Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China
22. Food Fantasies
Fourteen rolled a couple of cigarettes with the tobacco from the butts I had gleaned, and I watched as Number Six and Number Nine took on the challenge of lighting them without matches. First, Number Nine extracted some cotton stuffing from my mattress, snapped a few sorghum bristles off our whisk broom, twisted a wad of cotton around each bristle, and laid them on the bunk. Then Number Six rubbed a brick rapidly back and forth on top of them until we smelled smoke. Ripping off a wad of fuming cotton, he coaxed out a few precious sparks by fanning it in the air and blowing gently. It was child’s play to produce smoke, but generating sparks was tricky, as the cotton would not ignite if you waited too long or blew too hard. We discarded a heap of singed cotton and broom bristles before getting it right. Professor Liu watched in trepidation from the sidelines as we played with the forbidden fire, but he did not try to stop us.
In the throes of nicotine withdrawal, I thought wistfully of my confiscated pack of Diamond brand cigarettes. People often said that a postmeal cigarette was heaven on earth, and this was true for me as long as I was well nourished. But I soon learned that smoking while subsisting on scanty rations of corn gruel was an entirely different matter. Once Number Six had lit a cigarette, he handed it to me, and I greedily inhaled a couple of drags of smoke. To my surprise, I was overcome with nausea rather than pleasure. With head reeling and hands tingling, I started to retch and had to lie down on my bunk to recuperate.
My cellmates whiled away the hours with an ingenious, if primitive, form of textile manufacture. Although I never tried my hand at this enterprise, I let them help themselves freely to the generous stuffing in the thick new mattress my mother had just brought me for the winter. Holding a homemade spindle in one hand and spinning it with the other, they would coax a fiber out of a wad of cotton and twist it into a thread with their fingers. Then they would intertwine several of these threads into a strand thick enough to be woven into cloth. Among other things, they made me a pair of sock protectors, cozy covers we wore over our socks to spare them the wear and tear of scuttling around on our wooden bunks all day.
They also cleverly contrived makeshift pencils from empty tin toothpaste tubes. First they cut off the stiff ends of the tubes, which contained the raw material for the pencil “lead.” After beating the chopped-up tin into a thin, cylindrical shape with their rice bowls, they attached it to a whittled stick, and presto!, a pencil.
It was against prison regulations for inmates to have pencils. Even if the authorities assigned you to write an essay in the cell, they always collected all the pencils again as soon as they could. I understood that certain items posed a risk for inmates inclined to attempt suicide or jailbreak, but I simply could not imagine why we were forbidden to have pencils, which hardly seemed like lethal instruments.
Fortunately I had my cellmates’ homemade pencils and a supply of blank paper from home, which I used to record Fourteen’s mouthwatering descriptions of imaginary culinary tours of Xi’an. Whenever he felt hunger pangs, he reminisced lovingly about the delicacies at all the famous restaurants along the four main thoroughfares inside the Xi’an city wall, from the East Gate to the central Bell Tower and out to the West Gate, and from the South Gate to the Bell Tower and beyond, to the North Gate. I wrote down the name of each restaurant and its specialty, as well as his detailed recipes for Xi’an Muslim dishes, such as cured lamb, mutton soup with flatbread, pancakes stuffed with baked lamb, and honeyed sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Fourteen’s descriptions reminded me of treats I had enjoyed as a child, and I jotted down some of my fondest memories too. There were street markets galore in Xi’an in the early 1950s, before private enterprise was swallowed up by the state during the Great Leap Forward. We had an endless variety of food right in Kaitong Lane, where I lived, with plenty of restaurants, street stalls, and door-to-door peddlers with carrying poles. Most of the food was cheap, often costing only a few pennies. For example, at the gates of my school on chilly winter mornings, vendors sold hot, steaming bowls of creamy date soup or almond-scented wheat porridge. For a few cents more, I could add a twisted cruller to dunk in my porridge or a sesame flatbread sandwich filled with comb-shaped fried wontons.
Food rationing was still unheard of in those days, and the street markets were as colorful and earthy as they had been before the Communist takeover. People used leaves of lotus or bamboo to package takeout orders of cured pork or sticky rice with red beans or dates. One popular stall on Luoma Street sold sweet, clear rice liquor, heated in a dark bronze kettle, sprinkled with fragrant yellow laurel, and served in a crude pottery bowl decorated with blue flowers. Another vendor had shallow black china bowlfuls of cool white bean jelly cubes, flavored with hot pepper oil, garlic, and perfectly mixed mustard sauce. One bite of this pungent concoction, slurped with red chopsticks, was spicy enough to make customers’ eyes water. On the way home from a show on a cold winter night, people could sit on the benches at the stalls near the entrances to the small lanes and feast on hot sour mung bean meatball soup for a dime. The steamed dumplings for sale outside the East Gate were as puffy as steamed buns, and rich but not greasy, while the vendors along West Boulevard served numbingly spicy steamed mutton with raw garlic. Roast chicken glistened with oil in the streetlights there, beside wheelbarrows piled with chopped lamb scrap meat tinged with red food coloring. Inside specially shaped, lidded wooden basins, smoked pork hearts, lungs, and intestines were arranged as they had been in the pig’s belly. This was called bang bang pork, named after the tapping rhythms the vendors beat on their wooden basins to attract customers.
Alas, all these regional specialties disappeared after the Great Leap Forward.
With Grandfather at Silent Garden, I learned to appreciate the simple pleasures of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. In the spring Grandmother plucked the succulent reddish green leaves of the Chinese toon tree in the south corner of the garden for her cold tofu salad with sesame oil; they were faintly bitter but left a sweet, grassy aftertaste. In the summer we sent pleasant chills down our spines with hot sour noodle soup, seasoned with a leafy twig of red Sichuan peppercorns picked fresh from the tree in our rear courtyard. In the late fall we harvested overripe, frostbitten pumpkins, which we could steam until they were mealy and sweet, or braise in soy sauce, so that they tasted like hot roasted chestnuts, or mince with five-spice powder for a dumpling filling that rivaled any meat. Every day in the winter we had carrots, diced and cooked with soy sauce and MSG or tossed with white cabbage in a colorful chilled salad to accompany our red bean porridge. Grandfather’s name for carrots was mini-ginseng roots, and he told us they were very nutritious.
Grandmother had a special recipe for a cool, refreshing summertime drink that was supposed to have a detoxifying effect. First, she sun-dried her fresh-picked young bamboo leaves, honeysuckle buds, and pink mimosa petals. Then she steeped them in boiling water, producing a golden herb tea that she sweetened with a pinch of sugar. Grandfather’s favorite drink was longevity tea, brewed from knotweed tubers; this was the legendary drink of the He family of ancient times, who were supposed to have lived to a ripe old age without going gray thanks to the knotweed growing in their well. We had knotweed vines on the walls of our side courtyard, and Grandfather said that the white portions of the tubers nourished your qi, or inner energy, while the red ones enriched your blood. Every fall I dug up the sweet potato–size tubers, washed and dried them, sliced them with a bronze knife, and mixed them with black beans. Then I steamed this concoction nine times, drying it in the sun each time, eventually resulting in a black paste, like herbal medicine in a Chinese pharmacy.
I wondered how Grandfather was. I had been in detention for more than a month, and he was probably still waiting for me to bring him the eight-treasure rice pudding I had promised. I had no idea how much longer I would be held in custody and was afraid that he might not live to see the day of my release.
In addition to keeping food memoirs, I used the homemade pencils to work on my English. Professor Liu had taught English before the Communist takeover and still remembered it even though he had been behind bars for many years. He made me a vocabulary list on the blank pages of my copy of Mao’s Selected Works, which I memorized to while away the seemingly interminable hours between meals. I also studied English translations of Mao’s quotations and poetry, which my parents had sent me upon request. Since Mao was the sole author we were permitted to read, these were my only English textbooks.
Number One, an excellent calligrapher, also agreed to give me some lessons. Our homemade pencils were inadequate to the task, however, so Fourteen and Number Nine offered to improvise a writing brush and ink for us. They fashioned the brush handle with ease from our whisk broom, but the brush head was a tall order. Fourteen extracted a tuft of black wool from his overcoat, but it was too soft and unwieldy, so I let him yank out a bunch of my hair, which was rather wiry, and he bundled it together with the wool to stiffen it. Number Nine figured out how to make ink. He had a pair of black homespun trousers, dyed with natural vegetable coloring, which bled heavily in the wash. He soaked them in a basin for a few days, allowing the inky sediment to settle to the bottom, and then poured off the clear top layer of water, leaving a thick black residue. After repeating this process several times, he scooped the resulting black liquid into a soap dish and put it on the windowsill to evaporate and thicken for a week.
When the ink was ready, Number One spread a sheet of paper on my bunk and inscribed some model characters for me to copy. Despite the makeshift brush and watery ink, he managed to produce deft, powerful brushstrokes, which nicely fleshed out his upright block lettering. Lacking a continuous supply of ink and paper, however, I was unable to practice until Professor Liu had a brainstorm. The wooden surfaces of our bunks had been burnished with the sweat and friction of many inmates over the years. Suggesting that I paint characters with water on this glossy surface, Professor Liu got a bowl of water, dipped the brush into it, and demonstrated. I followed his lead and began to practice, wiping off the wood each time I had filled it up.
My day was full of lessons. After breakfast I memorized English vocabulary words, practiced my spelling, and recited quotations from Chairman Mao or had dictation practice with Professor Liu. At midday I filled a bowl of water to practice my calligraphy. After the weather turned cold, it was too chilly in the cell to sit still on the bunk all day long, but I lacked the energy for vigorous exercise. Sometimes Fourteen and I did a bit of ballroom dancing in the space between the bunk and the wall, just to get our legs moving. I sang all the songs I remembered from my Two Hundred Famous Songs from Foreign Lands as we waltzed languorously back and forth between the door and the urinal.
We all ran out of steam in the afternoons. Prolonged semistarvation had taken its toll on our health. Professor Liu sat ashen-faced on his bunk, leaning limply against the wall and groaning softly; his stomach tied itself in painful knots when it was empty. Number One, who had adapted to life in jail, sat cross-legged on his bunk all the time, conserving energy with his eyes closed. Although he was gaunt, his skin was tawny, and he still had some pep. Number Seven and Number Nine kept busy with their weaving, using up the new stuffing in my mattress.
Fourteen was the liveliest occupant of the cell and a great raconteur, whose vivid tales of his youthful pre-1949 escapades took my mind off my growling stomach. He had been a playboy, patron of numerous prostitutes, and had done time in a Guomindang prison for street fighting in the Muslim quarter. As he reminisced, he crooned the popular songs from the brothels and dance halls of those days and described their former locations in detail. I mentally followed his verbal map as he guided me through all the red-light districts of the city, from Chrysanthemum Garden to the Kaiyuan Temple.
Number Six, a rather antisocial man, was a thief who had been in and out of jail countless times. This time he had been caught digging through the wall of a bank. When he heard I was from the Number Two Brickyard, he embraced me as a soul mate and regaled me with accounts of his experiences at Camp Willow, part of the Malan Farms labor camp complex in northern Shaanxi. He had fond memories of the abundance of local potatoes and apples there when they were in season. His descriptions moved me to fantasize about Malan Farms and even to imagine that such a destination might be a desirable outcome for me. Pathetically I had begun to focus on obtaining lenient treatment, as my hopes of release waned with each passing day.
The harmony in our cell proved fragile, however. I provoked a fight that completely shattered the peaceful little world we had built so painstakingly. There was a long-standing rift between Fourteen and Number Six. I had learned this on my first day in the cell, when Fourteen cautioned me to beware of Number Six, calling him a hoodlum and a fink.
Number Six used prison-issue bedding. His quilt was stuffed with a sparse layer of low-grade cotton that had clumped together inside its cover, leaving numerous bare patches. It was freezing in the cell, and his request for a new quilt had been ignored. Every night he slept huddled up into a ball inside his thin quilt. At bedtime he always wanted to shut our tiny window, which was our only source of fresh air. But if he did, the stale odor of the urinal and unwashed bedding was overpowering. Since I had a warm quilt, I always opened the window after he had shut it. We bickered constantly and gradually became enemies. Professor Liu counseled me not to squabble with Number Six about the window, urging me to show some compassion. But Fourteen egged me on.
“It’s against the rules for him to climb up on the windowsill the way he does,” he said, “so you won’t get in trouble even if you beat him up.” Standing on my tiptoes, I could open the window, which was near the ceiling in the northeast corner of the cell, but Number Six, who was a short man, practically had to clamber onto the windowsill to close it again.
One evening we got into a scuffle. I kept opening the window, and he kept slamming it shut. Finally, he lost his temper. The blood rushed to his cheeks, and his neck bulged.
“You counterrevolutionary!” he snarled.
This incensed me, and I pounced on him. We started to grapple on a bunk, making a ruckus in the night that brought the security guard and warden rushing into our cell.
“Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?” barked the warden, noticing how tall I was compared with Number Six.
“He hit me first,” I protested. “I was just trying to stop him from climbing up on the windowsill at night.”
“Why were you doing that?” the warden demanded, turning fiercely on Number Six.
Number Six, normally rather taciturn, stammered out a vague reply.
“You son of a bitch!” yelled the warden. “You’ve been plotting a jailbreak!” Then he questioned everyone in the cell about Number Six’s behavior.
Fourteen seized the opportunity to stab Number Six in the back, asserting that he climbed onto the windowsill and gazed outside on a regular basis. Taking a huge nail and some rope made of knotted cloth strips out from under Number Six’s bunk, he handed them to the warden. In fact Number Six had saved the nail, which he had extracted from a loose spot under his bunk, for innocent purposes, and the rope was for tying up his luggage. But it was against the rules for him to possess such things at all, to say nothing of climbing onto the windowsill. Now he was in a bind; the warden had both witnesses and incriminating evidence.
Realizing that it would be impossible to vindicate himself at this point, Number Six vented all his fury on Fourteen, bypassing me. For a long time he had been watching Fourteen’s every move and storing up evidence against him. He took out the small knife that Fourteen kept hidden under his bunk and gave it to the warden, reporting Fourteen at the same time for rolling cigarettes. Fourteen retaliated by telling how Number Six had made fire. Now desperate, Number Six blabbed about everything he could think of, no matter how trivial. First he took my calligraphy materials out of my bag and told the warden about our homemade writing brush and ink and my calligraphy lessons. Then he squealed on Fourteen and me for dancing in the cell and on the others for spinning thread and weaving cloth. Between the two of them, they spilled all our secrets.
The next morning after breakfast the door clanked open, and several wardens came in to conduct an inspection of our cell. They confiscated my pencil and writing brush, our spinning and weaving equipment, and all our homemade products and handcuffed Fourteen and Number Six with their hands behind their backs. Number Six’s crime was “plotting a jailbreak,” while Fourteen’s was “instigating illicit activities.” Number One and Professor Liu were also accused of covering up for us.
The warden rattled a pair of handcuffs in my face. “It’ll be your turn next unless you start behaving.”
Now two of our little group of seven were handicapped, and we all suffered along with them. Their wrists swelled and turned black and blue, the pain of the constricting handcuffs hampering all movement. Everyone was too angry at Number Six to help him eat, so his food sat untouched in his bowl. He stonily refused to ask for help, until Professor Liu finally took mercy on him and spooned the cold gruel into his mouth. I waited on Fourteen, taking charge not only of his feeding but also of his entire process of urination. The torture was the worst at night; the handcuffs made it impossible for the victims to find a comfortable sleeping position or even to lie down and get up without help. Number Six passed out on the third day, and we yelled for the warden, who came and unshackled both men. Applying a traditional acupressure technique, Number One pinched Number Six’s philtrum until he recovered consciousness.
I blamed myself for their suffering. Knowing that I was bigger than Number Six, I had gotten carried away. But it had been a mistake to antagonize a thug like him. The quality of prison life depends in large measure upon the relations between cellmates, and the pointless discord that I had instigated had negated all our industrious pursuits.
When I was first locked up, a few green leaves had been clinging to the tree outside our tiny cell window, but they all had turned yellow and fallen off by now, leaving the branches bare. Two months had passed, and it was late November. At around eight o’clock one evening we got word that someone was going to be released. It was customary to do this after dark, in order to preserve the city’s image of respectability by keeping the prisoners out of sight.
When we heard the news, each of us promised that if freed, we would visit the family of someone who had been left behind. I agreed to do this for Professor Liu, who was extremely worried about his wife and children, having heard nothing from them since the raid on his house more than two years earlier. Although he lived near the South Gate, a ten-minute walk from the detention center, he might as well have been buried alive.
Then Fourteen resumed his tales of restaurant hopping and had gotten as far as the intersection of Duanlümen Street and East Boulevard. He had entered the China Café across the street from the Northwest Theater and had just ordered a bowl of hot fermented sweet rice seasoned with yellow laurel when the cell door burst open.
“Number Two, get your bags ready. Pack your bag, and make it snappy,” barked the warder from the doorway.
Elated, Fourteen turned to me. “You’re a free man, brother,” he informed me fondly. “You’ll even be in time for a bowl of fermented sweet rice at the China Café tonight!”
Everyone congratulated me and pitched in to help me pack. Believing that I was on my way home, I bequeathed my thick mattress to Fourteen, so that my former cellmates could continue to weave cloth from its stuffing.
After the door had clanked shut behind me, I heard the muffled sound of Fourteen’s excited voice: “He’s going to taste fermented sweet rice tonight!”
23. The Verdict
Laden with my huge backpack, I followed the warden down the main walkway, out the heavily guarded main gate, and into a spacious office. To my surprise, I did not see any cadres from the Number Two Brickyard there. That did not bode well since it was standard practice for correctional institutions to return freed prisoners to their original work units. My heart sank as I realized that I might not be released. Sheriff Cong, my interrogator, and a young, unfamiliar cadre were waiting for me in armchairs. They approached me as I came in, and the young cadre announced that I was going to receive lenient treatment, thanks to the relatively clean confession I had made. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that maybe I was going to be released after all. Then he took out a printed document and launched into a rapid-fire reading. As I stood there, dazed in the glare of the lamps, my mind kept wandering at critical moments, and I was unable to absorb most of what he said. When he had finished, he handed the document to me in triplicate and told me to sign it. I skimmed it and deduced that what he had meant by “lenient” treatment was three years in the labor camps.