Ha Jin has this to say about Gao Ertai’s work: “Among numerous memoirs by Chinese authors, In Search of My Homeland stands out as an eloquent testimony to the violation and destruction of humanity. This revered scholar of aesthetic theories has written not only about his personal suffering in the remote labor camps and the political persecution he and his family experienced, but also about the fates of many common people. His style is fortified by concision, elegance, restraint, and depth. Each chapter here stands alone as a story and together they form a historical panorama of the Chinese society in the second half of the twentieth century. However, this is not just a book bearing historical witness; it is authentic literature.”
Starting out from the little county seat of Dunhuang in China’s far-flung northwest, go north and you are in the townships of Yinwu, Jijitaizi, and the Uighur municipality of Ajesai. Go east and you reach Yumen, Jiuquang and the ancient Jiayu Pass of the Great Wall. Southward, cross the Shule River and you are at the foot of the snow-capped Qilian Mountains. Westward the road leads to the Loulan, Luntai, and White Dragon Mound townships. Further on you will be at Lobo Lake. On camel, the journey takes a week or so in whichever direction you go, through flowing sands and flying rocks, with no signs of habitation.
The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, a world-renowned treasure trove of ancient art and civilization, popularly known as the Thousand-Buddha Caves, were situated in an oasis in the midst of this boundless desert. The oasis is tiny, barely covering one square kilometer. Our Dunhuang Art Research Institute was the only public institution in the area. And the staff and dependents were its only population. The researchers and support staff at the Institute numbered forty-nine. As the Cultural Revolution raged on, people were shuffled in and out of the “cowshed,” depending on their shifting status. At full capacity, the “cowshed” housed as many as two dozen “monsters.” The rest of the population, the so-called “revolutionary masses,” was split into two factions and hell-bent on destroying each other. Then word got about that the factions did the “Big Unite” and were planning to set up a so-called “May 7th Cadre School” according to Mao’s newest directive to take up farming. For which purpose we seven “monsters” were ordered up the mountains to reclaim wasteland. This happened in the winter of 1968.
Slapped with a high quota of square feet to open up, right in the depths of winter, and up in the barren mountains, reclaiming wasteland was hardly an enviable job. But we seven were secretly exultant. We were sick and tired of the endless “struggle meetings,” the hectoring lectures, the forced labor, the mutual accusations and recriminations at the nightly “study sessions.” Going up the mountains meant leaving all that behind. At least we could relax our nerves, strung to breaking point. Our “shedmates” eyed us wistfully.
Of the seven forming our group, one was a simpleminded, illiterate gardener, Wu Xingshan, who in the old days had been a Taoist monk in the Caves—a fact that qualified him as a “monster.”
Then there was the cook Zhou Dexiong, illiterate, but a smart aleck and a first-rate chef. He had once owned a restaurant and thus carried the contamination of “capitalism.”
The other five were all professionals. Mr. Huo Xiliang, an expert on the monasteries and temples attached to the Caves, used to be the head of the Archaeology Division of the Institute.
Mr. Shi Weixiang was an expert on local history and an authority on the culture of the Western Borders. He was also a master calligrapher, flaunting the archaic “Scripture” style, so called after the Buddhist scripts discovered in the Caves.
Mr. Duan Wenjie, ex-deputy head of the Research Division as well as ex-head of the Art Section, used to be my boss before he was “expelled” from the ranks of the masses and demoted to “demon and monster.” But even in this lowly status, he was appointed group leader of the “demon and monster” population. After the Cultural Revolution, it was this same Duan who edged out Chang Shuhong, the founder and longtime director of the Institute, and took over the position himself.
The above three gentlemen had been brought by Mr. Chang Shuhong to Dunhuang in the old days before Liberation, and they had stayed on to study the Dunhuang heritage. I could have learned a lot from each and any of them.
Then there was Li Bozhen, formerly a professor at the Beijing Central Art Academy, who had joined the Institute more than ten years ago.
I myself was thirty-one years old and had arrived at the Institute in 1962. Thus I was the youngest among the group of seven, and on the lowest rung of the academic ladder.
Before the Cultural Revolution, the seven of us had little to do with each other; actually we only saw each other at the weekly political study sessions. Since being “expelled” from the ranks of the masses and reduced to “demon and monster” status, we seven endured “dictatorship” together in the daytime and squeezed onto the same big platform bed at night. Yet we never opened up to one another. On the contrary, precisely because we had been herded together too closely all day, we all feared that we might have made a slip somewhere, sometime, and given ourselves away. So we wrapped ourselves up even more tightly, fearful of a single misstep. Even our sleep was restless. I always feared that I might betray myself talking in my sleep.
In those days, more than a dozen of us “monsters” were stretched side by side on a big adobe platform bed. On my right was the ex-director Chang Shuhong. On my left was Shi Weixiang, the calligrapher and local history expert. To my envy, Mr. Shi would start snoring the moment his head hit the pillow. Later I discovered that he was not really asleep. He simulated snoring, to give an impression that he had nothing on his conscience and bore no resentment either. And it worked. I decided to imitate his feat, but found it a hard act to follow. In the first place, to simulate a snore required quite a bit of energy. Besides, I had never heard my own snore, so could not tell whether it was a good imitation. And then, once started, you couldn’t stop, unless it was to pretend to wake up suddenly. And lastly, all this playacting was based on the assumption that I was under secret surveillance, but that might not have been true, in which case, I would have gone to all that trouble for nothing. Actually I had tried the act a couple of times and found it hard to keep up, so gave up altogether. Once, Shi Weixiang, Sun Rujian, a fellow “monster,” and I were dragged up in the middle of the night to unload a truckful of coal that had just arrived. As we crept back to bed afterward, we were surprised to hear Duan Wenjie talking in his sleep, shouting “Long Live Chairman Mao!” The next day at our daily labor Duan tried by roundabout means to sound us out, so obviously the slogan chanting had been an act. That really beat everything. But the rest of us would not give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had been heard; we all said that we had heard nothing.
We seven were all happy to be going into the mountains. But if it were not for the fact that a member of the “revolutionary masses” was assigned to supervise us, our situation would not have been any better. We would certainly have spied and reported on each other as usual; actually we would have been more tormented than if we were at the Institute.
The supervisor assigned to us was a worker in his fifties called Fan Hua. Of poor family background, he had been a handyman at the Institute for the last thirty years, always minding his own business, never speaking a word out of turn. As a member of the working class, he had never ever tried to take advantage of the various political campaigns to hurt anyone, and had never ever tried to call attention to himself. Only once, during the years of famine in the early sixties, he had seen a dirty mongrel, obviously discarded by a shepherd and left to die. Fan Hua fed it a couple of times, and, surprisingly, the dog stuck to him. During those days, people were starving, so keeping a dog was out of the question. Friends advised Fan to kill the dog and get some nutrition for himself, but he could never bring himself to do it. So he kept feeding the dog while complaining of hunger, and for a time became the butt of many jokes.
It was by pure accident that Fan Hua was assigned to be our supervisor. The work was hard, and no one among the revolutionary masses wanted to go. But for us, Fan’s assignment was a godsend. Because Fan Hua was the only man who would not bully us and the only man who would treat us as equals. Actually, he was the only man who had the guts to treat us as equals. When he ordered us to get ready, we all obeyed with joyful alacrity. We quickly got together everything needed for opening wasteland. As to our personal things, there was nothing to prepare. Our rooms had been sealed; all we had were our bowls and chopsticks and our bedrolls.
The very next morning, we set out for the mountains.
The Thousand-Buddha Caves was virtually an oasis in the desert. An underground stream, meandering across the desert, surfaced here. Its source lay southward, among the many slopes of the Qilian Mountains as they undulated across the Gobi until lost in the sandy horizon.
The stream surfaced here, and then went on its way, disappearing again under the sand. Our task was to follow the stream to its source and open up wasteland, as an agricultural base for the ” May 7th Cadre School” of our Institute.
Wang Jiesan, the driver of the Institute, took us in a truck right to the foot of the mountains. We unloaded our tools, pick, shovel, saw and so on, as well as our grain allotment and cooking utensils. Then there were the eight bedrolls, and finally a pull cart. We packed everything into the cart and started up the mountain. I pulled the cart, while the rest of them pushed from behind. We trod over grayish yellow gravel as we made our way upward, following the grayish yellow trail. Seen against the earth and the sky, we handful of people seemed tiny dots. The slope was gentle and our way upward did not feel like climbing. Only when we turned back occasionally did we realize that we were on elevated ground. Nobody spoke, the silence broken only by the crunch of gravel under our feet. The cart made a squeaky sound, rhythmic, thin and long drawn out, as if saying, “All is well, all is well.”
We spent the night at the Spring of Bitter Waters. On the afternoon of the next day, we found ourselves in more open grounds of a river valley. Overlooked by multicolored sheer cliffs, little knolls began to appear, overgrown by reeds. As we walked on, the scene opened up before us: the cliffs gave way, more knolls appeared. By evening, we had arrived at our destination-Big Spring.
Big Spring was a riverbed hidden deep in a wilderness of scraggy mountain slopes. It was flat and open, overgrown with red willows. Willow stumps peeped out from among the golden reeds, which overran the slopes, stretching out as far as the eye could see. In summer, the whole scene would look like the blue-tinted forest scene in a Shishkin painting. In the fall, it would be a world of pink, with the willows bursting in flower. But right then it was winter; flowers and leaves were withered and fallen. Illumined by the setting sun, the close-knit branches of the red willows, slender and supple, were awash in a golden red haze, softly fading in the distance as it merged with the outlines of the slopes, presenting a distant view of an all-enveloping quivering light. Above the light, hovered the wavering contours of the distant snowcapped mountains, twinkling in the amber sunset. Here and there, water gushed from the riverbed, forming pools and lakes of varying sizes, sparkling among the willows. These pools and lakes of underground water never freeze over; one could see right to the bottom where the pebbles were coated with a layer of velvety green moss. Flocks of wild geese frolicked in the water; now and then they would be startled and take off suddenly, squawking in alarm.
On a hillock by the lake was a decrepit little hut. It was empty inside, with no door or windowframe, only a big platform bed on one side, and a collapsed adobe brick stove on the other. The hut had been a stopover for camel troops. Since the opening of a bus route, the hut had been abandoned and forgotten.
We stopped our cart at the bottom of the hillock, brought our things into the hut, and spent the night there as best we could. The next day, we repaired the adobe stove, set up our big cutting board, and cleared out the ashes in the hollow under the platform bed. We filled up the holes in the walls and the roof, then set out to collect firewood and dried camel dung. As there was no windowframe, Wu Xingshan, the ex-Taoist, sealed up the window with clay. There was no door, so Fan Hua our leader made a doorflap from a burlap sack. We kept the skylight, to let out smoke and let in light. An oil lamp dangled from the roof on a frayed string. The cook, Zhou Dexiong, unraveled hemp from the burlap sack and rolled the strands together, making a new string. Our oil lamps made from inkbottles were polished and shining. By evening, our little hut was actually neat and comfortable. We lit the pit fire in the middle of the room, blew out the lamps, and sat around the fire to warm ourselves. Then we climbed up into the platform bed and went straight to sleep, skipping the confession and mea culpa to Chairman Mao.
From the third day onward, we started working on a patch of virgin soil close by. The patch was the sediment of mountain floods from time immemorial. It was flat and soft, and not hard to open up. All we needed to do was to uproot the red willows, build field dividers relying on the natural rise of the territory, and open up ditches for irrigation. That done, that piece of land would be ready for spring plowing. According to the decision of “them at the top,” as relayed to us by our leader Fan Hua, this piece of reclaimed wasteland would be designated the first fruit of our Institute’s efforts to implement Chairman Mao’s “May 7th” directive.
With Fan Hua at the helm, Duan Wenjie had to give up his role as group leader of us “demons and monsters.” Thus, no one took upon himself to conduct the daily rituals that had been in force under Duan. We worked hard during the day, and in the darkness of the night we sat around the pit fire for a while and then climbed into bed. The platform bed was very cozy, heated from underneath by dried camel dung. It was too early to really fall asleep and I would smoke a self-rolled cigarette, thinking my own thoughts. Duan Wenjie did not speak in his sleep anymore, nor did Shi Weixiang simulate snoring. As the saying goes, “Silence is more eloquent than speech.” All of which goes to show that we were really liberated. As I lay in bed reflecting on how there was no more self-criticism and mutual exposures, no more being dragged out of bed to unload coal in the middle of the night, and how we need not get out of bed in the small hours for confession and mea culpa to Mao, that we did not even have a Mao portrait around, I became very cheerful, as if on a holiday. At those times when the wind was howling overhead, reminding us of the all-encompassing darkness and cold outside, it was very satisfying to be curled up in bed. I would actually feel lucky to be where I was.
The only problem was the nagging hunger. In town, at least we had vegetables to supplement our rations; now in the mountains, we had only our grain quota to keep body and soul together. There were no vegetables, not to mention meat. We had brought several heads of turnips, which we now hoarded, sprinkling them in our soup, a few slivers at a time. But for people like us-excluding Fan Hua our leader of course-it was either one thing or another. How can you get something for nothing? To be free of humiliation at the price of hunger, it was worth it.
In the past we had to work seven days a week, but now we take a break on Sundays. We wash and mend our clothes or bedding or shoes and stockings, or we just sit idly under the south-facing wall, sunning ourselves. Fan Hua, our leader, had brought a barber’s set wrapped in a piece of white cloth. On Sunday he took it out and gave us each a haircut. Wu Xingshan, the ex-Taoist, set out for the mountains and picked a basketful of suoyang herbs to supplement our diet. The suoyang was a root shaped like a human penis. When dried it was used in Chinese herbal medicine to stimulate blood circulation and urination, strengthen the kidneys, and enhance the yang. It was a rare and expensive item, but here in the mountains it was found in abundance. The cook, Zhou Dexiong, washed the suoyang roots, boiled them into a mush, and made us a meal of pancakes mixed with corn flour.
After the meal we sat around the pit fire, each thinking his own thoughts, savoring the blessedness of a full stomach. It was not very late, but the room was already cast in shadows. We kept silent except for the occasional cough. The firewood in the pit crackled and burst out in sparks. Zhou Dexiong puffed at his pipe.
“Umruchi is fabulously rich!” Fan Hua, our leader, burst out unaccountably.
Nobody responded. The faces of the eight men illumined by the dancing flames flashed in the darkness like specters in a dream. Finally Li Bozhen, the ex-art teacher, asked, “You have been to Umruchi?”
“Once,” Fan Hua replied, “in 1962, during a professional conference at the Institute. Our party Secretary, Li Chengxian, sent me to Umruchi to get provisions for the delegates. In Umruchi,” he added, “you can get anything you want.”
“Well, Xinjiang is a national minority area, of course the government gives them preferential treatment,” Wu Xingshan mused.
“In Umruchi the capital,” Fan Hua reminisced softly, as if talking to himself, “it’s like being in a foreign country, everything was so different. The houses were different, some with pointed roofs, some with rounded roofs, some with flat roofs, some with spikes on four sides, and some with rounded apertures, all different. The people too, were different, some with high noses and sunken eyes, some with little moustaches, some with sideburns, some with straggling beards, some with the ends of their beards curling upward, some with the ends of their beards drooping downward, some with three strands of beard, some with five strands like the figure of our god Guangong. The streets were crowded, melons this big, grapes this big. Lamb kebabs simmering over movable little stoves, selling at every street corner, two skewers for ten cents, piping hot and sizzling with oil.” Saying which, he stopped and poked at the fire. The fire leaped and dimmed, and the eight faces glimmered in the melancholy darkness.
“The streets were crowded with people, but no two dressed alike, such a cheerful mixture of colors,” Fan Hua continued dreamily, as if he too had caught a whiff of the melancholy in the air. “Some wore riding boots with colorful hats, some wore white caps over long gowns, some gowns were all black and some all white. Quite strange, really. As for the girls, some wore green vests embroidered with white flowers, some wore crimson vests embroidered with silver flowers, some wore black vests embroidered with golden flowers. They had matching skirts too, some light gold, some bright orange, some deep red, some sky blue, all short. And they were all barelegged in riding boots, such a sight for sore eyes. And the people were always humming as they went about, sounds of singing coming from every corner…”
“Sh! Silence!” Zhou held a finger to his lips.
We all pricked up our ears. In the silence, there seemed to be a tinkling sound from afar.
“Camel bells,” Wu Xingshan said, “the camel troop is here.”
We all got up and went out, but could see nothing. The sun was setting and the clouds rolled thickly, wrapping earth and sky in a golden haze. Snowcapped mountaintops, like a string of precious stones set in the heavens, sparkled in ethereal glory. Emerging from our dark dank hut, we were speechless in wonder at the calm majesty of the scene before us.
The sound of camel bells became more insistent, and soon the profiles of seven camels emerged through the darkness down the hillock. They knelt down in a row near the lake. Two figures got off the camels and started unloading. Then one of the men took the camels to water while the other threw a coat over his shoulders and started up the hillock toward us. Zhou Dexiong went over to meet him, taking his coat and inviting him into our hut.
The newcomer was a man in his seventies, one-eyed, and missing one front tooth, which gave him a comic look when he laughed. But his voice was booming, as if the energy issued straight from the dantian acupoint under his navel. His deeply furrowed face, hidden between his beard and his fur hat, was also brimming with health. His one remaining eye, roving about briskly, seemed to miss nothing.
“Damn it, it’s freezing,” he muttered as he sat down by the fire. Saying which, he pulled up the flap of his hat to wipe off the ice particles stuck to his beard and eyebrows.
Zhou Dexiong started the fire and set about boiling water.
A sullen young fellow strode in with a bag of flour. Taking no notice of any of us, he flung the bag of flour on the cutting board, asking the old man: “How do you want it done?”
“What’s the rush,” the old fellow answered, “don’t you see they are making hot water!”
“It’s for you,” Zhou Dexiong hastened to assure them ingratiatingly, “enough for washing and cooking.” This Zhou had once owned a restaurant and had a knack for making people feel welcome. He now was cook for our Institute canteen. He was neat and efficient, besides being a first-rate cook, and made himself quite popular. Though I must add that when we were first “expelled” from the masses and denounced as “demons and monsters,” he changed his tune. He would shortchange us on our grain allowance and accuse us of opposing the Party’s grain policy if we complained. But the minute he himself was “expelled” and thrown among us “demons and monsters,” he changed back to his jolly old self. Right then, he kept tending to the water as he said to the young fellow, “Why don’t you go and warm yourself at the fire and let me do the cooking. Do you have any vegetables?”
“No,” said the young fellow.
Fan Hua came over and said, “Well, we still have two turnips left. Suppose we make a dish of that for you two.” He handed two pancakes to the newcomers. “Meanwhile, try this. It’s mixed with suoyang root.”
“You are too kind,” the old man was visibly touched. “We have some goat meat. Where’s our goat?”
“Down there,” the young fellow said.
“Then go down and get it!”
As the young fellow went off, Zhou Dexiong asked the old man, his hands still kneading the dough, “Where did you get goat meat?”
“We hunted for them. Wild goats.”
Zhou Dexiong was all attention, forgetting the dough in his hands. “How did you hunt for them?” he asked seriously.
“With a trap.”
“What kind of trap?”
“Never seen one?” The old man stood up, flicked the doorflap, and shouted to the young fellow down below, “Heh, while you’re at it, bring up one of the traps.”
The two were peasants from Anxi County and were about to carry back the firewood that they had gathered around here for their production team. “How are things in your part of the country?” Fan Hua, our leader, asked. The old man said, “So-so. Some villages are doing poorly. Our production team is okay.” As they were talking the young fellow came back, carrying on his shoulders a skinned goat frozen into an icy block, while holding in one hand a dark triangular metal frame.
The old man took the frame and opened it to form a lozenge-shaped trap. He laid it on the floor, put his foot on the spring in the middle, and said to Wu Xingshan, “Pull. Pull hard.” Under the strain of Wu’s pull, the spring was stretched into a taut bow. The old man carefully held the bow in place by inserting a peg under it. Then he touched the peg support with a branch. The trap shut viciously, snapping the branch in two. Shocked, everybody sprung back instinctively.
After supper, the oil lamp dangling from the roof was taken down and placed on the platform bed. The old man and Zhou Dexiong sat by the lamp smoking their pipes and chatted. The old man entertained the company with details of the goat hunt, the habits of the wild goats, and the layout of the land hereabouts, talking until the small hours.
The two men left the next morning, leaving a trap and one leg of the frozen goat. Zhou had negotiated the loan, agreeing to return the trap on their next visit, with a whole goat thrown in.
The goat hunt called for two people, and it went without saying that I was to be one of the two. I was the youngest, after all. As for the others, the three scholars could not run, Fan Hua had to supervise our group, and Zhou Dexiong had to cook. By general consensus, Wu Xingshan, the ex-Taoist, was to go with me.
Goats rarely strayed into our area, which was already inhabited. The old man had informed us that there were four other springs. We found one that was closest to us and set our trap by the water. We covered it over with soft leaves of grass, sprinkled it with sand, and swept the surface clean and smooth. Then we used our leg of goat, left us by the old man, to stamp more goat tracks on the spot, merging them with the rest of the goat tracks. Then we swept away our own footprints as we walked backward, stamping more goat hoof prints instead. After discharging this piece of diabolical villainy, we left, highly pleased with ourselves. We went back to check everyday, keeping a safe distance. But for several days running, we had nothing to show for our labor. I began to suspect that perhaps something was missing in our procedure.
Sunday came round again. Everybody was lazing around, but Wu Xingshan and I went into the mountains to check our trap.
The trap was gone, with only a yawning pit where we had set it. Obviously the goat which had sprung the trap had escaped, dragging the trap with it.
Up hill and down dale, Wu Xiangshan and I searched the ground for signs of that particular goat among the hundreds of hoof prints. Our backs bent, we scrutinized the ground beneath our feet, hoping to locate that particular goat by something unique in its tracks. Just as we were about to give up, a scratch in the ground about a hundred yards away caught our eye.
One can easily imagine the situation. The trap had only caught the goat by one leg. The goat had lifted the incapacitated leg and run off on three legs, leaving no particular traces on the ground. But soon the trapped leg, weighed down by the heavy metal contraption, began to weaken. The trap sagged to the ground, leaving dents as it bumped along. We followed the dent marks, which became more and more frequent, until they formed a broad line scratched in the ground, here and there streaked with blood. We kept our eyes on the ground, climbing up and down the barren mountains, following that streak. Finally, halfway up a hill, we saw that bloodied trap and the leg caught in it, which had finally broken off. That wild creature had run off on three legs!
I remember reading somewhere that if the hunter approaches a trapped fox from the direction the wind was blowing, the fox would bite off the trapped leg and run off on three legs. The saying goes that this kind of three-legged fox was most cruel and cunning, and that most carnivorous animals have this adaptability. I thought to myself, the wild goat does not have sharp teeth or claws to rip off its trapped leg, it could only wait until the leg was dragged down and broken off by the weight of the metal, thus enduring more suffering. I have also seen somewhere that the wild goat runs at a speed of a hundred and ten kilometers per hour, exceeding even the speed of the horse (eighty kilometers per hour), second only to the leopard (one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour), but exceeding the leopard in endurance. And now that this goat had run off, even if it was on three legs, it was obvious to me that we could not catch it, so I suggested to Wu Xingshan that we go back. Wu Xiangshan, panting as he sat on a rock, kept saying “What a pity, what a pity,” his swarthy face glistening.
We were on elevated ground and could see mountaintops and valleys stretched under our feet for miles around. We could make out the light purplish background of the Gobi desert beyond the mountains, the blue-tinted clouds chasing each other and the silver-tinted reeds bowing before a mild breeze. I stood gazing at the scene for a while, then picked up the trap and urged Wu Xingshan to leave. The trap was heavy. As I picked it up I realized for the first time what an agony it must have been for that wild creature to have dragged it thus far while running for its life.
Because of the elevation, the area around us was uniformly bare, with no reeds, just endless brown-gray rocks. The mountain ranges looked alike, totally indistinguishable from each other. Wandering up and down the mountain paths was very depressing. As we made our way back, Wu suddenly said, “Wait a second, let me go back and get that leg,” and went off. I sat there and waited. He soon returned with that bloody leg, saying, “Look what a fat goat, such a pity.” I didn’t speak, and he kept saying “What a pity, what a pity.”
That same afternoon at our dorm in Big Spring, everybody bemoaned our loss as Wu Xingshan told his tale. That bloody leg was passed from hand to hand, everyone turning it this way and that for a good look, saying, “What a pity, what a pity.” The smart aleck Zhou Dexiong made minute inquiries of Wu regarding the lost wild goat as he rolled the dough for our meal. The cutting board groaned under the pressure of his kneading.
“That goat can be caught,” Zhou suddenly announced with an air of authority. We all pricked up our ears, eyes fixed on him. He went on kneading the dough, eyes on the board as he said, “The old man said an especially large goat may get rid of its trap, but its strength will be exhausted in the struggle. It will probably lie down somewhere close by. If discovered, it may run for another stretch, but will never be able to get up after lying down for the second time. Come on you guys, eat your fill, and go after it. You’ll be sure to catch it.” Saying which, he dropped the newly made noodles into the pot.
Everybody started talking at once, terribly excited by this piece of information, all advising us to take a good rest and eat our fill before starting out again “with renewed energy to fulfil our task,” as the saying goes. Huo Xiliang shouted in his Shandong dialect: “Let us do as Chairman Mao had taught, ‘be resolute, fear no sacrifice, overcome ten thousand dangers to seize the final victory’!” Shi Weixiang added in a thick Sichuan accent, “He is not a hero who could not scale the Great Wall!” Li Bozhen, from Beijing, rounded up the act with a last Mao quote: “Rivers and mountains I take in stride.” Duan Wenjie made a reassuring gesture with a wave of his hand, telling everyone not to worry, as “the real hero can only be found in a dangerous spot.” He patted me on the back, saying “Don’t you agree? Now it’s up to you.”
Fan Hua, our group leader, threw a fur coat over Wu Xingshan, who lay on the bed exhausted, saying, “You have just sweated so much, now don’t catch cold.” I was sitting by the fire. He came over and covered my shoulders with a padded cotton jacket, then sat down in the middle of the cacophony of voices around him without saying a word. Finally he asked, “You two have gone through so much, can you make it again?”
Wu Xingshan immediately announced, “I really can’t move an inch!”
“Then don’t go,” Fan Hua said, “It is getting late, who knows what creatures you may run across, rambling in the mountains.”
“You rest up, I’ll go!” the cook, Zhou Dexiong, announced to Wu Xingshan. Saying which he nimbly tied up the ends of his trousers, wound several lengths of strong hemp rope around his waist, took up a carrying pole and a handyman’s knife, and sat down by me, waiting for me to finish eating.
We went up hill and down dale, and made our way to the nook halfway up a mountain where we had first found the trap and the ripped-off leg. We tried to follow the goat’s prints among the grass and the rocks until we went down a valley where the prints were lost among a mass of goat tracks.
What boundless energy that goat had! Having lost its tracks, we now started another round of desperate searching. After many clueless twists and turns, we finally found new marks as if left by the end of a stick. Without a doubt, they were the marks left by the exposed end of the goat’s severed leg. The further we went, the deeper and longer the marks. By the time we were down among the red willows in a river valley the marks had finally blended into one long continuous line cut into the ground.
The markings did not form a straight line. They zigzagged, sometimes even making a circle in the ground. These zigzagging lines, these curves, these circles were the naked witnesses of the goat’s agony. Especially those circles: obviously they were the ploys of that simple-minded creature in its despair. There were traces of blood along that zigzagging line. The goat, exhausted, had stopped here and there to catch its breath, taking note of our movements, and then picked up its energy to move on.
I followed the zigzagging line, decoding the tracings of the wild goat’s life force, and was moved to the depths of my being. The cook I had left far behind me.
Suddenly a donkeylike creature jumped out from behind a rock and charged toward me. I was paralyzed with fear, and stood unmoving, while the creature too stood still in its tracks. Thus we faced each other, not more than a hundred feet apart.
I lost track of time, until I heard Zhou Dexiong behind me shouting, “Wild goat!”
Zhou’s shout startled the creature. It turned and ran for its life, and I followed close behind. Thus began another round of deadly pursuit. The creature jumped over a rock, I too jumped over the rock; the creature cut through the red willows, I too cut through the red willows. By the time I was up the mountain, it was already down; by the time I followed it down, it was across a waterfall. But it was slowing down, and I gradually covered the distance between us. Finally it barely moved forward, and I closed in on it.
The stump of the hind leg, which had been snapped off by the trap, was now reduced to a bloody pulp. The other hind leg, also wounded by the trap, was now dragging on the ground, after going through that long flight. The rear part of its body was fast sinking to the ground, but the goat still used its two front legs to drag itself forward, inch by inch, slowly, painfully, but not giving up. The stump of its broken off hind leg, its belly and its rear, having been dragged over rock and sand, was a mass of quivering flesh with white bones exposed, no different from meat hanging from a butcher shop. But the goat still moved forward.
I followed slowly behind it, watching. This creature, with no sharp teeth or claws, had no malice toward any other living creature; its only weapon of self-defense was its speed. But now it could not run. The goat dragged itself to a stone step but could not get itself up, much as it tried. Suddenly its forelegs folded, it fell to a kneeling position, then collapsed in a heap. Its body lay on the ground, blood seeping into the sand underneath. The rear part of its body was a bloody mess, but the fur on its front was clean and bright, shining like satin. The goat raised its head, its big ears unmoving; its eyes, bright and innocent, held a questioning look, like a healthy infant.
I looked at the goat, seeing in its eyes a flicker of something familiar, something I understood.
Slowly its head, raised to one side, faltered and then dropped to the ground. Its body quivered, as if trying to rise, then gave up. Its belly rose and fell, its nostrils opened and shut, puffing out rings of white mist in the bitter cold. Its breath sent specks of sand and dried leaves flying about, then settling down on its face or the ground nearby.
I sat down on the ground. Unexpectedly this movement of mine frightened the creature so badly that it reared its head in alarm and its whole body shook violently. What a heartless, bloodthirsty monster I must be in the eyes of that goat. And indeed I was. I was deeply saddened.
A ray of slanting sunlight shot across the cliffs, casting the whole valley into the color of gold. In an instant, not only the goat, but also the rocks nearby, the red willows, the reeds and every pebble under my feet were gilded. A blue-black shadow ambled to where I was sitting-Zhou Dexiong had caught up with me. He was choking for breath, his face the color of chalk, his forehead drenched in sweat, his lips moving soundlessly.
“Goat… ?” He finally found his voice.
I pointed my chin to where the goat was lying on the ground.
Instantly he beamed and cried: “Oh my, what a size!” and pounced on his prey. The goat struggled, letting off strange unearthly sounds, like sorrowful moaning. Zhou held the goat down with one knee, took out the rope wound round his waist, and tied the goat’s legs together-the bloody stump, the other wounded hind leg, and the two front legs-he tied them helter-skelter into one big knot, and slipped the carrying pole under the knot. He then stood up, dusted off the sand on his clothes, and said, “If the other hind leg was in working order, we could have led it home. Now we have no choice but to carry it.”
I did not say anything. He sat down on a rock and let out a long sigh of relief, saying, “Want a smoke?”
I shook my head. He muttered as he lighted his cigarette, “This running almost killed me. Well, at least we haven’t been running for nothing. This meat comes just in time. Winter goats are full-grown, with rolls of fat. The piece of skin is not bad either, a pity the lower part is worn to shreds…”
I had never ever seen the man so happy.
The valley was by now completely immersed in darkness, though the russet sunset was still glowing at the cliff tops. The two of us shouldered the carrying pole and were ready to start home with the goat. The poor creature struggled violently, letting out strange, unearthly sounds. I put down my end of the pole and asked Zhou Dexiong to kill the goat before going on. He absolutely refused, saying that if killed, the goat would freeze, and frozen goat meat would lose its flavor. Besides, if killed and frozen, the skin would be worthless.
“But it is hurting,” I said.
“Hurting? Good heavens, it’s just a dish,” he retorted. “If it bothers you, why don’t you come to the front.”
So we changed sides and went on our way. Not long afterward, however, the goat writhed under the knot for a while, letting off strange unearthly moans, and then died. I was so relieved. As if I was absolved, and could live my life again, unburdened. We quickened our steps on our way back.
The sunset was still gleaming here and there, while the moon was already up in the sky, big and red, desolate and awe-inspiring, casting the vast wasteland into a deep mystery. Looking eastward, dark shadows flitted here and there, looking westward; the setting sun and the rising moon seemed to gaze at each other across the firmament…
“Come on, Gao, don’t linger over the view, if you please,” Zhou Dexiong shouted behind me. “This bloody carcass is stinking. If a wolf or a bear happens to be attracted, that will be the end.”
And so in the dark shadows of the hills and cliffs, we rushed on desperately, losing count of time, till we finally reached “home.”
The others were all sound asleep. They shot out of bed the minute we arrived, brimming with pleasure. They lighted the pit fire and all three oil lamps. The brilliance of the lamps vied with the glow of the fire, setting off a scene of high cheer. Sparks from the fire danced madly while thick smoke rolled over our heads like a river hanging upside down. Everyone set to work, some skinning the goat, some boiling water, some feeding the stove, some kneading dough. As to Zhou Dexiong and myself, we just sat by the fire like honored guests, warming ourselves. Now someone would bring a pan of hot water for us to wash our feet. Then someone would bring us newly brewed tea; others would keep filling our cups before we had a few sips. Zhou Dexiong began animatedly telling the story of the hunt, completely forgetting his fatigue. Everybody present listened with great interest as they bustled about their work, asking questions, not overlooking the slightest detail.
Finally, in the small hours, the braised goat meat was finally done. Cut into large pieces, it was put into a washbasin and placed in the middle of the platform bed. The eight of us sat round the basin on folded legs and ate with our hands. By the light of the fire and the lamps, the pieces of meat slushed about in the basin, signaling that there were lots more huddled at the bottom. Each and every face was dripping with grease. What’s more, tongues were loosened and the conversation became animated.
Hou Xiliang said the only thing missing was wine.
Li Bozhen picked up the subject of wine and said that during the war years fighting the Japanese invasion, he had been in Shanxi province and had tasted something called “Maiden’s Wine.” According to local custom, when a girl was born friends and relatives would offer rice as a gift, and the family would use the rice to brew wine and bury it underground. The wine would be unearthed for the girl’s wedding feast. “This kind of wine is not seen anywhere else,” Li added, “I tried it once. It was stark red and transparent, but thick as glue. You could use a chopstick to pick it up and draw out a glob that long.”
From folk customs in general the talk turned to customs in our own locality. Shi Weixiang, the local history expert, said that in the past there used to be a custom to “Raise Sparks” on the night of the Spring Festival. A piece of red-hot metal would be placed on an anvil, and people would beat on it to see who could raise the most sparks, and whose sparks were the brightest, flew up the highest, and spun off the farthest. Old and young, men and women, all in a festive mood, would crowd around to watch the match. Wei said he suspected that the Tang poet Li Bai’s famous lines “fire lights up earth and sky, flying sparks form a mist” probably refers to this custom. Li Bai, after all, was a native of the Western regions and should know. Wei went on to say that he had tried to find confirmations of this custom in the drawings among the Tang dynasty murals in the Caves, but so far had not found anything.
About “Raising Sparks,” Duan Wenjie said that this custom had persisted right up to the eve of Liberation, and that he had personally witnessed the practice. He went on to talk about other New Year customs, saying that the locals usually have stuffed dumplings, fried crullers or twisted bread rolls for the Spring Festival, that the cuisine of the Northwest was all about staple food, with many varieties made from plain wheat alone, but that there was little choice in dishes. The South, he added, was just the opposite: the further south you go, the more exotic the dishes. Take the Cantonese, he said, they eat everything-snakes, frogs, live monkey’s brain, live donkey’s meat, even silk cocoons, which they would deep-fry for a dish. You’ll never see a Northerner eating like that… Huo Xiliang butted in: “Who said so? We Shandong natives, and Hebei natives too, we eat grasshoppers, we eat them deep-fried…”
The tradition of cautious silence was broken. Everyone started babbling about this and that, until the fire in the pit died down, covered by a layer of cold white ashes. It turned cold and we crept into our bedrolls. A silver blue dawn was already peeping in through the skylight.
We slept until noon of the next day.
Since then we often went to hunt for wild goats, and it was always Wu Xingshan and I who did the job. I gradually accumulated a lot of experience for the hunt and my heart, too, turned hard and cold. I had really become a bloodthirsty carnivorous beast. But our life got better. Since turning ourselves into bloodthirsty beasts, our lives got better. The pervasive malice among us was greatly reduced and we learned to get along with each other.
Bestiality actually helped to bring forth something human. An enigma.
Our two months’ project for reclaiming wasteland had come to an end. The driver, Wang Jiesan, would soon show up on the dot to get us back. Fan Hua, our group leader, promised that once back he would suggest to the leadership that more wasteland should be reclaimed-“In that case, we could all come back.” We thoroughly applauded his plan. It was highly likely that his suggestion would be accepted. In the first place, opening up more wasteland would lend more credit to the leadership. Secondly, opening up the barren mountains was considered a dog’s life, and that was what we “demons and monsters” deserved. Thirdly, there was not enough hard labor down at the Institute to parcel among us “demons and monsters,” and they did not know what else to do with us. Nobody spelled all this out, but it was understood. Zhou Dexiong was already making a list of things to bring: soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, onions, pepper corns, dried hot peppers, cooking sherry and other ingredients usually used for meat dishes, and hopefully liquor as an added bonus. These things were only available in the staff kitchen, and only by drawing on the reservoir of goodwill toward Fan Hua could Zhou achieve his end.
One night, after supper as we sat around the fire, Fan Hua said: “About hunting for wild goats, nobody back home must know. There will be trouble if they know. I will not mention it, and don’t any of you let out a word.”
Wu Xingshan, the ex-Taoist, opened his eyes wide and cried: “How can we let them know! There’ll be hell to pay! I speak for myself, I’ll not say a word.”
Nobody uttered a sound.
These honest words of a simpleminded man were like a bomb going off. We were paralyzed with consternation. By and by the smoke settled and we regained our composure, but from that moment on, everything was changed. Indeed, who could be sure that they would never know? Who could vouch for the credibility of every individual among us? And don’t forget what some of us were like. Zhou Dexiong then and there announced that as long as others would keep mum, he would do likewise. Which meant he assumed that someone among us would squeal, and based on this assumption, he might as well talk first, to be on the good side of the authorities. So Zhou’s words were tantamount to a warning that he would tell. People who make this kind of announcements are to be feared, but those who act without warning are even more frightful.
The very next morning, right on cue, Duan Wenjie, who like the rest of us had never touched a Mao book since coming up the mountains, now held a copy of Mao’s works in his hand, seemingly lost in study. Everybody visibly tensed up at the sight. This kind of declaration of independence by body language was loaded with more meaning than just a matter of wild goat hunting. But still, everybody had to take a stand on the issue of the clandestine wild goat hunts. Each according to his talents tried to distance himself from the goat hunts, dragging the subject into the conversation to make the point that he bore no responsibility. Any casual remark would be loaded with some such understatement. In this jostle for self-preservation, the depths of our talents were revealed to the utmost.
The simpleminded Wu Xingshan had no means of self-defense, but it was clear from the start that he had always been reluctant to go hunting, and had to be persuaded every time, so he should not be in deep trouble. Only two individuals had no excuse: one was Fan Hua, the other was me. Fan Hua, being group leader, was more reprehensible, but then being part of the “revolutionary masses” as well as a member of the working class, he could easily be exonerated. As for me, I was a “rightist,” a member of the so-called black gang. I was fair game under any circumstances. My part in the wild goat hunts would be evidence that I refused to reform myself. I might be attacked as committing acts of sabotage against production, or even defying Mao’s May 7th Directive. No, it was not a matter of probability, it was a certainty. These people around me would be the first to lead the charge.
There was a change in the climate. I looked around me, and was met by cold unseeing stares. Duan Wenjie’s triangular eyes under his nonexistent eyebrows, Zhou Dexiong’s eagle eyes deeply embedded under bushy eyebrows, Huo Xiliang’s slits of eyes hidden under rolls of fat, Shi Weixiang’s big eyes with dark circles standing out in his pale face, even Li Bozhen’s shortsighted eyes peering out from where his spectacles should have been, until they were smashed in the struggle sessions… all these eyes seemed to glitter ominously.
I thought to myself: what should I do?
One day, seizing perfect timing, I deliberately made a casual remark that hunting was a form of production, and that we should bring a wild goat back to the Institute, so that everybody could have a good meal.
Wu Xingshan exclaimed in shocked surprise, “What!!!”
Fan Hua obviously felt betrayed by me, but still managed to say, “If this gets out, everybody will have something to lose.”
I replied, “Precisely because we are on our own, away from the Institute, there’s more reason to conduct our thought reform conscientiously. Every thought and deed should be faithfully reported to Chairman Mao. Hunting wild goats is no big deal, but if we make a pact to keep it secret, that will be a serious offense, it will be a political issue.”
Fan Hua raised his eyes to me. I also gave him a look. As our eyes met, I saw in his gaze a glint of something that reminded me of the look of that wild goat.
I was shocked, and deeply saddened. I wanted to say something to close that painful gap between us. But I immediately reminded myself that doing so would be madness. How could I tell him that I never really meant what I had said? How could I tell him that I was very sad? Tell him that I wholeheartedly agreed with him, that I liked him, respected him, and was grateful to him? That kind of confession was not only strange, but downright dangerous, and would be totally unacceptable to him.
The old man and the young fellow from the village unaccountably never showed up to collect their trap and the promised goat, and our time up the mountains was up.
That little hut that had seen it all was once again empty and abandoned, nestled in the barren mountains and the desert wilds. As I turned to give it a last look, the two sealed windows seemed like a pair of eyes lost in perplexity. They seemed to follow us with a questioning look, then settled into apathy, sinking into a boundless slumber.
The way back was downward and easy going, especially as we had consumed our grain allotment, so the cart was much lighter than before. But our steps seemed heavier.
Just as on our way there, we walked over grayish yellow gravel and followed the same grayish yellow mountain paths. We walked on silently with only the sounds of crunching gravel under our feet. The cartwheels made a rhythmic sound, thin and long drawn out, as if saying, “Where are you going? Where are you going?…”
From Xun Zhao Jia Yuan (In Search of My Homeland). By arrangement with the author.