Daughter of the Riverby Hong Ying
“This remarkable account of a childhood spent on the banks of the Yangtze River . . . explores the depths of personal and civil repression with an almost brutal grace.” –The New Yorker
Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River is a remarkable book–a memoir of China unlike any we have seen before. Acclaimed around the world, it is both a compelling self-portrait by a remarkable writer and an unforgettable expos’ of life at the bottom of Chinese society.
Hong Ying was born during the Great Famine of the early 1960s, which claimed the lives of tens of millions, including several of her relatives. Growing up in a slum on the bank of the Yangtze River, in a neighborhood veiled in fog and superstition, she was constantly aware of the sacrifices her family made so that she would survive. And as she neared her eighteenth birthday, she became determined to unravel some of the enigmas that had troubled her all her life: a stalker who had shadowed her since childhood, an anomalous record in her father’s government file, and an unshakable feeling that she was an outsider in her own family.
At the same time, she began a relationship with a history teacher at her school, who awakened her to the possibility of dissent and to her own emerging womanhood. But, as she learned, the truth cuts both ways. While the professor taught her how to think outside the borders the government had set, he himself was under political pressure that would prove unbearable.
Hong Ying’s search for truth led to the discovery of family secrets that changed her life–and her perceptions of her parents, her sister, and herself–tragically and irrevocably. But these same events also set her free to leave home for good and become a writer. With raw intensity and fearless honesty, Daughter of the River follows China’s trajectory through one woman’s life, from the Great Famine through the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square.
“This remarkable account of a childhood spent on the banks of the Yangtze River . . . explores the depths of personal and civil repression with an almost brutal grace.” –The New Yorker
“Raw and powerful . . . part of a recently emerged Chinese genre among whose best other examples are Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Wild Swans by Jung Chang, and A Single Tear by Wu Ningkun . . . Hong Ying’s book shares some of the sensibility of books by Western women, from Marguerite Duras to Kathryn Harrison, that have discussed taboo subjects . . . As you read [her] lacerating story, you feel that you have entered into the deepest truths of a tormented psyche, and into the truths as well of a bruised generation otherwise almost impossible for us to know.” –Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
” –Carolyn Alessio, Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)
“Comparisons with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will be inevitable but Hong Ying’s book more closely resembles Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, in which histories are brought to light and reminiscences are contrasted fascinatingly with the present . . . heartbreaking.” –The Times (London)
“[An] immersion in the suffering of China’s urban underclass during the years following the Great Famine of the early 1960s . . . [Hong Ying] can produce scenes of stark power . . . a deeply emotional memoir.” –Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe
“Hong Ying has little truck with the kind of soul searching we expect in contemporary American memoirs. . . . In [her] environment, simply staying alive required almost all one’s energy, and any tenderness expressed in Hong Ying’s family is muted, off-kilter, unexpected. It’s astonishing that love survives in any form, but survive it does . . . There is nothing sentimental about Daughter of the River, but the feelings of love Hong Ying tries to eradicate return as relentlessly as her need to write. In this context, that alone is a kind of miracle.” –Juliet Wittman, Washington Post Book World
“Enthralling . . . a story of poverty told as frankly as Angela’s Ashes; a story of oppression characterized by the paranoia of The Handmaid’s Tale . . . A haunting autobiography that could stir the most ungrateful critic of the U.S. government into thanksgiving for the freedoms that others only dream of and that we often take for granted…More than the story of one woman; it is the story of so many suppressed souls who are looking for a champion. Hong Ying may be that voice in the dark.” –Columbus Post-Dispatch
“A beautifully written and deeply felt work.” –Teen People
‘startling . . . characterized by a ruthless honesty of approach . . . tough, unsparing.” –Interview
“The China that Hong Ying depicts in her memoir Daughter of the River bears little resemblance to those cheery posters that were churned out by the millions during Mao’s reign . . . fierce, brutal . . . fascinating . . . resilience, imagination and a fantastically protean energy that can only inspire awe.” –Los Angeles Times
“At once lyrical and brutal . . . the story of one person’s awakening but also of a society’s. In its stark and detailed portrayal of unremitting poverty and of the stress and intimacies of family life, the work is reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes . . . A major writer emerges here, combining flawlessly the often broken dreams of youth and the usually broken dreams of politics.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An astonishing picture of inner fortitude marshaled against insult and injury amid the turmoil and repression–both political and emotional–of mid-century China.” –Publishers Weekly
“Harrowing reading. Her tale does not only reveal the collective scars on China’s psyche; darker, more personal secrets haunt this daughter . . . Hong Ying’s autobiography brings out the naked truth about those at the bottom end of Chinese society, grappling to eke out a living in the shifting currents of political turmoil.” –The Independent on Sunday (London)
“We are permanently reminded of the horrors of modern Chinese history . . . a moving book which will bring tears to the eyes.” –The Spectator (London)
“Raw . . . Hong Ying [has a] novelist’s eye for detail and forthright approach to her country and countrymen . . . a heart-wrenching story, and it is difficult to read of her need for dreams, for brightness and color in her life, without being moved.” –Literary Review (London)
I never bring up the subject of my birthday, not with my family and not with my closest friends. At first an intentional omission, eventually I truly forgot. No one remembered my birthday for my first eighteen years, and after that I simply avoided the issue. No mistake about it, it all happened in my eighteenth year.
The potholed street outside the school gate sloped to one side. As I crossed the street a shiver ran down my spine; someone was staring at me again, I could feel it.
Not daring to turn around, I glanced to the left and right, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. I forced myself to keep walking until I was standing next to an old lady who sold ice lollies, then took a quick look behind me, just as a Liberation-model truck whizzed past, splattering mud in its wake. A couple of youngsters buying ice lollies stamped their feet and hurled curses at the speeding truck for muddying their shorts and bare leg
s. The old lady dragged her box of ice lollies over to the base of the wall. Who the hell drives like that? she grumbled. Scurvy people like you would be turned away by the Four-Mile Crematorium.
Once the disturbance was past, quiet returned, and I stood in the middle of the muddy, rutted street wondering if I was imagining things because I’d talked so much today.
At some point as I was growing up, these shivers became a regular occurrence in my life, always caused by a pair of staring eyes. More than once I nearly spotted whoever was behind those eyes, but only for a fleeting moment. The man with nondescript features and messy hair never came close enough for me to get a good look at him, which was probably how he planned it. He only appeared near the schoolyard before and after school, and never actually followed me, as if he knew where I’d be from one minute to the next. All he had to do was wait.
We heard all sorts of frightening rumours about rapes, but I was never afraid that was what the man had in mind.
I never told my father or mother. What was there to tell? They might think I’d done something shameful and give me hell. So I kept this a secret for years, until eventually my fears vanished and there was no more mystery. Perhaps being stared at is a normal part of life that everyone experiences at some time or other, and shouldn’t be seen as frightening or loathsome. It would be difficult to get through life without ever suffering irksome looks, and I could easily have pretended I wasn’t bothered by them, particularly since so few people back then were willing even to look my way.
Every time I tried to capture that stare, it escaped somehow, and so, to prove to myself I wasn’t imagining things, I moved as cautiously as if I were stalking a bright green dragonfly. But sometimes, when one strains to bring something hazy into focus, success only invites disaster.
But I tried not to think about this, since that was the year my world turned upside-down. So much happened to me that I felt tied up in knots, like the green moss hanging from the stone wall beside the street, which resembled tangled locks of devil’s hair.
My house was on the southern bank of the Yangtze.
The South Bank District of Chongqing consists of low rolling hills that form a series of gullies. In the event of a thousand-year flood, should the entire city be swallowed up, our hillside would stand stubbornly, the last island to go under. From early childhood, this was a strangely comforting thought for me.
If you ferried over from the Dock on the opposite bank, Heaven’s Gate, you could reach either of the two landings nearest my house: Alley Cat Stream and Slingshot Pellet. Both required a climb up the bank and a twenty-minute walk along a rutted street to reach my house halfway up the hill.
By standing on the ridge in front of my house, I could see where the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers merge at Heaven’s Gate, the gateway to the city. The peninsula created by the two rivers is the heart of Chongqing. A motley assortment of buildings on the surrounding hills looks like a jumble of children’s building blocks. Pontoon quays dot the riverbanks, steamships tie up beside the quays, and cable cars, dripping rust, crawl slowly up and down the slopes. Dark clouds blanket the rivers at dawn, raising scaly red ripples; at dusk, when the sun’s rays slant down on the water before settling behind the hills to the north, a few bursts of sunlight emerge from the dark mist. That is when lamps lighting up the hills are reflected on the surface of the water, pushing the darkness along. And when sheets of fine rain cover the rivers, you can hear riverboat horns wail like grieving widows; the city, caught day and night between two fast-flowing rivers, with its myriad scenic changes, is always sad and enigmatic.
The hills in South Bank teem with simple wooden thatched sheds made of asphalt felt and asbestos board. Rickety and darkened by weather, they have something sinister about them. When you enter the dark, misshapen courtyards off twisting little lanes, it is all but impossible to find your way back out; these are home to millions of people engaged in coolie labour. Along the meandering lanes of South Bank there are hardly any sewers or garbage-collecting facilities, so the accumulated filth spills out into roadside ditches and runs down the hills. The ground is invariably littered with refuse, to be carried into the Yangtze by the next rainfall or turned into rotting mud under the blazing sun.
The garbage piles up, with fresh layers covering their fetid predecessors to produce an astonishing mixture of strange odours. A ten-minute walk on any mountain path in South Bank treats you to hundreds of different smells, a universe of olfactory creations. I’ve walked the streets of many cities with garbage heaps, but I’ve never been surrounded by so many smells. I sometimes wonder why the people of South Bank, living amid all that stench and walking among such filth, are punished by having noses on their faces.
People said that unexploded Japanese bombs from World War II lay buried in gullies on the hills, and that before the Kuomintang forces abandoned the city by the end of 1949, they buried thousands of tons of explosives. They also left behind, it was reported, over a hundred thousand underground agents – that is to say, every adult in the city was a potential spy, and even after the grand suppression movements and the mass executions of the Communist purges of the early 1950s, plenty of spies could have slipped through the net. That could even have included people who joined the Party after Liberation, but were plants who came out at night to do their dirty work – murder, arson, rape, you name it. You wouldn’t find them among the tall buildings or wide avenues on the opposite bank, for they preferred to operate secretly amid the eternal foul odours of South Bank. A spot like this, so alien to the socialist image, is a perfect place for anti-socialist elements to come and go in secret.
If you walk out the compound gate, hugging the damp wall and listening carefully, you can hear the echoes of former night watchmen in the darkness. That cobweb-covered doorway might reveal quite mysteriously an old-style red-velvet embroidered shoe; that man disappearing around the corner, with a felt hat pulled down over his forehead, might have a knife hidden in his trouserleg. On dark, rainy days, every person walking on the narrow slope, where filthy water flows, looks like a secret agent. And on any given sliver of land, by digging down a couple of feet, you can unearth an unexploded bomb or some hidden explosives, or a secret code book with all sorts of strange symbols, or `restoration accounts’ of items confiscated from landlords and recorded by them with writing brushes.
The other side of the river is as different as night from day. The centre of the city might as well be in another world, with red flags everywhere you look and rousing political songs filling the air. The people’s lives are `getting better every day’, with youngsters reading revolutionary books to prepare themselves for the life of a revolutionary cadre. South Bank, on the other hand, is the city’s garbage dump, an unsalvageable slum; a curtain of mist above the river hides this dark corner, this rotting urban appendix, from sight.
After negotiating the wobbly gangplank of the river ferry and walking for ten or twenty minutes across cobblestones and garbage, you looked up and saw tiers of crumbling houses on stilts, wooden shacks and mud huts, a mind-boggling maze of indescribably ugly buildings. I alone could pick out one particular grey brick house with black roof tiles on a crag midway up the hill, stretching out over the river. The locals referred to this spot, located in one of Alley Cat Stream’s side lanes, as Compound Eight Beak. Alley Cat Stream Street was a steep, hilly path paved roughly with stones and bordered on both sides by chinaberry trees, malus trees, some bushes that sometimes stank and sometimes smelled sweet, and some teetering, rickety shacks that should have crumbled long ago. The walls and gate of Compound Eight Beak were pitch black, with some random red and green bricks that added a bit of colour, which owed its existence to a lightning strike that had knocked half of the bricks to the ground; during repairs, the broken bricks were insufficient to complete the job, so red bricks gleaned from somewhere were added.
But this wasn’t my house. To find that, you had to look further up, past an expanse of identical grey rooftops. I lived in Compound Six, uphill from the other two relatively decent, parallel compounds, a spot where moss and mildew stained the walls and rooftops. It had a small courtyard in the centre, a communal kitchen on each side – one large, one small – and four attics. A tiny passageway connected the larger kitchen to the back yard. There was also a dark, dank staircase that led to three rooms and two rear doors on the down slope.
I know it sounds like a landlord’s home, and to tell the truth, I can’t say what sort of family once lived there. But when the Communists came in the winter of 1949, the owners were smart enough to take off and cover their tracks. Their furniture and some locally made looms were confiscated. The families of sailors living in South Bank wooden shacks quickly moved in, some with a formal permit, others without. Terms like hall, corridor, back yard, side room, and attic were retained only for the sake of convenience. The hall led to six small rooms belonging to four families, and thus was shared by them all.
Thirteen families moved into a compound that had once been home to only one; each one or two rooms housed a separate family, most comprising three generations. With relatives or neighbours from back home visiting on a regular basis, I never did work out just how many people lived there – I would get lost in my counting after one hundred.
Our family room occupied about a hundred square feet of space, equipped with a small wood-framed southern window with six bars, like a prison cell. But of course burglars would never honour a family like mine with a visit. We only closed the window when it was raining or on cold winter nights. Besides, our neighbour’s mud wall, which was only a foot away, was a very tall and very imposing barrier. Since opening the window didn’t brighten up the room at all, we had to keep a light on even in the daytime. If I stuck my head out the window and looked up over the wall, I could see the forked branches of a malus tree. A creek that flowed down from the playground on High School Avenue veered downhill at a precipice in front of the tree and emptied into the river. The gurgle turned into a roar in the night stillness, more like a heated argument or mortal combat than the screech of an alley cat.
Fortunately for us, we also had an attic, much less than a hundred feet square and barely waist-high at the lowest point. A skylight facing south opened on to a grey sky. If I got up in the middle of the night and wasn’t careful, I’d bump my head on the ceiling and jangle the roof tiles.
My parents, three sisters, two brothers and I crowded into those two rooms. Our quarters were so small and the occupants so numerous that all six kids had to sleep on two slat beds my father had made for the attic. He and my mother slept downstairs on a coir-frame bed. The remaining space of the main room was filled by a five-drawer bureau, an old wicker chair, plus a dining table and stools.
Once we kids had grown out of childhood, we had to take down the table in my parents’ room at night to put up a cot for my brothers. In the daytime it was taken down and the table restored to its proper place so we could eat. Then when it was bathtime, down came the table and the stools. I know it sounds complicated, but it was easy once we got used to it.
By 1980, my family had lived in this compound for twenty-nine years. On the 1st of February 1951, my parents moved here from north of the river with my two older sisters. In the 1950s Mao Zedong was urging everyone to have more and more children. With more people the country was more powerful, things got done more easily, and if a nuclear war wiped out half the world’s population, China would dominate the planet. So in the space of a few years, China’s population increased by 150 per cent, reaching a billion in the 1980s.
With my birth, our family numbered eight people. At first it didn’t feel all that crowded, since my brothers and sisters, who had been sent down to the countryside, seldom came home. But once the Cultural Revolution ended and the young urbanites started returning to town, my brothers and sisters came home to stay. By 1980, our little two-room place, more crowded than a pigsty, was bursting at the seams; there was hardly room to stand. Needless to say, in the summer of that year, with family members stepping all over each other, tempers flared.
Mother said there was a letter from Big Sister, who would be home in a couple of days.
Big Sister was in the first group of youngsters sent down to the countryside, which meant she’d have the hardest time returning to the city. She had divorced twice, and had three kids, the oldest a mere six years younger than me. Her children were no sooner born than she sent them to my parents to care for, so she could head back to her next divorce or next marriage. `Damned trouble-maker!’ The mere mention of Big Sister drew curses from Mother. `How could I have given birth to a viper like her?’
Whenever Big Sister came home, in no time she and Mother were at each other’s throats, screaming and banging furniture. The things they said made my head swim. Sooner or later, Big Sister would reduce Mother to tears, then walk off triumphantly.
So why, I wondered, did Mother speak so fondly of her when she wasn’t around? As soon as she heard that her eldest daughter was coming home, she got so fidgety she could hardly contain herself as she waited in eager anticipation. I could never shake off the feeling that they shared something the rest of us children could not fathom, and even if we could, it would have been some arcane confidence that had nothing to do with us.
A number of things happened that summer that got me thinking that this confidence involved me, somehow. And since Big Sister was the only member of the family out of whom I could pry anything I, like Mother, eagerly anticipated her return.
I knew I was special to Mother. Of her eight pregnancies, two of the children had died. I was number six. I always felt I occupied a special place in her heart, and not just because I was the baby. I can’t find the words to describe her attitude towards me. She never spoiled me or winked at my shortcomings, always keeping a tight and cautious rein on me. It was as if I were someone else’s child under her care, and she didn’t want to do anything that would make her appear negligent.
Father treated me differently, too, but not the same way as Mother. A man of few words, he had, if anything, even less to say to me. His reticence was intimidating: if he was angry, he picked up a stick or a bamboo switch and lashed out furiously at the disobedient child. While Mother was quick to overlook my brothers’ and sisters’ faults, Father was less forgiving. But he never lost his temper with me, and never scolded me.
Sometimes I could feel the anxiety that filled Father’s eyes when he looked at me; Mother stared daggers at me. I sensed that I was their great disappointment, something that should not have appeared in this world, a puzzle they couldn’t solve.
Father was sitting on a stool in the hall rolling tobacco spread atop another, slightly taller stool, whose red paint had peeled away until only a few flecks remained here and there. Four inlaid tiles around a red flower decorated the seat, and I had no idea where such a fancy stool could have come from. He skilfully rolled the tobacco leaves despite the faint light, since he didn’t need to see what he was doing. His eyebrows, while not particularly dark, were long; his cheekbones were prominent, and his eyes bright in spite of his failing vision. After the sun went down he couldn’t see a thing. He seldom smiled, and I don’t recall ever hearing him laugh, or cry. Not until I was grown-up did I understand that his temperament was formed by countless life experiences. Great at keeping secrets, he was the member of my family I understood least.
I had come home from school to find our door latched. I heard sounds of bathing inside.
`Your mother’s home,’ Father said, his Zhejiang accent thick as always. `Are you hungry?’ he turned to ask.
`No,’ I said.
I hung my schoolbag on a peg on the wall.
`Eat a little something now if you are.’
`I’ll wait till Fourth Sister and Fifth Brother come home,’ I said. The sounds of bathing inside suddenly put me ill at ease.
Mother spent her days as an hourly labourer, struggling with a carrying pole and two lengths of rope to earn enough to help support the family. Oxygen tanks that required the effort of four porters had to be carried down a gangplank by only two. She had fought to get this job, and once, when her foot slipped and she tumbled into the river, she held on to the metal tank for dear life. The first thing she said after she was dragged out of the water was, `I can keep carrying them.’
It’s not that she had hopes of becoming a `model worker’, but that she was afraid of losing her job – labourers like her could be let go at any time. She carried baskets of sand, tiles, and cement. Before I was born, right after the local pharmaceutical factory was built, Mother volunteered to carry fire bricks for the furnace. This was at the start of the famine, and she was already skin and bones. Four bulky fire bricks were loaded into the baskets at each end of the carrying pole, then carried from the riverbank up the hill, a trip that required fifty minutes even without a load. The wages were less than two yuan a day. Two other female labourers carried only two bricks in each basket, yet were still so exhausted and hungry that the job was too much for them. Thinking no one was looking, they simply dumped their bricks into a pond alongside the path. But someone saw them, and they were fired on the spot.
Somewhere along the line, Mother offended the head of the Residents’ Committee and lost her work permit. Her only option was to look for work in another neighbourhood district.
The head of the second Residents’ Committee, a kindly soul, said to her: I’ve got a porters’ group made up of `elements’. Would that be a problem? Mother quickly said it wouldn’t. And so she began working alongside a group of individuals under `surveillance by the masses’, people who had historical or current political problems, workers who took the jobs other people refused.
Mother followed the porters’ group to a far-off shipyard in White Sand Bay, where she laboured hard, sweated hard, and chanted hard, just like the men; she matched them step for step, carrying stone blocks for the foundation and steel plate for the ships. Once again she fell into the river, and this time it nearly killed her; they performed resuscitation until a stomachful of filthy river water came spewing out of her mouth.
Decades of coolie labour had left Mother with heart problems, anaemia that eventually developed into high blood pressure, rheumatism, a damaged hip, and aches and pains all over. It wasn’t until I entered middle school that she managed to find different work: stoking a boiler in the shipyard. This new job – keeping the boiler going all day long – was considered light work. The fire was secured in the middle of the night, and opened at four in the morning, when the ashes were removed and new coal added so that, by five o’clock, when the morning shift arrived, boiling water would be ready.
She lived in the factory-women’s dormitory, coming home only at the weekends, where she normally went to bed right after dinner. Even if I tried to boost her spirits by bringing water for her to wash with, all I got were scowls and growls.
I wiped down her back after rolling up her shirt; her shoulders, calloused from all those heavy loads, looked like a camel’s back – a hump where the heavy carrying pole rested. Then I wiped the front, where her shrivelled breasts hung like empty sacks, useless, superfluous skin that lay against her belly. By the time I’d wrung out the cloth and turned back to wipe her down again, she was fast asleep, her arm hanging over the side of the bed, her legs spread inelegantly. Snores – piglike grunts – reverberated throughout the house and slobber dribbled from her mouth. When I put her arm back on to the bed, I looked away in disgust.
While Mother was working, all the household duties fell to my father, who was on disability retirement. After the sun went down, even though he couldn’t see a thing, he could still manage the laundry and cooking by groping his way along. He raised me virtually single-handedly from the time I was a baby.
On Saturdays, Fourth Sister and I rose at the crack of dawn to queue up at the butcher stall, where, by combining all our coupons, we could buy about half a catty’s worth of pork. We’d cook a fragrant pot of meat, then stare at it greedily, waiting for night to fall and for Mother to come home. But instead of showing her appreciation, she’d wield her chopsticks dismissively, managing to pick all around the meat. One night Father had had enough; he pounded the table and threw down his ricebowl and chopsticks. Then they chased us kids outside and had one hell of an argument; the more it heated up, the softer their voices grew, to keep us from hearing what they were saying. I figured Mother was using Father to vent some spleen, which made me angry with her.
Mother hardly ever took us out, either to shop or to visit relatives. And her moods got more bizarre as the years passed, as we could tell from the vile language that emerged from her mouth. I got used to hearing people in the compound or in the streets hurling at each other filthy words, gutter talk, and genital-laden epithets aimed at their ancestors. But she was my mother, after all, and all those curses and dirty words made me very uncomfortable.
I found fault with nearly everything she did: she banged things too loudly when she did housework, she made a habit of spilling pickling-vat liquid on the floor, she slammed the downstairs door so hard that the attic rattled, and whenever she spoke she yelled. It was more than I could take. I hated calling her Mother, to her face or behind her back, and we hardly ever smiled at each other.
I couldn’t help but wonder: eighteen years earlier, when she began raising me – nineteen, actually, when she got pregnant – what kind of mother was she then?
I don’t remember ever seeing my mother when she was good-looking, even presentable, for that matter.
Or might I have conveniently erased any memory of her that was at all attractive? I watched as, little by little, she turned into a sickly woman with rotting and repaired teeth, that is, what few teeth she had left. Her eyelids were puffy, dull and lifeless; squinting till her eyes were mere slits, she could hardly recognize a soul. Even if she’d tried, she couldn’t have made her strawlike hair look good; it kept falling out and turning whiter by the day. The tattered straw hat she wore most of the time helped a little. And she kept getting shorter, as if being pressed down by a heavy weight; her bent back made her look even shorter and puffier than she really was, slightly top-heavy. She shuffled when she walked, as if the soles of her shoes were made of lead; her legs grew thicker and stumpier from all that back-breaking labour, and her toes were splayed. Her feet didn’t bleed even when she stepped on a sharp stone. Since they were steeped in mud the year round, athlete’s foot caused her a great deal of suffering.
Once, and only once, I woke up early to the sound of Mother’s wooden sandals banging against the stone steps, a surprisingly pleasant sound. Carrying a paper umbrella, she was walking out of the compound in the drizzling rain, and I was struck by the thought that she once had, she must have had, silky-smooth skin and a young, supple face.
Gradually I came to realize why Mother didn’t like mirrors. She complained once to my sisters that there wasn’t a decent mirror in the house. They held their tongues, apparently knowing instinctively that it was her way of saying she hated the things.
Age created a wall between Mother and me, above which grass and shrubs grew, taller and taller, until neither of us knew what to do about it. Actually, it was a slight, brittle wail that we could have toppled if we’d wanted to, except that it never occurred to us, at least not to me, to try. I saw warmth in Mother’s eyes no more than once or twice, occasions when I felt that maybe I wasn’t superfluous after all. It seemed to me then that all I had to do was reach out to touch her heart; sadly, the look vanished before I had a chance.
Not until my eighteenth year was I finally able to look back and get a clear picture of the past.
The door opened and Mother emerged, fresh from her bath. `Bring the pail, Little Six,’ she said. She was wearing a homemade sleeveless, collarless shirt, knee-length shorts, and a pair of worn wooden sandals.
Together we picked up the tub to dump the dirty water into the pail. Mother said Big Sister would be home tonight, tomorrow at the latest.
`You can wait as long as you want,’ I said with studied cruelty. `She’s just setting you up for a fall.’
`No, she isn’t,’ Mother said decisively. `If she wrote to say she’s coming home, then she is.’
Her face softened with the mere mention of my eldest sister, and as I looked up, I lost track of what I was doing, spilling water on the cement floor. `Pay attention,’ she growled. `Can’t you do anything right?’
I picked up the full pail and carried it over the threshold. `Don’t dump that. Save it to mop the attic floor,’ Mother said, louder than she needed to.
Water was a valued commodity, not just because it was so expensive, but because it could be cut off at any time. Several hundred families shared a single tap behind High School Avenue. Queuing up was only part of the problem, for once the water came, it was usually a dirty yellow; but if we went down to the river to fetch water, a hard, sweaty job at best, we had to treat it with alum or bleach to make it fit for drinking or cooking, and it left a metallic taste. Except for times when the running water was off, we fetched water from the river only for laundry or to mop the floors.
Each family had so little living space that the water had to be stored in small vats in the communal kitchen, and that was never enough for anyone. The men and boys normally bathed in the river, unless they were too lazy to go down the mountain; then they’d wash on the courtyard steps, using a basin of water, dressed only in underpants. Why not, since they went around in the summer wearing nothing more than that anyway? Some of the more bashful men bathed at night, but they were in short supply, so open-air bathing was the norm. They’d use a basin of water to wash down, top and bottom, and with their underpants soaked, you could see everything they had. Even as a little girl, I knew exactly what men had hanging between their legs – that ugly, shameful thing – and when I went to the kitchen for something or out into the courtyard to dump dirty water in the ditch, I’d confront a line of men in the courtyard, young and old, standing shoulder to shoulder, virtually naked, all but blocking my way. They thought nothing even of pissing into the drain hole in public.
Over the long, drawn-out summers, a month could go by without a drop of rain. Then when the Yangtze began to rise, the water flowed slowly and inexorably from the upper reaches, and hundreds of metres of riverbank would be swallowed up overnight when the flood season arrived.
Anyone who has never suffered through the heat of this city cannot possibly understand how it burns its way out from your heart and clogs up every pore on your body, to lie there baking your skin. Normally there is no wind, but when there is, it’s like adding coal to a fire, like being caged in a steamer until you think you’re overcooked.
When we females bathed, the males had to hang around outside until we had finished and they could come home, sullen and grumbling. First we’d fill the wooden tub, adding a few drops of boiling water to warm it up a bit, then latch the door, strip naked, and take a fast bath, nervous as cats. We’d wet ourselves down, quickly rub a sliver of soap over our bodies, and rinse off; that was our bath.
With five females in the family, sometimes there wasn’t enough time for us all to bath individually, so we sisters would crowd into the room together. Since I couldn’t stand letting other people see me naked, even my mother and sisters, I normally waited around to be the last, taking a basin of cold water inside and latching the door behind me so I could take a quick sponge bath. Everyone thought I was being eccentric, keeping a family room all to myself, and they weren’t happy about it.
That was in the summer. Once the weather cooled off, the inconvenience of bathing increased. Hot water was particularly scarce; but since we couldn’t afford to go to the public baths, we simply took fewer baths or no baths at all. Labourers carried the stench of sweat with them wherever they went, adding yet another powerful odour to the pervasive medley of smells.
The winter cold was as oppressive as the summer heat. Our houses weren’t heated, and heating materials were virtually non-existent, so we warmed our hands by wrapping them around a hot-water bottle, and huddled around the stove to keep the cold at bay. Sometimes we simply cocooned ourselves in quilts and lay in bed. At night we bundled up in as many clothes as we could wear and climbed into bed, suffering until morning with freezing hands and feet. I don’t think there was a winter in my childhood when my hands weren’t covered with chilblains that made my fingers look like carrots.
I jammed the mop into the bucket, holding it in my right hand and cradling the handle in the crook of my arm, then gingerly carried my load over to the foot of the stairs, listing to one side. Shifting the bucket to my left hand, I grabbed the creaky banister with my right hand and prepared myself for the climb to the attic.
`Don’t worry about mopping the floor now,’ Mother shouted crankily. `There’s still hot water in the kettle. Take your bath first. It’ll be cold if you put it off.’
She was always ordering me about like that. So I put down the bucket and stood at the foot of the stairs, looking unhappy.
After mopping up the bath water that had splashed on to the floor, she carried the mop over to a dry corner, which quickly absorbed some of the dripping water.
Father looked up and gave me a sign to do as Mother said.
Not wanting to disobey him, I picked up the basin and went into the kitchen for some hot water. Then I closed the door and took off my clothes to wash. The sight of my own sweaty, naked body and the smell of underarm sweat sickened me.