loudspeaker system attached. On one occasion he tired of listening to a political program and turned the dial to a music station. An alarm sounded for thirty seconds and the security forces immediately came running. Zhou Zhongci was arrested on the spot for the crime of secretly listening to and rebroadcasting an “enemy station.” He was relieved of his duties, sentenced to three years in prison, and branded an active counterrevolutionary. When he came out of prison, he was sent back to the countryside to perform supervised labor.
Besides, Zhou Jiajie reasoned, since they already suspect that I am pretending to be mute, they will believe I harbor resentment and will suspect me of sitting at home plotting some sort of activity to get back at them. In those days any radio could be declared to be a wireless sending and receiving set, not to mention the simple fact that if his family bought a radio they would suspect all the more that he was only pretending deafness ... He closed his doors to all guests, didn’t buy a radio, didn’t go to market, and reduced his contacts with the outside world to an absolute minimum. He could do without all things but one—security.
He would close his door at night and sit there weaving basket after basket out of thin strips of bamboo. In two evenings he could weave a pair of baskets, and his son could sell them for a few cents in the marketplace. This was his only recreation and entertainment.
He was the earliest one up every morning. He would first sweep up the entire little yard until it was perfectly clean from wall to fence and outside his gate; then he would start a fire and cook breakfast. He also had to decide when it was time to sell something in the marketplace and what they should buy there as well; he would record everything very clearly in his account book ... He had voluntarily taken over the management of all the household affairs and housework. He did so not merely to occupy his mind and relieve some of his depression. In his home he felt like a human being: he could think, organize, arrange, and direct things, instead of silently, passively, and me־ chanically following everyone else in the completion of this or that labor assignment.
After two or three years he finally became accustomed to being deaf and dumb. People said that he had regained some weight and that his complexion had improved. Of course, he did not have to participate in any meetings and did not have to worry about anything in the commune or the brigade; he was as relaxed as could be. Any very attentive person, however, could see that his expression was becom־ ing duller day by day. Compared to the former Zhou Jiajie, who was full of talk and laughter and whose happiness, anger, grief, and joy were immediately registered on his face, he had become another person.
His own acclimation to the role of being deaf and dumb came more slowly than his general acceptance as such by others. In any public gathering, he himself no longer made any demands for expression or association; but in his heart, his inability to speak up was still a constant source of pain.
The process of being forced to cut himself off from other people and become isolated was the exact opposite of the experience of Sichuan’s famous “white-haired girl,” Luo Changxiu.14 When Luo Changxiu escaped into the mountains at the age of fourteen, she immediately cut off all contact with the outside world and became absolutely isolated. She heard only the sound of wind and rain and the cries of tigers and wolves, but not the sound of human voices. She no longer had opportunities to express her thoughts, wishes, or feelings to other people, and thus she naturally came to abandon the desire to do so. Zhou Jiajie, on the other hand, was already a mature adult of thirty-six and had been working in society for many years. He had lived in a rapidly changing society and, as a consequence of his wide contacts with other people, his “social nature” was more highly developed than that of most of the masses. His contacts with other people were abruptly cut off under these quite different circumstances, and yet he still had to live all the time in the midst of the same social group. His ears were continually providing him with various bits of intelligence, which filtered through his mind and immediately became a part of his own thoughts and feelings; but he could not convey any information or express even the slightest reaction to the events of the outside world. Most human beings probably have occasion to endure such painful circumstances only once in their lifetimes—during that brief moment when they are very near death and their mental faculties are still quite lucid but they have lost the ability to speak. Zhou Jiajie, however, had to live under these circumstances all the time. Thus, for him to accustom himself to not speaking was several times more difficult than it was for Luo Changxiu; just as Luo Changxiu could not get used to speaking, did not want to, and was not very good at it once she had returned to the human world.
The written word became Zhou Jiajie’s only means of communication with other people, but written words cannot take the place of speech. Whenever an old friend came to visit, Zhou Jiajie naturally wanted to chat a bit with him, yet it was imperative that he not open his mouth. Could written notes possibly serve the same purpose?
When he was feeding the hogs, they knocked over a pail of grain husks, and his wife scolded him at length: “A grown man like you, and you can’t even hold the grain pail steady!” He was both excited and angry and wanted to shout something right back at her, but he couldn’t. Writing a note was out of the question, because she was illiterate.
He was very upset with his son about something, so he wrote a very short little note: “Silly little fool!” His daughter-in-law saw it, thought it referred to her, and went off crying. He had no way of explaining the misunderstanding; after all, he was not even supposed to be able to hear her sobbing.
Aside from note writing, he could only employ facial expressions and gestures. His wife and daughter-in-law were constantly quarreling. His daughter-in-law, of course, had no compunction about criticizing her mother-in-law in front of her deaf father-in-law. Zhou Jiajie had wanted to interfere for a long time but was completely powerless. One day at dinner when his daughter-in-law was carrying on again, he gave her a dark disapproving look, but it was no use. In a fit of rage, he knocked over the dining table in order to assert his authority as the head of the household.
In 1972, something very important happened.
One day Zhou Zhongci came running over to Zhou Jiajie’s house and began gesturing excitedly this way and that. Zhou jiajie finally understood him: somebody had fallen to his death from a high place. But who was it? Zhou Zhongci pointed to his head, with the meaning that the person was bald. Khrushchev? He had fallen from power long ago; Zhou Zhongci wouldn’t be so excited about his death. Zhou Zhongci was growing a little impatient. He tried to imitate the person’s facial expression and way of walking, but it wasn’t until he pretended to wave the Quotations from Chairman Mao that Zhou Jiajie realized who it was: Oh, Lin Biao!
He had not read the newspapers for three years, but from that day on he went out to the roadside every day to wait for the postman and be the first one to see the newspapers.
As his feeling of personal security grew stronger, he gradually began to think beyond his own individual safety and well-being. He felt as if something was vaguely stirring within him, as if something inside him that had been dormant for many years was gradually beginning to reawaken . . .
It was 1972 already, but the production brigade’s per acre grain production had not yet even matched the figures for 1953, when they had developed the first-stage cooperatives! The brigade leader wore out his whistle urging people on to work harder, but everyone was lazy and malingering. They were very good at producing children though! There was not enough to eat then, so what were they going to eat in the future? “If they would make me Party branch secretary, I would . . .” The first time that thought occurred to Zhou Jiajie, it surprised him, but later on his thoughts often tended in that direction.
He turned forty that year. Perhaps it would be his lucky year. He had only worked for the Party six years, but he’d already been a criminal for twelve.
A dark shadow often rose up in his memory and would not allow him to be optimistic. It was something that had occurred in 1962 when he was not yet a mute. He had been cutting down some creepers when a cadre from County Central came up beside him, took his arm, and whispered softly, “I think making you an alien class element was an unjust verdict. They’re just beginning to reexamine some cases at the county level. I think there’s some hope for you . . .”
From then on, every time county or commune cadres came to the production brigade, Zhou Jiajie would glance at them hopefully. Maybe they’ve come to find me? Or perhaps they’ve come to check up on my performance these last few years? Or to reinvestigate my family’s economic condition before Land Reform?
In that year there really were thousands of good comrades whose cases were reexamined and who were then readmitted to the Party or given their former jobs back. There were even a few in Xinjin County. It seems that Zhou Jiajie’s case was brought up, but the only result was that a few more words were added to his dossier: “A correct decision, no need for reexamination.”
A new hope burst forth in 1975. A very great hope indeed, related to the reappearance of the name Deng Xiaoping. News of a “Party reform” came shortly after that, and there were constant rumors that new rural and personnel policies would soon be implemented. At that point the desire that Zhou Jiajie had nurtured in his heart for seven long years, the desire to escape from being deaf and dumb and to speak out once again, was stronger than ever before.
The following year, he passed a note to his son: “Find a good doctor; I want to be cured.”
On the basis of the overall national situation, he had concluded that if he was “cured” at this time, even if there were some suspicion that he had been faking, no one would investigate him. He still had a strong hope lodged deep in his heart: one of these days someone may come to ask about the injustices I’ve suffered; at that time, I’ll have to be able to speak.
His son and his close friends did in fact go to a great deal of trouble to make an appointment with a good doctor for him, but they were unsuccessful. That winter, the situation once again took a turn for the worse. First came the “counterattack against the reversal of rightist verdicts,”15 and then the death of Premier Zhou Enlai plunged the entire nation into deep sorrow and anxiety.
Zhou Jiajie hid in a deserted place for fear that someone would find him weeping, and the dark clouds weighed all the more heavily on his heart. Why talk about “curing” his illness? What hope was there to clear up his political problem? China’s historical clock seemed to have stopped again.
Who could have imagined that the pent-up anger, resentment, and enmity that had been growing steadily in the hearts of all the Chinese people was just about to coalesce into a mighty force that would sweep the Gang of Four and their followers into the graveyard of history?
After the fall of the Gang of Four, Zhou Jiajie continued to keep silent for almost three more years. Could this be because suffering and apprehension had weighed on his heart so long that his spirit had already become as frozen and numb as the expression on his face? After the slogans “Down with the Gang of Four” and “Liberate the people” had joyfully resounded for so long, why was he still so unmoved that he did not stand up and shout out his appeal for a redress of grievances?
Our wishes always travel in a straight line, while history often prefers a tortuous course. The martyred Shi Yunfeng, who so bravely opposed Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, could never have imagined that he would die at the hands of the Gang of Four element Wang Huaixiang long after the Gang themselves had been smashed.16 Just think about a few things: Remember when the verdict on the Tiananmen Incident was finally reversed.17 Remember that as much as two years after the Gang of Four had fallen from the historical stage, some people still refused to allow discussion of the “extreme left” line and many people who had opposed that line were still being punished in prison as “active counterrevolutionaries.” Remember again that as late as 1979 the slogan “Practice is the sole criterion of truth”18 was still meeting a great deal of opposition . . . When one recalls all these things, Zhou Jiajie’s continued wait-and-see attitude of silence does not seem strange at all.
After October 1976 [when the Gang of Four were arrested], he once again waited on the road every day for the postman to deliver the newspapers. He listened greedily to every word people said and carefully and unblinkingly observed every little change in their daily lives as well as their every reaction to these changes and their expectations for even greater and more complete change.
The first joyful event was Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s return to work. Many large and small followers of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four were either arrested or removed from office, and that made people feel both relieved and happy. Everyone was talking about Comrade Zhao Ziyang leading a group of Provincial Committee cadres down to the villages to make an extended examination of local conditions and to solicit the opinions and listen to the demands of the peasants and the rural cadres. The people were finally beginning to reap real benefits: whether or not to practice double cropping of rice was no longer an issue of revolution or counterrevolution; they no longer had to hear “If wet rice won’t do, plant dry wheat,” and “Late autumn is a good time for wheat. . .”19 Long-awaited reforms in the cropping system arrived. “Dazhai-style work points”20 were eliminated, and the principle of more pay for more work was reinstated, as was self-regulation for production brigades. The state put into practice a whole system of reforms that were beneficial to the peasants and allowed them to enrich themselves through their own labor . . .
“Party Central knows . . .” Zhou Jiajie nodded his head in silent approval as he talked to himself, “. . . knows what sort of errors have occurred these past years, knows how the peasants feel and what they have suffered. Just look, even while the nation is experiencing such difficulties, they’re still raising the state purchase price for agricultural products; they’re really taking good care of us peasants ...”
He paid particular attention to the fact that the slogan “Take class struggle as the key” was not mentioned, and that one unjust case after another was being reversed. It looked like they were proceeding from the near to the distant, first taking care of the 1970s, then later the 1960s and 1950s . . . His heart was slowly warming up, and the flame of hope that had been put out so often before was flaring up once more.
He still did not dare give free rein to his hopes, however, because policies had fluctuated back and forth too many times during the past few years. Who could guarantee that the brakes would not suddenly be applied again? Weren’t conditions just like this in 1959, 1962, and 1975? And besides, for so many years every movement had been “anti-rightist,” never “anti-leftist.” Supposing somebody jumped out again and started shouting, “All of you are rightists and have to be completely rectified!”—wouldn’t that be the end of everything? He was also worried that when it came time to exonerate him, since everyone knew he was deaf and dumb someone would say, “What’s a person like him worth? Forget him!” One statement like that and he might be confined to oblivion again, just like back in 1962.
Thus he continued to wait and see, continued to remain silent, and continued to stifle his overly ardent hopes. He was afraid of the shock of disappointment.
The Goddess of Fortune finally remembered this man who had been forgotten for twenty years.
On the morning of January 4, 1979, the whole family was in the living room after breakfast when Zhou’s eldest son, Zhou Xinqiang, said very thoughtfully, “Something very strange happened. Yesterday afternoon, when I was coming home from work, I ran into Production Brigade Secretary Qin, and he asked me several times, ‘Can your father really hear and speak or not?’ . . . Something may be going on.”
Naturally, Zhou Jiajie “didn’t hear” what his son said. He thought the time had probably arrived, but did not dare to act rashly. He had to find someone to consult with and see what was going on.
He immediately thought of Chen Jiaci, a man of similar age, experience, and cultural level, who had been one of his best friends in the early days. He had also been a Party branch secretary in 1959, and if he hadn’t gone to study at Dujiang University he would have suffered the same evil fate as Zhou Jiajie. During the most dangerous days of the Cultural Revolution, he was the only one who dared to visit Zhou Jiajie’s home and to write notes asking about the wellbeing of his family and if they had any problems . . . Zhou Jiajie wrote a note and sent Xinqiang off to find Chen Jiaci. He was a person you could rely on, and it wouldn’t matter if you asked him something you shouldn’t.
Without waiting for Xinqiang to speak, Chen Jiaci put down his seed potatoes, wiped his hands, and asked, “Did you come to talk about your father’s case?” Xinqiang was both surprised and pleased as he quickly answered, “My dad told me to come and ask Uncle Chen if his case could be brought up now.” Chen Jiaci was quite positive. “Why not? Of course it’s time to bring it up! You go home and tell him I’ll come over this noon; otherwise tonight for sure.”
At noontime Chen Jiaci came to the Zhou home and another conversation written on notes took place. “When your case was first handled, what was the verdict?” “Alien class element. Exaggeration of production figures leading to rural starvation. Misusing over seventy dollars of public money. Embezzling twenty dollars.” Chen Jiaci took a brush and painted lines through “alien class element” and “exaggeration . . .” These two lines were like two crowbars prying up a large heavy stone that had been weighing down Zhou Jiajie’s heart for twenty years. Under “misusing . . .” Chen Jiaci wrote, “returned year by year; no longer counts.” Under “embezzling . . .” he wrote, “Even if it were true, it’s not serious enough for such a verdict.”
The next day Chen Jiaci returned, bringing with him Yang Shuncheng, who had been the deputy secretary of Fangxing Commune and was now the deputy director of its grain office. Zhou Jiajie set out some wine and they carried on another paper conversation as they drank. Chen Jiaci wrote, “Unjust cases are currently being reversed all over the country; your case can probably be cleared up. Can you speak or not? If you’ve been pretending, you can just give us a sign and we can, if you like, keep your secret until after your case is resolved.”
That was the longest question Zhou Jiajie had ever been asked in his eleven years of silent conversations, and it was the one that caused him the greatest hesitation. After some time, he finally took up the brush and wrote, “Thank you for your help. I’m afraid that I will not explain myself clearly.”
Chen Jiaci looked at the note and stared at Zhou Jiajie for a long time, until the tears welled up in his eyes. The grave injustice suffered by this beloved childhood friend who stood before him, plus the almost indescribable pain that he himself had endured these past years, all pressed at once on his heavy heart. At the same time, he felt a great elation in finally proving that Zhou Jiajie was really pretending to be mute and that now he had a chance to start a new life in this world that had recently grown lovable again.
On the sixth of January, the County Committee called a meeting of third-level cadres. There Zhou Jiajie’s note was delivered to the County Committee secretary. Comrade Zhong Guanglin. Zhong Guanglin had long ago heard about someone called Zhou Jiajie. From the words “I’m afraid that I will not explain myself clearly” he inferred that Zhou probably could speak. He ordered the Organization Department to check his case file. The Commune Cadre Committee and the Organization Department cadres examined the original verdiet point by point and found that not one point could hold water. They determined that Zhou Jiajie’s father was not a landlord; he had merely hired some temporary laborers and sold some wine at the county market. The so-called misuse of public money was only Zhou Jiajie’s borrowing one or two dollars when he had to go to the district township for meetings, and he had paid it all back later out of his wages. But the embezzlement of twenty dollars was retained in the new adjudication.
County Secretary Zhong asked Fangxing Commune Secretary Li Shuquan to call Zhou Jiajie to the county seat. Zhou’s son brought him to town on his bicycle, and Li Shuquan told him, “Your situation has been discussed several times and we’ve decided it is an unjust case.” Zhou Jiajie’s heart was pounding like storm-blown waves, but his facial muscles retained their by now habitual lack of expression. He did not speak either—this too was a years-old habit that did not require the least bit of control. “He can’t hear,” his son explained quite sincerely, and another written conversation ensued. Zhou Jiajie wrote, “Wait until I am cured and then we can talk.” Li Shuquan wrote, “I’ll give you three days to be cured.” The two men looked at each other closely, each one contemplating his next move.
Zhang Qunfang, a female cadre from Fangxing Commune, was standing nearby witnessing this bizarre confrontation. This young, straightforward, and able comrade had already figured out Zhou Jiajie’s true situation and felt great sympathy for him. Watching Zhou Jiajie’s face blushing red and then turning pale again, she could no longer bear to see him go on suffering so; she walked over, shook his hand warmly, and spoke in a friendly voice, “Don’t worry any more. It’s a new day! You still think you can’t speak clearly enough? None of us needs to be afraid any more.” Zhou Jiajie seemed visibly moved, but he was still full of anxious reservations and stood there as speechless as before. Li Shuquan and Zhang Qunfang found it extremely difficult to wait there patiently for him to speak his first words. For a full ten minutes the only movement was that of large beads of sweat pouring down Zhou Jiajie’s face. Finally he stood up; he had decided to speak, but his tongue was very heavy and sluggish. Tears choked his throat as he barely and haltingly forced out three rather indistinct syllables:
“I. . . . . . can. . . . . . . speak!” This was the first thing he had said in eleven years.
The strange thing was that the apprehension he had felt for twenty long years still clung to him as if from inertia. At that moment Zhou Jiajie had already escaped from his many anxieties, but his mind and tongue were still not working in harmony, and he just kept repeating the refrain that had rung in his head so many hundreds of times: “I’m afraid ... I will not explain myself clearly.”
The room was completely silent except for the sound of his son weeping for joy and sadness.
“I was afraid . . .”—it was an historic echo. The sound of his son’s weeping was a fitting end to twenty tragic years of his family history.
“I never thought I’d see this day!” Zhou Jiajie confided to his son on the way home. The sounds of rejoicing were interspersed with the sounds of sighs, and unprecedented happiness accompanied feelings about a past too painful to recall. In the spring of 1979, all over the length and breadth of China, innumerable people were repeating that same short but profoundly significant sentence, “I never thought I’d see this day!” It marked the end of an era for an individual and for an entire nation, and announced the beginning of a new historical epoch.
On the road home, there were the same long lines of people and vehicles, the same wheat fields, and the same rows of flowering rape and beans; but Zhou Jiajie felt differently about all of them. When he left he was a longtime stranger to all of those things; but now as he returned to this world after a long exile, he was once more an equal member of society, one of those people walking, driving, and working there. He was once more a human being living in the human world.
His son began to pedal faster in his excitement to carry the great good news to their family. The road was quite uneven and they bounced up and down terribly. “Running proudly in the spring wind, the horse’s hooves fly ...” It had been so long since Zhou Jiajie had sung, but now he truly felt like singing a song; yet when he recalled how difficult it was just to speak and how bad he sounded, he decided not to spoil his present mood.
An acquaintance they met on the road used his customary gestures to ask Zhou Jiajie where he had been. Zhou Jiajie jumped down off the bicycle and said, “We went into Xinjin County Seat.” The fellow stood there stunned for a moment before he finally asked, “Who cured you?” That question caused Zhou Jiajie some consternation. How should he put it? He should thank Party Central, but it was too large, so he finally answered, “Commune Secretary Li cured me.”
The whole family was sitting in the front yard waiting and hoping that their wishes would be fulfilled when the head of the household went into the city to be exonerated. If that were to happen the whole family could breathe freely again and hold their heads high once more.
Zhou Jiajie’s daughter ran through the gate. His granddaughter ran into his arms. Zhou Jiajie hugged her tightly and, mustering all the strength at his command, uttered the two words: “Good——granddaughter!” He could feel that his eyes were wet again.
Everyone was dumbfounded. Zhou Jiajie looked over at his wife; two long streaks of tears were streaming down her dry, bony cheeks. . .
Zhou Jiajie returned once again to his position of twenty years before as production brigade Party branch secretary. His current possession of power was due not to any empty slogan or falsely inflated production figures, but to his ability to work the brigade’s land for the genuine and substantial benefit of the people living there. When he finally put plow to earth, however, he discovered that the land was not what it used to be. He had not only to plow the fields, but also to bend over constantly to pick up many stones and to pull up deeprooted congo grass. Out of the twenty-one Party members in his production brigade, only five were the kind who could get things moving. The population had increased greatly, but the arable land had actually decreased . . .
Zhou Jiajie was not one to remain idle. Enough garbage had piled up on this piece of land since he had left the scene that he would have all he could do to clean it up.
Things wouldn’t be easy for Zhou Jiajie, either. The first time he opened his mouth to speak, a most unhappy event occurred. A very well-known person walked over from the far side of the room where Zhou’s exoneration had been announced. Zhou Jiajie quickly smiled and held out his hand, but the man just turned his face and walked away. It was Ji Weishi.
Perhaps Ji Weishi was not yet accustomed to the new atmosphere of the times and imagined that he sensed something unpropitious in it. He and a few others like him had gotten so accustomed to hearing only the sound of their own voices that they could not enjoy a hubbub of many voices.
But old man history tells us that it’s better to be a little more noisy. A silent era cannot be a good one.
Originally published in Liu Binyan baogaowenxue xuan (Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1981).
1. The traditional Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated from about the twenty-third of the twelfth month to the fifteenth of the first month of the new year. During the Cultural Revolution, the festival was greatly abbreviated or not held at all.
2. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people were asked by the Communist Party to “draw a clear line” between themselves and any family member or friend suspected of political deviance.
3. Searching out “rightist elements” during the early years of the Cultural Revolution.
4. The term jiaodai is jargon for “explain” or “confess,” depending on the immediate context; it frequently applies to persons accused of political crimes.
5. Dou, “struggle,” is jargon for verbal political harassment.
6. The “Three Red Banners” were the General Line for Socialist Construction, the Great Leap Forward, and the People’s Communes.
7. The pragmatic slogan associated with Deng Xiaoping and the present Chinese Communist Party leadership.
8. The phrase “new things” or “socialist new things” (shelwizhuyi xinshi) was jargon for all sorts of social and economic innovations pushed by the Party during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
9. This system destroyed incentives by paying people the same wages regardless of what they achieved .
10. The straw that peasants mixed with mud in building walls could, after some decomposition, be used as fertilizer.
11. “Supervised labor” (jiandu laodong) is a euphemism for work in a “labor reform” (laogai) camp.
12. The Socialist Education Movement, also known as the Four Clean-ups Movement, was a nationwide campaign of political, economic, organizational, and ideological reform led by Mao Zedong and Lin Biao; widely considered a failure, it was also a prelude to the Cultural Revolution.
13. The “household production contract system” (baochan daohu), now generally translated in Beijing Review as the “responsibility system,” is the “pragmatic” farm policy in which individual households, the smallest units of rural organization, are responsible for contracts that they make with the state and are paid more money if they exceed their contracts. During the Cultural Revolution this form of “material incentive” to work was viewed as “taking the capitalist road.”
14. Luo Changxiu is the protagonist of the story “The White-Haired Girl” (Bai-maonü).
15. This was an attack by the Gang of Four on Deng Xiaoping and others who were trying to exonerate many cadres wrongly accused or imprisoned as “rightists” during the Cultural Revolution.
16. Shi Yunfeng was a student at East China Normal University in Shanghai who became nationally famous in the late 1970s because of his arrest and trial for opposing the extremist ideology of the Cultural Revolution and, in particular, the cult of Party Chairman Mao Zedong. At the direction of Peng Chong, second secretary of the Municipal Party Committee in Shanghai and member of the Central Politburo, Shi was executed for his “political crimes,” even though, with the overthrow of the Gang of Four, the politics that Shi opposed were already well on their way to official repudiation . Shi’s case became a cause celebre among intellectuals and political moderates, but was discussed only “internally” (neibu) until 1981 , when Shi was officially exonerated. To mention the case publicly in March 198o, as Liu Binyan does here, required courage.
17. Tiananmen is the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing that stands before the vast Tiananmen Square, which is symbolic of the political center of China. The Tiananmen Incident refers to April 5, 1976, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the square in a spontaneous tribute to Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou had died January 8, 1976, and April 5 was the occasion of the Qingming Festival. when Chinese sweep family gravesites and make obeisances to the departed. The crowd had gathered in an antitotalitarian spirit, but was forcibly driven away and the demonstration declared “counterrevolutionary.” The “verdict was reversed” on the incident in December 1978, when the Beijing Municipal Party Committee declared the demonstration “revolutionary.”
18. This slogan, together with that of “Liberate thinking,” was put forth by the Third Plenum of December 1978 and is associated with the “pragmatic” approach of Deng Xiaoping.
19. During the Cultural Revolution, Party leaders forced the peasants against their better judgment to plant grain sprouts too close together and to plant land with grain even when it was not suitable. As a result, good land was harmed and production fell.
20. Dazhai, in Shanxi Province, was a model agricultural commune during the Cultural Revolution. Its work-point system gave peasants credit for “political behavior” and de-emphasized individual material incentives. After the Cultural Revolution it was revealed that Dazhai’s vaunted accomplishments had been staged with state support.