Illustrations by Walton Dale
For his entire life, my grandfather never ventured out of his hometown. He was a former landowner in Heiping region in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. The land he had purchased over the years made him rich before the Communist takeover in 1949, but it also became the source of endless misery and trouble.
When Mao initiated the reforms of distributing land to the poor and classifying landowners as the enemy of the people, he lost all his property and was the target of many of Mao’s political campaigns.
I had always wanted to find out about his life and his eccentricities, but never had the opportunity. He passed away in 1988, at the age of 84.
A fellow writer of mine, Zhou Mingyue, presented an opportunity for me to make it up. His grandfather, Zhou Shude, was also a former landowner. At the age of 89, he was lucid and articulate. In February of 1998, my girlfriend and I got up early, traversed hundreds of kilometers on a long-distance coach and arrived at the northern part of Sichuan province. After staying overnight in a small county inn, we took another bus and walked several kilometers before we finally located Mr. Zhou Shude.
While organizing my notes and transcribing the interview, I couldn’t help thinking: there are hundreds of former landowners in China. I bet Zhou’s story certainly stands out. He has led quite an interesting life.
Liao Yiwu: Sir, at your age, what’s your biggest wish?
Zhou Shude: My biggest wish? I have turned into a lonely old man. I have raised three sons and three daughters. None of them is living with me now. They all have promising careers somewhere else. Among my grandchildren, Zhou Mingyue was the most considerate one. He came to visit me twice last year. Are you his colleague?
We are friends. You can say we are in the same profession. We both like to write.
Ah, both of you guys are intellectuals.
Your house is little too shabby. Why can’t Mingyue’s dad give you some money to fix it?
He has asked me many times, he says he will cover my living expenses, to go live with my second daughter in the city of Panjiagou. But if I go, who is going to take care of this ancestral headquarters? If I move, I will lose my Zhou Village residential registration. When that happens, the government will assign my land to someone else.
The house looks shabby now, but it was built as a courtyard house. It had a left wing, right wing, main hall, annex room, and servant’s quarters. My grandpa purchased the property and passed it on to my father.
In 1934, my father died of overwork. In his will, he divided all of his land and our house into two equal parts for my brother and me.
My brother, Zhou Shugui, was the black sheep of the family. I can’t forgive him to this day. Someday I’ll settle the score with him, even if I have to follow him to hell.
Anyway, after my brother got his inheritance he would go to the city to visit prostitutes. Even worse, he got addicted to opium. Young guys like you probably don’t know what it’s like to be hooked on opium. It means your whole life is finished. Stacks of cash can be smoked away easily. That was the case with my brother.
In a couple of years, he sold his land, then his house to feed his habit. Then he even pawned his wife! She jumped into the pond several times to commit suicide but was stopped by relatives. That still couldn’t awaken his conscience. Finally, his wife went to the clan leader, begging him to grant her a divorce. She was willing to spend the rest of her life by herself.
The clan leader sent a village security guard to my brother’s house, dragged him out and tied him to a big tree in the middle of the village. He was left there for a week, getting soaked in the rain and baked in the sun. That was our way of detoxification.
However, minutes after he was released from the tree, he dashed into my house, asking for money to buy opium. After I said no, he hit his head on the ground, and slapped himself on the face and threw himself into a wall.
Seeing that I wasn’t moved by the tricks, he then threatened me, saying he would burn our ancestral shrine if I refused to give him money. Disheartened, I decided to grant his wish—provided he would agree in writing to sever blood relations with me. He couldn’t care less—he put his fingerprint on the agreement, snatched the 10 silver dollars I gave him and disappeared. That drug addict didn’t deserve to live in this world!
Our clan leader, a very kind-hearted man, called all the Zhou family members together and officially declared Zhou Shugui, my brother, was a disgrace and expelled from the clan. If ever he were seen coming into the village, the leader would order to have his leg broken.
To redeem the reputation of my family and save face, I worked very hard, rising early and sleeping late. I took up the salt trading business and vowed to buy back the property sold by my brother. My wife, who was six months pregnant, worked in the field with hired farmers. While it was hard to earn your money, it was equally difficult to keep it. Luckily, my sister-in-law, my niece and nephews were very understanding and equally hardworking.
By 1937, I managed to pay off all the debts that my brother owed, and brought my sister-in-law and her children back. They lived in the right wing of this house. It was one big happy family again. Everyone contributed in his or her own way, both people and livestock were healthy. Our life was finally on the right track. Before I went to bed every night, I lit a candle and burned incense, thanking my ancestors and asking for their blessings.
Unfortunately, our good life didn’t last long. The Communists came.
In 1950, the local county government sent a land reform working team, and I was branded a member of the exploiting landowning class. In my village, five or six people, including our clan leader and the former village security leader, were classified as “evil landowners.”
After being paraded in the county in a series of public denunciation meetings, our clan leader was executed. My wife and I were grouped together with a bunch of other landowners and former rich farmers, and shuffled to the execution ground to witness the killing. That was the first time that I got all tied up, with my hands behind my back. Aiyah, it was very traumatic.
I had been educated in private schools and was well-versed in Confucianism. I was kind to others, did good deeds, had never harmed anyone or harbored any ill feelings toward others. However, my fellow villagers, who used to be polite and respectful, all donned different facial masks. Two of my former hired farmers publicly denounced me, accusing me of exploiting them by forcing them to farm in the cold winter days and deducting their pay. I didn’t agree with the accusations because I was working alongside them in the fields. Also, even under Communism, we still need to work the fields in wintertime, don’t we? Those two traitors! I used to treat them so generously. They annulled all my land titles, land leasing and property rental agreements.
So the world around me suddenly changed: rich people ended up suffering and the poor became the masters. It was hard to accept at first. But when you finally saw through the whole thing, it really didn’t matter that much. Mine wasn’t the only family that had lost everything. It was a change of dynasty and someone was bound to suffer. The most important thing was that my wife and I were both alive. We had a future ahead of us. Therefore, I persuaded my wife not to commit suicide or something. Since my children were all adults, they could either sever their ties with me, or they could leave for faraway places. It was up to them.
At the end of the land reform movement, the leader of the working team came to talk with me. He complimented me for being cooperative with the government. I was all smiles and bowed to him. In my heart, I felt as if someone was stabbing me with a blunt knife.
The thing that hurt me the most was my brother, Zhou Shugui, that black sheep, who had squandered his wealth on drugs. Immediately before the Communist takeover he was a beggar on the street. Then, the world changed. As a poor street person, he was made master and was on the top. As for me, the rich landowner, I was made the enemy of the people and sunk to the bottom.
Overnight, my brother turned into a devout Communist supporter. He denounced me in public meetings, slapped me on the face and scolded me for acting what he called “worse than a pig or a dog.” He accused me of illegally taking his land, and taking his wife and children away from him. What a liar. Heaven knows I didn’t deserve the treatment. Everyone in the village knew that I helped support his wife and raise his children, purely out of my consideration for our blood relations. But when my brother was spewing lies there wasn’t a single person who dared to step up to do me any justice. I was mad as hell and passed out right on the spot.
By the time I regained consciousness several days later, I noticed several strangers had moved into my courtyard house. All my family members were kicked out into the small annex room. Luckily, they didn’t demolish the main hall and we could still secretly burn a couple of sticks of incense to worship my ancestors.
Zhou Shugui occupied the three large rooms in the right wing. With the help of the Communists, he became rich overnight, with a house, which was mine; a plot of land, which I used to own; and a family, which I had supported. Who would have guessed that an opium addict could have been rewarded with such wealth!
Each time I saw him walk around in the courtyard, I was full of anger. But, it was a small place and we were bound to see each other daily. As time went by, I got used to it and accepted my fate. Sometimes, if I we bumped into each other, he would mock me: “Little brother, you worked like an ox for your whole life. Have you managed to keep our ancestral fortunes intact? Apparently not.”
I would answer: “I’m the former landowner, and you are the poor revolutionary peasant. I’m the enemy of the people. You and I should draw a clear line. We don’t belong to the same class.”
“Fuck it,” he would say. “I obtained my fortune through an opium gun. If it hadn’t been for opium, none of us would be alive.”
How could they have classified him a poor peasant?
He was born into a rich family. Perhaps it was hard to find an authentically poor Communist peasant, who had been poverty-stricken for three generations.
I have to correct you: It’s hard to find a family who can keep their wealth for three generations, but easy to find one which is poor for three generations.
We started out with a quarter of a mu [6.67 acres] of land, then expanded to half a mu, and gradually saved money to purchase hundreds of mu. It took 20 to 30 years, or several generations to accumulate this wealth. However, if your family has a black sheep, all the wealth can be gone in seconds.
How did you manage to get through that period of your life?
As the Chinese saying goes: All misfortunes come from your big mouth. So I kept my mouth shut and nobody came to bother me. There were thousands of people who had been deprived of their wealth, and I managed to survive in the same way many of them have.
Each time there was a public parade, our names would be called on loudspeakers and we would be ordered to gather and wait for public humiliation. At these public denunciation meetings, I would squeeze my knees together, hold my chin down and listen.
Occasionally the local militiamen would force us to walk 10 or 20 li [three to six miles] to the county headquarters for meetings. Sometimes there would be over 10,000 attendees. We would stand there in front of them with our heads down for many hours, like props.
Sometimes we had to stay out for three consecutive days for different public gatherings. Getting denounced at the night meetings could be tough. In the 1950s, I was in my 40s. Years of hard labor, such as carrying heavy sacks of salt on my back, made me pretty strong. I didn’t care how tough the punishment was and how long I had to stand at those pubic meetings, it just didn’t bother me and my eyes wouldn’t even blink. But as time went by, my back started to go because I had to stand there, bending down very deeply at these meetings.
Fortunately, by the 1970s, those political campaigns were no longer in fashion and decreased in frequency. During those times when we were called out, they began to be nicer, allowing us to take breaks to use the toilet. Sometimes we were even allowed to sit down during meetings.
Gradually, people in the village started to renew their friendship with us since everyone in the village was in one way or another related by blood. Like the Chinese saying goes, the mountain doesn’t move but the water does. After your fortune leaves you, your health, your family and true friends are as immobile as a mountain. Fortune will come back sooner or later.
When I was a kid, we took a school trip to the mansion of a wealthy former landowner who was executed by the Communists during the land reforms. The mansion was converted into a museum that displayed how the landowner exploited his farmers and tortured those who couldn’t afford to pay back debts. We were shocked by his brutality. Since then, we hated all landowners and never wanted to go back to the days before the Communist reign. Do you mean to say you want us to return to the old pre-Communist days?
You don’t have to use Communist theory to bullshit me—that trick doesn’t work anymore. My grandfather and my father were country bumpkins who worked in the fields along with our hired farmers. Sometimes they overworked the ox that pulled the plows. When the animal began to cough blood, humans took over the plows. That was how we gradually accumulated our wealth. Not like today, where young men and women leave the village empty-handed to look for jobs in the cities, and come home rich and glamorous in a couple of years. It’s magic. They can build new houses and have lots of stuff. If we apply the classification standards used during the land reform, half of the villagers today would be called rich landowners.
The government rehabilitated my name in 1979; I am no longer called an “evil landowner.” I was given the second opportunity to be a respectful human being, and nowadays my life as an ordinary peasant is much better than that of a landowner before 1949. We have electricity and TV. We have plenty of meat and you can eat however much you want. My grandson, Mingyue, told me that nowadays, even prisoners eat meat twice a week.
As for my past, I have forgiven everything and moved on. Like an ancient Chinese saying goes: Experiencing the most difficult hardships makes one the toughest of all human beings. As an old fart myself, I have nothing to regret or be bitter about. I simply treat my past hardships as something that I have suffered on behalf of my children and grandchildren so they don’t have to go through the same suffering in this life again.
From your story so far, I can tell you are really open-minded, and content with life. That explains your longevity.
I’ve long been tired of life—I’m turning 89 this year—but what can I do? The more I want to die, the more difficult it has become.
As you know, in China, old people like to have their coffin made before they die; it’s an auspicious thing to do. The pine coffin now lying in the main hall was made for me over 20 years ago, and that was the third coffin made for me—the first two were destroyed by bugs. I’m still here.
I’m sure you will live up to 100 and enjoy life.
None of the people who occupied this house after I had been kicked out lived past 50. Can’t you believe that? I’m the only one left, the rest have either died or moved out. My brother Zhou Shugui and my wife died in the 1960s, during a famine. My brother deserved to die. However, since he is dead now, I should show some respect.
You should live with your children or grandchildren. They can at least take care of you.
I have been pretty mad at Mingyue and my grandchildren for bugging me to demolish this house. Look at the statue of the stone lion, out front. Over the years, its head has become shiny because I touch it all the time for good luck. This house has been around for over 100 years. Those youngsters don’t understand that once I move, it means the end of my life. Since I’m going to die soon, what’s the point of building a new house?
I didn’t realize you are quite stubborn. This must be the result of being regulated and bullied for years and years as a member of the evil landowner class. You’ve had enough and you don’t want other people to tell you what to do.
That’s right. The thing that I hate the most is to be manipulated by people.
When my grandchildren come to visit me, they are afraid of the fleas here. I have cats. In the beginning I had just a couple but they breed more. Those animals love to play in my bed and sleep with me. As an old man, my body is cold all night long and those cats offer lots of warmth. They also chase mice away. I always talk with them, telling them stuff that would be of interest to people of my generation.
Last year, one of my relatives in the village died. He was two years older than I am. He used to come visit me and we would chit-chat about our past. Now, nobody comes to talk with me anymore. I have my cats. You never know, they could be the reincarnation of people who have died. In the wintertime, they all sleep under the comforter and snore like human beings. They remind me of my younger days when I was out trading salt. In the evenings, I stayed at small hotels and slept with over 10 people in a big bed. Now, I’m sleeping with 10 cats.
The cat could pass on diseases to humans.
I carry more germs than cats.
Haha, you may be right. Anyhow, the roof is leaking. Look at the pool of water on the floor.
As long as the roof on top of my bed is okay.
You don’t ask for a lot in life. No wonder if you can live this long.
For people at my age, there isn’t a big difference between life and death.
You are so funny. Mingyue and I are hoping that you could someday move to the city. Society is progressing and people’s lives are getting better. There are many people like you who have reached advanced ages. You can practice Tai Chi, go fishing or raise dogs and cats. If you try to make contacts with other people, you may find some friends. People may like your story.
I went to live with Mingyue’s father in the city for two months. I was so bored there I became ill. I’m an old fart from the countryside and couldn’t get used to living in an urban high rise. I felt like a pigeon trapped in a cage. I couldn’t walk down the building freely for some fresh air, because a bunch of high school students would follow me and treat me like some kind of exotic antique.
One day, I was getting some sun by the basketball court. It was warm so I unzipped my pants. Suddenly, I heard some loud screaming. If this were in the countryside, who would care about such a trivial thing? It was a big deal in the city and it totally embarrassed my son.
There are too many rules in the big cities. You have to pay to take a dump at a toilet on the street. Nothing is like that in countryside, where you can take a pee or dump in the courtyard, as you like. The next morning, it’s all gone. The wild dogs ate it all. Also, if I move to the city, where should I put my casket?
You won’t need a casket. In the city, people get cremated after they die.
Burn me into ashes? That won’t work for me, that will make my reincarnation impossible.
To tell you the truth, I have already chosen the place for my burial, next to Mingyue’s grandma. I had a hole dug out for me and the feng shui master has seen it. It’s a good location, right on the tail end of the Phoenix Mountain. As the old saying goes: Good fortune lies at the head of the dragon and the tail of the phoenix. It heralds post-prosperity.
I don’t have time to chat with those city folks. I have lived a full life. Maybe, someday, when we all meet in the other world, I can ask them about the land reforms. At the moment, the mere thought of death makes me smile and makes me very happy. I feel it was worth being labeled a landowner; I have redeemed the sins for my children and have created future happiness for them.
I heard that we are now allowed to sell and buy land again. Wow; there will be more landowners in China.
Do you think there could be another land reform and people could be reclassified again?
That would be something happening in your generation. It’s beyond my reach.