Oct/Nov 2020 Travel

Daizhu Revisited

by Hantian Zhang

After a three-hour high-speed rail ride from Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin, to Baicheng, the westmost city of the same province, father, mother and I stepped out of the railway station and stood in the cool breeze of late summer. Before us, a medium-sized square expanded until it reached a ring of nondescript apartment buildings, all seemingly built within the last decade. Above, low clouds rolled across the azure sky like a herd of sheep grazing at an idle pace.

This was the heartland of Manchuria, the frontier where cultivated farmland adjoined windswept steppe. This was also the terrain that my mother had been once familiar with, when she sojourned in Daizhu, a village incorporated under Zhenlai County of Baicheng City, during the heat of the Cultural Revolution. She came in 1968 as a 16-year old from Beijing, answering Mao's call to carry out the soul-touching revolution; and after toiling and moiling for years she would leave in 1972 as a "worker-peasant-soldier college student" waking up from the revolution dream. On the college campus she would then meet my father and start a family, as she would years later have a son. Growing up with her stories and getting interested in the Cultural Revolution myself, I was the first in the family who proposed revisiting the village; and now, 50 years after her first encounter, my mother was finally back with her family.

We picked up our rental car and drove to Zhenlai for the evening and resumed for Daizhu first thing next morning. The cement road was two-lined and in good condition, flanked by thick groves of willow trees. Mom kept commenting that there were never so many trees in her memory, as exposed field and barren hillocks constituted her main impression. But the strange, Mongolian-provenanced names remained unchanged on the map: Momoge, Abudetai, Daizhu; this greening land was, indeed, where my mother had tilled for four years.

One hour on the road and we had reached Momoge (it was no longer a township but a wetland ecosystem conservation), and adding half an hour more we managed to pass Abudetai. Straightening her back and craning her neck, my mother now declared we were really close. With discernable excitement, she recalled there stood a prominent thicket midway to Daizhu from here, and tilting her head northeast, she attempted again to read it as a road sign: "Perhaps it is this thicket, perhaps Daizhu is only a kilometer away." Indeed, at where she pointed, a thicket hulked prominently by the roadside. Yet only slightly ahead, an even bigger thicket jumped into our field of view like an imposing castle, followed soon by a third, a fourth, and even a fifth of the same kind. This was another proof that the land had been greening due to the state's conservation efforts, and it was thus no longer possible to dub trees as unequivocal road signs.

So we followed the guide of the phone map only, and swerved off to a dirt sideroad as it commanded. Within minutes we found ourselves in a poplar grove, through the canopy of which there flicked brick houses huddling on top of a hillock. My father parked the car on a thick carpet of roadside grass, exchanged glances with Mother and me, and then we all disembarked, heading to the village along a road made of broken bricks.

Imagine a ring of cement road of an oblong shape, with a few chords cutting across and a few extending beyond to cul de sacs: you have now gotten the road configuration of Daizhu village. Fill in the roadside by rectangle courtyards fenced by shoulder-high brick walls, where the main residence invariably stood at the center of the inner width while a couplet-decorated main entrance opened at the outer: your mental impression of the village is now sketched complete. And I can provide further details to enrich your picture: the residential courtyards typically were swept-clean and uncluttered, but a few exceptions had been converted into flower beds or firewood storage. Roadside pigpens added rancid smells to the air; and patterned wet sand piled atop segments of the road, marking the runoff paths of the last rain.

We rambled and took all these in, trying to locate the house in which my mother once lived. It was on the rim of the village, she insisted, and then provided the further detail that the village built it specifically for the five youths from Beijing, utilizing the budget that the state had allotted for this very purpose. This subsidy was one-time only, though, and thereafter all sent-down youths had to farm to support themselves, earning "work-points" just like everyone else.

We moved slowly, taking pauses to admire the sunflowers extending from someone's yard, or to read the propaganda slogans painted on the roadside walls. Here, one in white block characters encouraged: Treat your chronic diseases at the township clinics, 60% of your cost can be covered; there, another in red blocks exclaimed: ALL GUNG-HO AGAINST POVERTY! Passing them, we soon found ourselves again in the ring of poplar trees encircling the village, and before us there expanded only maize fields, a gold-green wave rippling into the distance. For a moment, we stood there under the soughing canopy, letting cool breeze ruffle our hair.

"It could be here." My mother pointed to a courtyard nearby. She said with uncertainty, "I think our house was once standing here."

We proceeded to the courtyard. The wrought iron front gate was latched, so we stood in the doorway and looked in. This could not be the original building, as its material was red brick, not clay as in my mother's remembrance. But a family resemblance still got passed along: the five rooms were arranged linearly in just one row, exactly in the same fashion as in my mother's memory. Swap the bricks with clay and the tiles with thatch, and that hut 50 years ago became almost real before my eyes, right now and right here.

On top of that picture, I superimposed the images of my mother, the younger versions of her gleaned from family photo albums. I then animated them into actions and movements, all everyday in nature and carried out around this very house. Here, my mother at 16 braved layers of dung in a filthy sheep pen, shearing the sheep with unpracticed flicks of scissors; there, my mother one year older was harvesting maize with a sickle clenched in bare hands, laces of blood crisscrossing from scratches by rough leaves and stems. Ahead, in the bitter cold of 0°F, spilled water mixed with mud had hardened into solid rings encircling the village well. A mere slippage caused my mother to tumble down this ring of iced mud, her load of water poured over from head to toe. Involuntarily she shivered at the freezing shock, the pain of a sprained ankle lanced across her leg in fiery throbs. She called and called, yet nobody came to rescue, until she could no longer hold back her tears from gushing down, forming intricate networks of ice along her cheeks.

Those were tough days, I knew and could imagine; yet still, the fountainhead from which the endurance of such hardship had sprung remained beyond my grasp. I could not imagine giving up my own education for all those struggling under the shackle of capitalism, particularly so with the hindsight that the lofty goal itself was built on a utopian vision, its actual implementation full of court politics of the starkest kind. The 50 years lying between now and then had thus solidified into an unsurpassable gap, from my side of which I could see my mother's youth like an artifact on display in a museum case, vivid but beyond reach for a true connection, the kind embodied and empathetic, capable of moving one's innermost depth.

We decided to head back; we decided a short hour here was enough. Ahead, two old men were standing by the roadside, chatting idly. Upon the sight of us, they halted their conversation, their attention focused and intense. My mother walked to them while my father and I waited aside. I could hear her asking whether they knew about the sent-down youths from Beijing, and upon hearing an affirmative answer, she followed up asking whether they had ever come back.

"Yes, there were a few visits years ago," an old man answered. "Everyone returned."

At that moment, Mom told me later after we bid goodbye to them, she had realized she actually knew the man standing before her: the youngest son of the cook the village had hired for the Beijing youths. "He looks like his mom," my mother commented and lost herself briefly in reminiscence. "He never recognized me throughout our chat, though."

"Why didn't you explain who you are?" I asked. "Why not identify yourself as one of these sent-down youths, and call him by his name?"

"I don't want to disturb them," my mother responded calmly, as if determined that page of her life had already been flipped. "Now I just want to have a look at the village, as a visitor who causes no inconvenience to the locals."

In Mao's original grand vision, urban youths sent to the countryside were to be "re-educated" by the poor peasants, so that the goals of the two groups would align, their ideas and worldviews would converge. Yet in the end, the two kinds of lives remained parallel; we were now leaving, and they would stay.

Before we returned to our car, we ran into another group of curious villagers, and they struck a conversation with us. This time, my mother asked where the house built for the sent-down youths was, and to her shock the reply came that this very village was actually a reconstruction. Everything in the original village, the sent-down youth's house included, had been lost to a flood in 1998. After the water receded, the government decided to build Daizhu anew, at a higher location this time, a safety measure against future floods.

"Oh," Mom murmured, "no wonder I felt the village was different from what I remembered..."

A villager raised his hand. "The old Daizhu village," he said as he pointed downhill, "is just there at the foot of this hillock." Following his gesture, my eyes landed on yet another maize field, whose ruffling waves of green and gold expanded until they reached a ring of poplar, until they pushed into another clump of reed-ringed ponds. Who would have thought that under that flat expanse of green, there was buried all the youthful sweat and dreams of the dwindling woman standing next to me?


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