When Huai Flowers Bloom
Stories of the Cultural Revolution
Shu Jiang Lu
(SUNY Press)Back in 1968, when you and I were dancing in tattered tie-dye shirts at light-shows and getting blind on some concoction of drugs and rock-and-roll at Be-Ins, Shu Jaing Lu's family was being forced to drop their books and music, to be sent off to the country to work with the peasants in the far inner reaches of China.
The operative reason, as enunciated by Chairman Mao was "Peasants have dirty hands and cowshit-sodden feet, but they are much cleaner than intellectuals."
Starting in 1953, the year she married my father, and continuing throughout the 1970s, my mother's life was a swirling top --- a top spun by an invisible hand as political storms ravaged the land, one after the other: land reform, the Four Clean-Ups, the Anti-Rightest campaign, the Big Leap Forward, and then the Cultural Revolution.Intellectuals had to go to nightly sessions of self-criticism and denunciation. Her father, who had written plays and novels, was subject to ridicule in posters spread throughout Hefei, had to go through "reëducation," was sent to the country to carry bricks and live the life of a peasant. Her aunt and uncle were people with a "passion for the future of the nation [with] insatiable intellectual curiosity and pursuit of human knowledge." Between 1966 - 1968, Aunt Fongying, a former star of Chinese opera, was denounced repeatedly, forced into a labor camp, and finally killed herself. Her uncle ended up a broken man.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution brought suicide, madness and depression in its wake. Most of her family suffered, for they had been part of the cultural and intellectual elite in the early revolution.
There are several practical and literary devices that keep When Huai Flowers Bloom from being a complete downer. One is the presence of ghosts. A xianren (immortal) lives in her village. A one-time brilliant student before the Revolution, he tried to kill himself by jumping from a building, but "As I was falling down through the open space, I felt an exciting urgency to stretch my limbs and let them embrace the air."
By the time I reached the ground, I found myself landing in a perfectly balanced position.
Since he did not die, he was assumed to have "magic chi in my body; some even conjectured that I might be a reincarnation of a spirit." Thus he was not imprisoned.The other saving grace in her life are the nainai --- Lu's two grandmothers, one from the city (with bound feet) the other from the country. Reading about the country nainai's pre-Mao life might make one think that perhaps the revolution could have made a difference, at least for the women, for they did
all the fieldwork. The men --- heads of their households --- either sauntered around the fields or stayed at home. A few would work only at "highly skilled fieldwork" such as plowing ...
It was a traditional belief that women should not touch or be anywhere near cattle. It would bring bad luck to the earth which, in its revenge, would remain barren...
Having established these rules, the men wouldn't deign to do anything else. Since plowing needed only a few people, most of these men just idled, playing poker, having tea, and telling stories...Nainai wanted to learn to read and write, but she was required to learn "to cook for the family, how to plant vegetables, how to spin yarn, how to feed pigs, how to raise chicks, ducks, and geese, and how to fetch water from the village well with wooden buckets and then carry them home on a shoulder pole. She didn't mind these chores since she loved being outdoors in the sun and the air, but she also wanted to learn to read and write, which was virtually impossible for her to do at the time."
The first few chapters of When Huai Flowers Bloom are notable for their understatement. The Cultural Revolution does not appear so brutal until we are well into the story. It is hard not to have sympathy for the characters in Lu's life, even though at times, the writing gets overwrought. A reader from the United States cannot help but think of our luck in being born 12,000 miles from the Red Guards, the Red Rebels, the Four Olds, the murderous destruction --- madness, overwork, suicide, reëducation camps that harassed a whole generation of Chinese intellectuals ... the heroes of the previous revolution. Few of us would have survived; that Shu Jiang Lu did so, ultimately moving to Canada, is part of the magic that flowers in the book.--- Wah Eng