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Sense of Life

My Father
by Hong Zhang

My own last name is different from that of my father. The reason goes back to his father, my grandfather whom I never met, but after whom I was named. When my grandfather was a young man, he met a young widow with three sons. He fell in love with the young widow and wanted to marry her. In that part of China’s countryside the tradition was and still is that when a woman marries, she leaves her own family and becomes a member of her husband’s family. Occasionally but rarely, a man may also marry into the wife’s family and becomes a so-called “back door son-in-law,” a stature somewhat humiliating to the man. Worse still was the case of my grandfather, who, as an orphan and without a family, married not into my grandmother’s maiden family, but into her late husband’s family. Thus when my father was born in 1933, he took the name of his late stepfather, not that of his own father.

My grandfather, young, strong, unconventional, and according to my grandmother, somewhat smarter for his lot, worked the field, and did small trade during breaks between agricultural busy seasons. By 1949, his three stepsons and my father had grown to be strong young men, and became an invaluable labor force in the field and around the house. The whole family was somewhat well off.

Being the youngest of four sons, my father could be spared from the field work, and was sent to the school. He became the first and only person in the family who had learnt how to read and write. During the Land Reform Movement in 1949 right after the Communist Party took over, my father’s family was classified originally as the “middle-class peasant,” which was not a particularly good thing. The class system in China’s countryside consisted of “landlord,” “rich peasant,” “middle-class peasant,” “poor peasant” and “serf.” The poorer the class the more revolutionary it was. Landlords would mean an automatic death penalty (that’s what happened to my mother’s family, but that’s another story), while many rich peasants were also first denounced and then executed. “Middle-class peasants” were not particularly favored by the Party and were not among those the Party could rely on. The weight of the matter is reflected in a rather astonishing thing that my grandmother did. Despite the fact that my grandmother was illiterate and had bound deformed little feet, she dared to go to the Party’s working group in her village, reasoned with the officials and somehow managed to change her original class, “middle-class-peasants” to “poor peasant,” so that her whole family could now lift their heads high again among the villagers. It was my grandmother herself who related this story to me rather proudly when I was about 10.

To make a long story short, my father’s family prospered during the early and mid-50s. My father finished elementary school, and entered a well-respected teacher’s school (at the level of high school) in a nearby county. The reason he had chosen the teacher’s school is that no tuition was required; instead the school paid a stipend to all its students—a tradition reflective of the exceptional reverence for teachers in Chinese society. In 1955, exceeding his best expectations in life, my father passed the college entrance exams and was admitted to a teacher's university in Tianjin, the third largest city about 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing. He chose Philosophy as his major. My mother, from the same teacher’s school as my father, also excelled in the exams and was admitted the same year to the Beijing Normal University, the best teacher’s university in China. Both my parents, then already Communist Party members during the relatively calm years of the mid-50s, were assigned highly enviable jobs in their respective universities after graduation. My father then courted my mother and they were married sometime in 1958, though they remained living in the separate cities for a few more years.

One day in 1959, in the height of the “Anti-rightist” Movement, my father received a telegraph from his home, telling him that his oldest brother had died of the “swollen disease.” He felt that he could not leave his post in the middle of a crucial movement. So he didn’t leave. Then a day later, another telegraph arrived telling him that his own father had died of the same disease. He immediately left for home. After two days of train and bus rides, he reached his home village, and found that his other two brothers had also died, of starvation. By that time 7 out of 10 people of the whole village were dead. My father buried his father and brothers and then went to the village and commune officials, who used to be his childhood buddies, and from whom he got some food to feed himself, his mother, and his nephew who were alive. He questioned the village officials as to how could they let this happen.

The story is well known today although it is still fiercely denied by many Mainland Chinese people: in 1958 during the “Great Leap Forward” movement, all peasants in my father’s village were force to join the huge People’s Commune. They worked the common fields, and ate at the commune’s big eating hall—nobody cooked at home, nobody owned any private property any more. Everything was given to the commune and shared by everybody. In the heydays of the “Great Leap Forward” many local officials tried to exaggerate their production levels to be higher than the next village, next county, or next district, afraid of being labeled as reactionary or “rightists.” In the end most of their harvest was taken by the government in accordance with their exaggerated production figures. By the time of 1959, famines swept many area of China, and my father’s home province (Henan) was one of the worst hit areas.

My father then took his mother and nephew back with him. He left his mother in Beijing to the care of my mother, and took his nephew (about 12 or 13 years old) to live with him in his university dorm. By simply doing what he had done my father was reprimanded by the university party officials for spreading rumors of famine and smearing the wonderful state of the country. My father was shut up, but my grandmother never was. It was from her that I learnt most of the above stories. I remember vividly that she uttered bitterly almost every day, “Why didn’t I die?!”

There were moments though when she was calmed, perhaps by the sights of the new lives in the family: my older brother was born in 1962, followed by me and my younger brother. My grandmother cared for all three of us, and lived on until 1976. She died after a stroke at the age of 76.

That was the story I had known for as long as I had memory. However a few years back when my son was born, my father came to the US for the first time, and told me something that I’d never known before. As we drove my parents from the airport and led them into our apartment, the first thing my father said, after settling down on the sofa with a big sigh, was “How horrible it was in year 59!” Then he told me the following. When he went back home in 1959 after his father and three brothers died, there were actually four survivors in the family: aside from my grandmother and his nephew, my father’s sister-in-law and her daughter were also alive. My father was then faced with an impossible choice: whom would he to take to go with him? He knew that whomever he took would live and whomever he left would die. I don’t know how he made the decision and how exactly everything went. In the end he took his own mother and the only surviving boy of the family with him. They lived. And his sister-in-law and her daughter perished soon after.

Both my parents, my father more so, are remarkably resilient and optimistic people. Perhaps it is because they are somewhat simple-minded and not as sophisticated as many others who had been crushed over the years. My father always says, “Look forward and not backward,” and “Let’s think of the good things. It’s useless to always indulge in one’s past miseries.” All his three children have turned out quite all right and I like to think that we are probably his greatest joy and pride.


As I am writing at this moment, my father is applying for a visa to visit me again this coming summer. I would like to ask him to tell me more stories, about his family and himself. His stories will be remembered by me, by my family, and maybe by other people as well—if only I can do the justice to preserve them in full. That’ll be the best tribute I pay—to my grandfather after whom I bear the name, and my uncles, aunt and cousin whom I never met.
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