In September 1976, Nina arrived at the Number Five Military Farm near Jinghong County in Yunnan Province and met her former fellow workers, Huguo and his wife Donfang in a large garage for keeping tractors and storing tools with the walls composed of bricks halfway up and finished with a mixture of mud and straw to the top.
Soon, other people, twelve of them, from Shanghai and Chongqing, joined them. Some of them brought their children. One woman, Kali, had two kids; the younger one was cradled in her arms. She turned to the middle-aged man with her, and said, “Leave your vegetable basket here. You can go home now. My friends will take care of us.”
Dongfang said to Nina, “Kali’s husband is a local peasant who always follows her everywhere. He’s afraid she’ll leave him if he isn’t with her.” She laughed out loud as she ushered Kali and her children to some chairs that had been set up in a corner of the room.
Nina went over to speak to Kali, pulling up a chair beside her. The peasant husband loitered around for a while and finally left.
Whole chickens were steamed in a huge wok, corncobs were roasted in the bonfire, fish soup was reheated, and vegetables were stir-fried. Everybody got excited since they had not had such a festive occasion together for years. Some of the children were experiencing such a joyful gathering for the first time in their lives. The cheers, singing, and kids’ babbling almost blew off the thin roof. Nina handed one hundred yuan to Huguo. “Can you use the money to buy some useful stuff as my gift to everyone? I don’t know what to buy.”
“I can’t take it. You have a long journey. You need money.”
“Compared to you guys, I have an easy life. I beg you to have it. Otherwise, I won’t eat the dinner.”
“Whoa, hunger strike?” Huguo shook the bills. “This is a monthly salary for more than three workers.”
Nina laid on the table two bottles of wine she had bought in Kunming, a red and a white.
The wine was poured into ceramic mugs and the group toasted each other. “For Nina’s visit, for our wasted youth, and for our sorrowful past,” offered one friend. For the second toast, Huguo quoted an ancient catchphrase: “Let’s get wealthy, but not forget one another.” This well-known phrase was from the peasant uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang in 209 bc. After overthrowing Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang became emperors themselves. Every adult remembered the countrymen’s uprising, which had been taught in elementary school, so they repeated Huguo’s toast with giggles.
“I’m no longer a naïve city teenager. I’m a peasant making a living with a hoe in my hand, dependent upon the heavens,” a man said in a mocking voice.
“We’ve been working here on the farm for eight years,” a woman said with a sigh.
“We may never get rich, but we won’t forget each other,” Dongfang said.
“That’s right,” many in the group shouted out together.
“Nina still remembers us.”
As Nina pondered the uprising almost two thousand years earlier, she was struck by a thought. Is China going to experience another uprising after Mao’s death? Isn’t Mao himself the leader of uprising peasants? In history, when peasants suffered and felt desperate, they rebelled. If she had been among those countrymen, she would have joined in their riots. But she wondered if the uprising was successful, would another ruler enforce a similar regime? Would history repeat itself? She asked herself these questions, but did not have any answers.
While they devoured the festive food, the chatter was lively, and numerous stories were shared about their old friends who had left the farm. One person told what he had heard about Dahai and Wang, those two daredevils. Nina did not mention what she knew about Dahai’s death. Since nobody else had known about their relationship, she did not need to show them this scar or drop such a bombshell, but a sadness like an invasion of invisible flies did battle all over her skin.
“I remember a rumour about Dahai and Wang. I heard that after they ran away in August 1969, they earned medals from a battle in Vietnam. Even I thought about crossing the border to join in the Vietnam War, but I dared not. Jingsheng did, but he got caught,” one person said.
Jingsheng? Nina searched her memory. She remembered him as a medium-built young man with glasses whom everyone had nicknamed “Ancient Poet” since he could recite many poems by Li Bai and Du Fu. She asked, “What happened then?”
“You want to know?” Huguo said. “I’ll never forget it. Jingsheng was arrested on the border by the People’s Liberation Army’s patrol team and sent back to the farm to be denounced. Do you remember Chairman Yang? He organized a denunciation meeting, but none of us said anything against Jingsheng. Even though we were warned that we’d lose our chance of visiting our parents if we didn’t cooperate. The Commissar found his authority challenged, so he contacted the Public Security Bureau and they put Jingsheng in jail.
“A couple of days later, I remember, Yang announced the shocking news that Jingsheng would be executed because he’d betrayed the country. When the day came, all of us got up early. We didn’t go to work in the field but trudged to the place used to shoot death-row criminals. It was our sympathy strike although we didn’t call it that out loud. We told one another, ‘The law can’t punish everyone. They can’t put all of us into jail.’
“The execution spot was at the bottom of a rocky hill that had been surrounded by armed soldiers. Nobody was allowed to get close to it, so we stood with other onlookers to watch the execution. Jingsheng was forced to kneel on the ground. They gagged his mouth with a thick rope and pushed his head down.
“The ruling class always practise the idiom, ‘to kill a chicken is to scare the monkey,’ but at that moment, we monkeys weren’t completely frightened. We had our way to protest. Kill-one-to-warn-a-hundred didn’t work that time. Instead, hundreds of hearts and brains came together to protest this cruelty.
“When the gunshots echoed in the valley, Jingsheng fell into the pit in front of him. I still remember his blood spattering on the weeds around his head. I cried, and many watchers cried, even though men were not expected to shed tears. Even now, whenever I think about it, I tear up. Any one of us could have ended up like him. I looked at his body and felt my heart stop beating. Right after the soldiers left, all the farm workers rushed down the hill. Another man and I had brought a stretcher with us. We placed the dead body on it, and four of us carried it away. All the others followed us. On our way home, everyone took a turn in bringing home the remains of Jingsheng.
“In our twelve-person dorm room, we washed Jingsheng’s body and dressed him in the best outfit we could find. Everybody chipped in. We used the money to get a casket. We couldn’t get his parents here right away as they were far away in Beijing, but we did everything we could on behalf of his family. We read his favourite poem by Li Bai, ‘Long Yearning.’ Anybody remember the poem?”
Many voices responded:
Above the dark night stands the sky
Beneath the green water the tides rise
Along the long path in the endless sky, my bitter spirit flies
The dream of my soul can’t get through as the mountain pass lies
My broken heart sighs.
Listening to the stanza, Nina burst into tears. Huguo continued, “Jingsheng was buried on the top of a hill, and a tombstone was set facing north. We believed his soul could see his family and vice versa. For the next three days, nobody went to work. We took turns sitting around the tomb because we were ready to fight if the authorities sent people to destroy it.
“We returned to work on the fourth day, and a military truck came and arrested five of us workers. By the time the truck drove the captives away, the news of the arrest had spread to the other nine hundred and ninety-six workers who arrived at the local court on foot and sat around the building.
“That was the first time we re-educated youths organized ourselves to stand up to our basic right to bury a body. We refused to be treated like an ant or a fly. We are human beings. We insisted on our human dignity. Guess what happened? More than two thousand other youths from different military farms came, and even some local peasants also joined us. Finally, after the provincial court placed an order, the local court had to release the five jailed workers. We won!”
The story touched Nina deeply, and she felt a shiver from head to toe. She, too, would have been shot if she had been caught red-handed on Defence Road, or caught jumping into the water on that dark night.
Born in China, Zoë S. Roy, an avid reader even during the Cultural Revolution, writes literary fiction with a focus on women’s cross-cultural experiences. Her Publications include ButterflyTears (2009), a collection of short fiction, and two novels, The Long March Home (2011) and Calls Across the Pacific (2015), published by Inanna Publications. She is a member of The Writers Union of Canada, lives in Toronto, and works as an adult educator with an M.Ed.