Thursday, July 3, 2008

Random Talk on Three Kingdoms

Earlier this week, I was searching looking for good new books about China to read. The key words "China books" turned up 542 lists in the Listmania! category, and "best China books" resulted in 237. After a quick browse, I was a bit surprised that Three Kingdoms did not show up in those lists, though it was ranked #2 in Books > Literature & Fiction > World Literature > Chinese.

I had to create my own list of best China books to include Three Kingdoms it is my very favorite. I'm not sure how this English translation got its high ranking though, as none of the Americans I have asked were even aware of it.

Once, before I quit my high tech job, the company's president, a Jewish businessman with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England, asked me to recommend a book about China. Apparently, hiring me had whetted his appetite for more Chinese employees. I lent him my copy of the first volume of Three Kingdoms. About a month later I asked him what he thought of the book. He said, "I did not know people fought so much in ancient China!"

My American husband, Bob, absolutely loved Three Kingdoms as well – I guess our marriage is indeed well founded. :-)

And, had I not stolen the book (a Chinese edition of course) from a sealed library during the Cultural Revolution, I would never have gotten my Ph.D. from MIT.


It was 1970 when I entered middle school. Schools had been closed for several years before they reopened to a different authority—the Workers’ Propaganda Team. Red banners hung everywhere in the schoolyard: “The Working Class Rules Everything!” They marked a new era in which books were burned or sealed instead of being read.

Master Yoe, a taciturn lathe worker in his late forties, was the WPT member stationed in my classroom. Without notice, he would randomly walk into our chatty classroom holding his hands behind him and sauntering around between desks. Wherever he stopped, the noise in that corner also stopped. Whenever I asked a teacher about anything, class schedules or other activities, the answer was invariantly, “Ask Master Yoe.”

I had never seen Master Yoe read anything, not even a newspaper. I suspected that he was illiterate. Until I was caught by him one day, that is.

I had had no books to read for several years. As soon as the Cultural Revolution began, my mother, the superintendent of a school district, sold all her books (except the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao) as waste paper to a salvage station. If we did not get rid of the books, the Red Guards would come to raid our house. Those books were “four olds”—old thought, old culture, old tradition, old custom—and must be swept out.

One day during my first year in middle school, I noticed a crack on the seal across a library door. This one-room library was on the second floor of the office building at which my father, before his disgrace, had been an institute head. Like all other libraries then, its door was sealed by two diagonal strips of white paper with black dates and red stamps on them. But for some reason, there were still shelves full of books inside—that much I could see through the chink in the door. Every once in a while, I would peek inside when no one was watching and fantasize about owning all those books.

When I noticed the tear appearing on the sealing strip, I told myself it wasn’t because my forehead pushed it. The tear grew wider each day. I “accidentally” passed by the door more frequently and stole glances at its slow evolution. At last, one day, I saw that the sealing strip was about to snap. With a little extra push surely it would.

I don’t remember providing the push. It must have been a natural force that finally tore the seal. In any case, I found myself inside the dim, dusty library, standing in front of a spider-netted bookshelf. Not daring to stay long, I grabbed a thick, tattered book from the nearest shelf—it must be an interesting book if so many people had read it, I thought. Hiding the book under my shirt, I snuck out, heart pounding, and ran home.

The book was Three Kingdoms. While virtually all books belonged to “four olds,” this was their epitome—one of the oldest classic novels. Before the Cultural Revolution began, I had heard fragments of the novel in teahouses, told by folk storytellers holding a short piece of wood board, used to strike the table and make a loud noise whenever the story was approaching a climax. For several afternoons after school, I was immersed in the novel.

I laughed when Zhu Geliang, the greatest war strategist, tricked his enemy with “Empty City Ruse” and “borrowed” the enemy’s arrows using straw boats; I cried when he died of sickness on an autumn night with his army’s victory in arm’s reach. I saw nothing but the ancient regiment flags and shining spears, I heard nothing but the beat of battalion drums and the neighs of armored horses. I wished I had been born in that heroic time. My dream was broken only by my parents’ return home from their work units each day, at which point I quickly stashed the book under my quilt. My parents, laden with their own burdens, noticed nothing.

Against my better judgment, I brought the book to school a few days later, spellbound by the final chapters. I knew very well that the book had the stamp of my father’s work unit on it. If caught by the WPT, I would not only bring disaster on myself but also impose a new crime upon my father’s name. But I was dying to know if Zhu Geliang’s chosen successor, Jaing Wei, had won the war. Sitting down, I opened the book in the compartment under my desktop. I kept my head up, lowering only my eyes to read. Every few moments, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. But the classroom was the ruckus of a hornet’s nest—all my classmates were chatting, kidding, throwing chalk around, and no one paid attention to the poor teacher writing whatever on the blackboard, let alone me. More reassuring still, Master Yoe wasn’t in.

I could only stay alert for so long when reading such an enticing book. After a dozen pages I forgot everything else, until the blue veins on a big hand filled my eyes and took the book, almost gently, away. I looked up, panic stricken, meeting Master Yoe’s serious gaze. God knows when he had walked in.


One day a year later, a bunch of men arrived in green military dress. With their arrival, new slogans appeared on the campus walls: “Station troops to guard the frontier and cultivate the borderland!” The “troops,” it turned out, meant us middle school students. We were being recruited to go to Yunnan, China’s southern borderland neighbouring Burma, to plant rubber trees in the army reclamation farms. Anyone who had turned 16 was eligible, which meant most of the students, who had been delayed by several years without schools. And the recruiters did not mind if all of us joined them.

My best friend and I hit palms pledging to go together. We applied enthusiastically, as did many of our friends. Every regime has its own politically correct terms. What we did was politically correct, expected, and honorable, in our time.

When I handed my application—one page full of vehement words—to Master Yoe, he said, “You are not sixteen yet.”

“In three months I will be. Revolution does not discriminate by age!”

“We’ll need your parents’ agreement,” he said. His swarthy face showed no smile.

I was confident that my mother, a Party member, would support my correct decision. But she turned out to be tough. She said I was too young, Yunnan was too far, work in an army reclamation farm would be too hard, and much more. I pestered her day after day, alternating cajolement with coercion and crying, until she finally gave in.

In a few weeks, the list of approved students was announced, both in broadcast and on a big wall, the names studded the papers like ants. Everyone I knew who applied got their wish, including my best friend, but I did not find my name. Did this mean I was not trustworthy?

Master Yoe wore a sly smile when I confronted him. “Shhh. You are not going to Yunnan. You are going to high school.”

That was the first time I heard the news that high schools would reopen as well. High schools had not been needed because universities admitted only factory workers, peasants, and soldiers by recommendation, many of them semi-literates. Now, Master Yoe told me secretively, Premier Zhou Enlai had instructed an “experiment” (as if it were a novelty): to admit a small number of students to high school, and after graduation send them directly to university. (The second half of this plan, as it turned out, was never realized before Premier Zhou’s death in 1976.) As such, my school was in the process of selecting one student from each class to go on to high school. And Master Yoe singled me out from thirty-plus classmates.


That fateful day when Master Yoe seized my Three Kingdoms, I did all I could to plead with him to give it back to me. I vowed to become the most obedient, disciplined, and well-behaved student, and do whatever he asked me to do. I begged him not to implicate my father.

“I’ll tell you my decision in three days,” he said.

It was an odd thing to say. What would take him three days to decide? But a delayed decision was certainly better than an immediate execution. I nodded meekly, as if in a position to agree.

There is no need to describe how heavily time hung during those three days; it taught me the meaning of an old adage: “Live a day as if it were a year.” The third afternoon, I followed Master Yoe to a quiet corner in campus and timidly reminded him of the deadline. He handed me the book rolled in a newspaper and said, “Nice, nice. I’ve been looking for this book for some time. Never thought it could arrive so easily.” He smacked his lips like a glutton. “Here you are, girl, don’t let me see it again.”

He had taken the novel for three days to read himself.

Afterward, we discussed Zhu Geliang, the embodiment of Chinese wisdom. I believe this was why he wanted to see me go on to high school: for our shared secret love of Three Kingdoms.

That was how my infatuation with books frustrated my political correctness. With the help of a worker whose duty was to demolish old books, I went to high school instead of a rubber tree farm. Luckily, my high school years overlapped with Deng Xiaoping’s short-lived “second time up” as China’s vice-premier, and, under new policies issued by the practical leaders Zhou and Deng, I had an almost normal education in the sciences and literature. That is, if you discount my school’s relocation to the mountains for one year, hiding in preparation for the Third World War that Chairman Mao knew the American Imperialists would soon start.


Years later, after the Cultural Revolution ended and universities finally reopened to the public, in the winter of 1977, I went to the largest national college entrance exam in history, taken by a decade’s accumulation of wannabe students, many of whom had never set foot in high school. As it turned out, I was the sole person from my middle school class who got into university. Only then did I realize what a great favor Master Yoe, whose full name I did not even learn, had done for me.

(This post contains an excerpt from my personal essay, "Turning My Back on the Well," first published in Prism International.)


Linda Austin said...

What a great story! I'd look forward to reading more like it.

Xujun said...

Thank you Linda! This is a fragment I'm trying to incorporate in a memoir I'm writing. So there will be more. :-)

Anonymous said...

A moving story indeed. While I worked in China I met several people of similar age to myself who had lived through the CR. Every one of them had stories to tell, of hardship and cruelty endured but also small gems of kindness which showed that some people still managed to remain human, despite what was going on around them. That, above all else, sparked my love of the Chinese people.

Xujun said...

Thank you, 克莱夫 (is this your Chinese name?). I'm glad to hear you love the Chinese people. Looks like you have a very informative blog - I'll check it out more often.

Anonymous said...

An incredible, heart-warming story, told incredibly well! Thanks for that, Xujun. You liked to live dangerously , didn't you! :-) First 'stealing' the book, and then bringing it back to school - and reading it in class... But it's edgy stuff like that that makes for interesting life experiences.

Narratives like this also go a long way to help the world see even such periods of immense turmoil as the Cultural Revolution in shades other than just black and white.

Xujun said...

Thank you, 一桥跨文化 (what a nice cyber name). You made a very good point: even periods like the Cultural Revolution are not simply black and white. I hope more Westerners will be able to see this as well.