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WANG ZHOUSHENG

 

 

Zhousheng Wang story in Southword 18

Wang Zhousheng is originally from Qidong, Jiangsu Province, has been living in Shanghai since the 1960s. She works as Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Mrs Wang has been studying contemporary literature and social gender. She has published 13 books including novels, collections of novelettes and essays, as well as research books. The publication of her book Gender: Female has attracted attention from both academics and the general public, and has won the National Award of Female Literature of China. She lived in the US as a travelling spouse for four years; previously she spent 10 years in rural Chongming Island during the Cultural Revolution. 

 

 

 

 The Beautiful Mushrooms

 

            Xiao An was An Jinnv’s pet name. She had been a long-time "educated youth" although she wasn’t much older than we were. At the age of 17 she had been sent to the farm on Chongming Island for “re-education”. She had a red round face, sparkling almond eyes, and a sweet ringing voice. Xiao An was among the first group to reclaim wasteland there, so she had been through much harder times than those of us who joined them in the 1968 Culture Revolution. They were quartered in reed marshes which were submerged during high tides. They proudly named their triangular shacks after Lenin because everyone had seen an oil painting of the great Lenin living in such a shack while in exile.

            During the day Xiao An and other "educated youths" built dikes to reclaim land from marshes. They cut down reed after reed until they saw a wide expanse of grayish-white saline-alkali land. Their sweat tasted salty; so did the drinking water. There was always bitterness in their mouths. The bare marshes, like untamed animals, posed constant threats. From time to time sharp reed roots pierced the feet of those "educated youths", and even if they were wearing thick rubber soles, they bled.

            At night Xiao An and her comrades slept in shacks on layers of reed mats thrown on top of the wet saline-alkali land. Wet as the bedding was, they were so exhausted that they would fall asleep the moment their heads touched their pillows. Shortly afterwards, reed-lice, bugs and small crabs crawled out of hiding to keep them company. If anyone screamed in a dream, most likely it was not because of a nightmare, but because bugs had crawled all over their body or because small crabs had bitten their toe.

            The morale, boosted by idealism and heroism, remained high despite all the hardship. When there was singing in the reed marshes, Xiao An was definitely heard. She was such a good soprano.

            After the reeds had been cut down, a necessary second step in the reclamation process was to grow grass, cut it down when it was high enough, bury the cut grass and repeat the cycle. In a few years’ time the salinity of the land went down enough to allow crops to grow. The crop-growing "educated youths" then moved into thatched huts where there was a bed, which was much more comfortable than a makeshift bed on the floor. At least small crabs and bugs wouldn’t find it easy to crawl up. Xiao An sang louder and more sweetly.

            We joined the farm in the summer of 1968 to live in the first two-story building put up by Xiao An and her peers. Xiao An had got married and was living in a bungalow for families. Xiao Wu, her husband, was an art lover, a music fan, and an amateur conductor. A handsome, talented conductor married to a beautiful, gifted singerwhat a perfect match, what a romantic union! Soon Xiao An had her first baby girl.

            Married life was hard for Xiao An. They each got a monthly salary of 24 yuan. And the 48 yuan had to cover groceries, clothes, furniture and allowances for parents on both sides. Many "educated youth" couples were reduced to meager meals because all their money had been used for the wedding. Xiao An and Xiao Wu were no exception. New babies made the matter worse for parents because they demanded nutrition.

A year after our arrival at the island, Xiao An was again pregnant. She showed up for work every day despite her bulging belly. Of course she was assigned softer jobs such as weeding the cotton field, making straw ropes and helping out in the kitchen.

Always optimistic, she sang as crisply as before. Soon another baby girl was born and Xiao An took 56 days’ maternity leave.

            She came back to work in time for rice transplanting. It rained a lot in that period of time. The misty rain enveloped the fields, houses, people, and livestock. Everyone went to work in raincoats, but the clothes underneath were drenched when they returned to the dorm. Wet clothes were hung out for the night and put on again the next day.

            Xiao An was allowed a 30 minute break to breastfeed her baby. When she came back to the fields she could hardly wait for the work-day to end. She kept asking the time or judging it by the level of daylight. She said she didn’t have enough milk to feed her baby who was constantly crying in the nursery, and that the nurse was annoyed. Her experienced female colleagues gave her a lot of advice on how to improve her diet. Some suggested foods that stimulated the secretion of milk, such as snakehead fish soup, chicken soup, pig-hoof soup with longans, and crucian carp soup with mushrooms. To all these Xiao An only gave a wry smile and told others she couldn’t afford it. If she ate snakehead fish, pork hoof and chicken, her husband Xiao Wu would have to eat preserved vegetables all year round. She loved her babies, but she also loved Xiao Wu.

            Xiao An was optimistic and she never complained. The moment we were off work she ran back home. On the way she sang rolling green mountains, white clouds hovering among peaks…

            It had been raining nonstop that day when Xiao An stopped abruptly in front of a camphor tree on her trot back home. What a huge cluster of mushrooms! She had never seen such beautiful mushrooms before. In the distance they looked like little pink umbrellas dotted with white circles. Xiao An yelled that she had found something to stimulate her milk secretion, and bent to gather the mushrooms in her straw hat. Others stopped to watch. At that time, it was quite an event for the "educated youths" to gather mushrooms for soup. If they happened to catch some small fish leaping out of the rice paddy field, they could make a fish soup with mushrooms that was so delicious that, as the saying goes, “one’s eyebrows would drop into the soup”. Some wondered how come there had been no mushroom under that very camphor tree on their way to work that day. Some commented that the mushrooms were of a new type not previously seen since they had come to Chong Ming Island. Another "educated youth" adjusted his eyeglasses and said mushrooms with pointed tops might be poisonous.

            Xiao An’s hand paused in mid air. She didn’t think the tops were that pointed.

            It rained heavier. “Let’s go,” others urged, “You’d better not take chances.”

            Everybody else moved on. So did Xiao An.

            The temptation was so strong that Xiao An headed back to the tree. She gathered all the beautiful mushrooms and took them home in her straw hat.

            Xiao Wu washed the mushrooms by the river. There were a lot of people. Some were cleaning their face and feet, others washing their clothes and shoes, still others rinsing rice. They were all curious about the origin of such exceptionally beautiful mushrooms. Several gave their warning: the better looking the mushrooms are, the more poisonous.

            Xiao Wu laughed. He said he would have the first taste to take on the risks himself. Xiao Wu loved his wife too much to stop her from doing what she wanted.

            In the evening we saw Xiao Wu walk past the window of the office where we were having a meeting.

            “Xiao Wu, Xiao Wu, did you eat the mushrooms?” people inside asked him.

            Xiao Wu answered, “Oh yes. I ate them first, then Xiao An. Very tasty. It was a shame that the children didn’t try, for fear of poisoning.”

            “Are you all right?”

            Xiao Wu said, “I’m fine. I feel dizzy, though.”

            “You’d better be careful. Go to the clinic if there is anything wrong.”

 

            …

 

            Even now I can’t figure out why we were so ignorant and careless about such matters of life and death back then.

            We were still in the meeting when Xiao Wu and Xiao An were rushed to hospital. The meeting broke up immediately. By the time we reached the farm clinic, Xiao An had been transferred to the county central hospital.

            Lao Zhu, our Party Secretary, kept watch at the county central hospital all night, but to no avail. Xiao An passed away early the next morning. Everyone at the farm was shocked by the sad news, especially those who had seen Xiao An gather the mushrooms or Xiao Wu wash the mushrooms. Being a nursing mother, Xiao An had a much faster digestive process, therefore more severe poisoning. The only comfort was that Xiao Wu’s life was saved thanks to clyster and infusion.

           

            The memorial was held at Chong Ming Crematorium. Three trucks took over 200 mourners there. The smoke stack at the crematorium was stunningly tall, reportedly to bring in more oxygen to the firewood-burning oven. Xiao Liu begged the cremators to finish the process as soon as possible in order not to inflict further pain on Xiao An. (He was known at the farm as a ‘Wu Xun’, who was a famous Chinese man in the late 19th century who begged for money to build schools throughout his life.)

            I delivered the memorial speech. It was the last gift to Xiao An, and I had to deliver it well, however sad I was. I struggled to control my tears. Yet tears welled up when I read “she died at the age of 25,” and I cried loudly.

            Xiao Wu held their three-year-old daughter in his arms. He hadn’t fully recovered, and the scene obviously did no good for his complexion. He was in tears. As their daughter cried for mother, she asked Xiao Wu, “Daddy, Daddy, why does Mommy sleep so much?” Everyone broke down and sobbed.

            Xiao An’s singing has been gone ever since then.

            I think Xiao An could have lived if the mushrooms had not been so beautiful as to attract her attention.

            I think Xiao An could have lived if she had not been so poor as to be unable to feed her baby.

            I think Xiao An could have lived if she had not answered the call to re-educate herself at the farm on Chong Ming Island.

            Tragedies never happen by accident. But we don’t want to think too deeply. Neither do we dare. Those were not the only kind of beautiful mushrooms.

            Xiao An died 35 years ago. By now her daughter should be close to 40. How happy Xiao An would be if she were alive! She didn’t have ample food or clothing, and she missed years of happy family life to come. She could only meet her family in dreams. And in dreams Xiao Wu hears his wife singing, in dreams the children see her bright smiles.

 

 

©2010 Wang Zhousheng

 

 

__________

 

 

Author Links

 

Review of Wang's book Gender: Female at Women of China.cn

Buy Gender: Female from Amazon

 

 

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