Learning to Write With a Brush 红字写作
by Han Dong 韩东
(Translator: Michael M. Day)
Father and some visitors are speaking, no place to sit, beds and chairs have all been packed up.
Trussed-up items of furniture all around.
Straw rope, rush bags, cardboard all over the floor-the furniture is packed into these things. Mother comes in from making tea, can't find a place to put down the cups. She looks left and right, still can't find a suitable spot.
The furniture is not in its original place; it has all been put back-to-back in the middle of the room. The parts of the walls that had been covered up by the furniture are now bare, very very white, very very new. Maternal grandfather has dumped out the garbage and is wringing out a mop. Xiaobo watches as bit by bit a dark red becomes visible. Maternal grandfather backs up as he mops the floor. Mother, father and the guests all have to go outside.
"We're moving this afternoon, why are you still mopping up?" mother says.
It's Xiaobo's impression that mother's dresser is the most important item: at least two quilts are used to pad the mirror above it. Four people and eight hands lift it. Above, in back of the truck, four people take hold of it (father is among them). Mother says: "Careful, careful." They're all saying "Careful, careful."
I'm Xiaobo, already eight years old. I'm attending second grade in primary school now. In my first year I was the Little Red Guard squad leader. My elder brother is in high school, but he isn't a Red Guard. Daddy says his political consciousness is not as high as mine. But daddy also says his own is higher; because daddy's an adult, work on elder brother's consciousness should be done by him. But it is still me who discovers the problem. When daddy and elder brother are playing chess, daddy criticizes him for sitting on the glass tabletop; the pressure will break it. Daddy doesn't hear him say, Even if I crush a bust of Chairman Mao it doesn't matter, just as long as it isn't deliberate. I hear him and immediately want to report it to my teacher. My elder brother said something reactionary; my elder brother says reactionary things. Our family has a counter-revolutionary, too. Daddy slaps elder brother across the face and says to me that our teacher's consciousness is not as high as daddy's either; my elder brother ought to be properly educated by daddy.
It is arranged for the whole family to stay in a military guesthouse. The men and the women are segregated. And so, father, maternal grandfather, and elder brother have to go to another place. Xiaobo is together with his mummy and her mother in one big room with the women and young children of several families.
Dinner is like a family reunion: in the cafeteria over a hundred halved-families are calling to each other, searching for each other before finally sitting down together and starting to eat-only to find that there is also another family at the table. Half an hour later the males of the two families at our table leave for their lodgings. The women and children of the two families also gather together in one place; they haven't finished speaking yet. The children's games have only just begun.
A horde of children goes to see the vehicles they'll be riding in tomorrow. Identical, brand-new buses lined up in rows in the empty space in front of the building. The big red paper flowers attached to the front of the buses are also identical. Small, coloured triangular flags are on the bus roofs, no more and no less than sixty of them. The doors and windows on the buses are all closed tight. The children make a human ladder to get up for a look-see. The buses are all the same inside: the high backrests wait for them to come take a seat-but who knows which bus they'll be sitting in tomorrow? If you were Xiaobo, wouldn't you want to find the bus you'd be in?
My elder brother hasn't a high political consciousness, but isn't a counter-revolutionary either, daddy tells me. Daddy says he has been influenced by others, he isn't bad by nature. Later, when other children come to play with my elder brother, I listen closely, listen to what they say: do others influence elder brother or does my elder brother influence others?
The phosphorescent light is white, the walls and blankets also white. The phosphorescent light reflects off everyone's faces, and it makes them look even flatter. The bump on the bridge of maternal grandmother's nose seems to have been shrunk, too.
There's no other furniture aside from the beds in the room. Packages which people have brought with them are stuffed under the beds. Each family is drying the ubiquitous washcloths on a line that can't be seen now. But all colors of cloth are being dried, making the line obvious. There are only two night tables, the surfaces of which are covered by all types of medicine jars, cups, soap boxes, hairpins, glasses, flashlights, books, tissue paper, and snack food spreading out onto the beds of each family. Women!
Xiaobo has never seen them this close up before. He has never seen such an old lady, older than his maternal grandmother. She's sitting on a bed and a woman is washing her feet. To get the old lady's feet into the water, the woman has to hold the ceramic basin up with both hands. Although father and his maternal grandfather aren't there, Xiaobo still feels there are lots of heads of families about him. His elder brother isn't around, but Xiaobo has lots of brothers and sisters. Years later Xiaobo will read in a book: Human society is developed from matriarchal clans. That night in the guesthouse – he can't help but think back to it – children all around their mothers and mothers with their children around their maternal grandmothers, raising a great ruckus.
Elder brother makes me play a chess match with Datou. I beat Datou. Datou is five years older than me, the same age as my elder brother. He wants me not to tell anyone what he said. I'd already forgotten about it. I ask him what it is that he doesn't want me to tell others. He repeats the reactionary thing he said earlier. I ask him who he doesn't want me to tell. He says the Red Guard company commander, Liu Lixin. Now I recall the reactionary thing he said, and I also know who to report it to. What was the reactionary thing I said, Datou asks me. I say you said that, actually,
They're out of bed before the sun comes up. Mother helps Xiaobo put on his clothes, they all go out into the courtyard to wash on either side of the open-air cistern. Above the surrounding walls there is only one solitary star looking like the tip of a needle.
Father, maternal grandfather and elder brother are already waiting by the bus door. The second time he awakes, the sun is already up in the sky and the bus is passing through the city. The route they're travelling has been prearranged, the crowds seeing them off line both sides of the street. The passengers roll down all the windows, parts of bodies are being squeezed out, hands are waving non-stop. Someone is crying. Xiaobo hears the sobbing, but can't locate the crying face because everyone is looking out the windows with their backs to him.
All morning the buses and trucks pass through the city. Xiaobo waves the whole time. Mother has an arm around his waist; she is also waving. Sometimes she takes Xiaobo's hand in hers and they wave together. But all the people below in the street who call out quickly turn their attention quickly to other buses. Xiaobo looks back lingeringly until he can't see them anymore. The crowd is shouting, waving, dancing, but it's not for them, not for Xiaobo. Xiaobo can't make out their glances. And his hands hurt, best to let mummy hold them, one hand or both. Mother knows who they are waving at.
On the run-up ramp to the
Datou gives me a popsicle to eat, I don't want it. Later I give it to elder brother. The popsicle I eat I take out of my elder brother's hand, it isn't the one Datou tried to give me. All in all Datou gave elder brother two popsicles. Datou says I ate his popsicle, I say I didn't. He says he bought two and he ate none; my elder brother ate one, Xiaobo ate one. I say the popsicle I ate was handed to me by my elder brother. Datou says he asked elder brother to pass it to me. He says today's movie tickets were also bought by him: a war film, Breakthrough at Wu River; he's already seen it three times. Datou asks me if I've seen it. I say I haven't. Datou asks me if I would like to see it. I say I would, but not his movie. Datou says he isn't acting in it. Besides, my elder brother says, You've eaten his popsicle. Not going to see the movie's no good. I ask elder brother: If I watch the movie, will I not be able to report to Liu Lixin the reactionary thing Datou said? My elder brother says: Naturally; he also says that even if I don't see the movie, I can't report what Datou said to Liu Lixin: You've already eaten his popsicle.
Once the bus has crossed over the bridge, it begins to pick up speed. The distance between each vehicle in the column increases, too. The back of the bus ahead of Xiaobo's has already shrunk; in between the buses the road and fields can be seen on both sides.
Xiaobo is trying to make sense of those things that go with the fields: water buffalo, cattle, wheat, haystacks, mills. Mother's teaching him. But her knowledge of the countryside is limited; very quickly she is stumped. Xiaobo moves over to father's side.
Since the road is raised up fairly high above the fields, from inside the bus it looks like the open country on both sides is below it. The scenery also becomes smaller than it actually is. The sky seems somewhat higher. After establishing this field of vision, when Xiaobo looks at the people in the bus again, he feels that something has changed. By the time he is seeing father, mother, his maternal grandfather and grandmother and his elder brother as he had seen them before, then looks out the window again, the countryside once more is very novel. He looks back and forth in this way often, until both in and out begin to appear in the same visual frame at once.
When daddy goes down the stairs I yell, Overthrow daddy. Weidong says that I can't call him daddy. If I call him daddy, I haven't made a clean break with him. Weidong says I have to call daddy by his name. My daddy is called Li Jianning. When Li Jianning reaches the second floor I shout: Overthrow Li Jianning. The hand daddy is sliding down the banister doesn't stop. Weidong says that I didn't yell loud enough, daddy didn't hear. So I yell again, in a voice louder than the first time and the second put together. Daddy's already reached the first floor; I see his hat and shoulders. Daddy doesn't stop, he walks out. Weidong says: Your daddy's too stubborn. We should write Overthrow Li Jianning on the wall for him to see.
The bus door opens: Xiaobo can get in and out as he likes. He dares not go too far away from their bus. At least fourteen buses like this one are stopped on the road; Xiaobo can't distinguish between them. Up and down the column, people are climbing out of the buses; once on the road some people jump the ditch and wander into the wheat fields. An elderly lady — older than his maternal grandmother — appears and is carried on someone's back toward the ditch. Her white hair can be seen from far away. Later the old lady is carried out from behind a haystack and two people go over the ditch to fetch her back. Xiaobo asks mother: Where are they going? Mother says: To the toilet. Xiaobo asks: Where's the toilet? Why can't I see it? Mother says: Behind the haystack. Following the old lady, one after another the others go there, fording the ditch and going in behind the pile of hay. Xiaobo sees the others start to loosen their pants halfway there, then walk the rest of the way holding them up with their hands. All the people have come out from behind the haystack. Now others are walking toward it, they don't bother to undo their trousers. When the women went, the men all waited, watching the haystack as if entranced, chewing on food, drinking water or smoking. Mother and his maternal grandmother have gone; now it's his father's, his maternal grandfather's, and elder brother's turn. Xiaobo wants to go, too; he wants to see the toilet behind the haystack. Suddenly the sun comes out, turning the other side of the haystack to gold. There isn't any sort of a toilet, no enclosing walls, no doors, windows, seats or squatting pits. A patch of earth is soaked; urine has collected in depressions in the ground.
All around are sheets of used paper, several pieces of which are sent scattering over the wheat field by the wind.
Mummy has yet to return from work and people from her work unit have come. These people stick a poster up on the door to mummy and daddy's room. I recognize mummy's name, "Lu Hongying," and "Overthrow." Now I know mother has been overthrown, too. Grandpa escorts mummy's workmates to the stairwell and says to them, Goodbye, come again. He gets a washbasin of water and scrubs the door clean of the glue around the poster. Grandpa then gets a bottle of glue and glues down the parts of the poster that are curling up. Grandpa uses the brush for cleaning the bed to flatten down the poster. The poster on our door is prettier than the posters on other people's doors. Later, after the poster has aged, grandpa makes me stand on a stool and retouch each character with a writing brush. Grandpa says this is called learning to write with a brush.
There are three good and three bad eggs in our family. Daddy, mummy and elder brother are the bad eggs. Grandpa, grandma and I are good – there are the same number of good as bad in our family.
Later my grandpa will become a counter-revolutionary too, of the historical kind, and there will be more bad eggs than good in the family. Grandma and I are good eggs, grandpa and elder brother are bad. Daddy and mummy are also bad eggs. Daddy says my elder brother's consciousness is not high; he's not a bad person: he's just different from daddy. Since my elder brother is a good person with low consciousness, he can be considered a half a good egg at least. Elder brother is half good egg, half bad; sometimes good, sometimes bad. My grandma says, I don't want to be a good egg, I'll give it to your elder brother. My grandma says, I'm the same as your grandpa, a bad egg. She wants to be a bad egg, wants to be a landlord's wife. Now I'm the only good egg in the family. Grandma's good egg can't be passed on to elder brother. Give it to elder brother and he becomes one-and-a-half good eggs. How can the consciousness of one and a half good eggs be lower than mine? I'm a real good egg.
Water everywhere, yellowish-black water on both sides of the bus. It seems like their bus is travelling on water. Xiaobo can't see the wheels, can't see the road beneath the wheels. He only sees water. The tableau from the bus window is even more boring, from top to bottom it can be divided into three parts: the sky, the fields, and the water. The water is closest to them; one can't see the river bank on this side.
Three buses leave the column of vehicles, driving toward some specific destination. Xiaobo's bus is the second bus. Behind the third bus are trucks, eight or nine of which have left the column. The road surface changes from asphalt to gravel. Just before dark another split in the ranks occurs: Xiaobo's bus drives off onto a side road followed by the three trucks carrying all the belongings of the families in the bus ahead. The road surface changes from gravel to yellow dirt.
It is a very bumpy ride. With each bounce it seems the bus will topple over into the water. At times Xiaobo watches the water through the left side windows, at times through the right. His maternal grandmother is constantly repeating: "What good can come of this!" His maternal grandfather's transistor radio plays through it all; it hasn't been turned off since
The inside of the bus is now entirely dark. Of the three parts in the window's tableau, the sky is brightest. The fields in the middle are black and heavy. The brightness of the water's surface falls between the two -- more yellowish-black oozes into the bus.
Mummy and daddy have gone to the
The bus stops. Father leaves them and gets off the bus; when he boards it again two people with long, thick overcoats draped over their shoulders are with him. "We've arrived," father says and introduces the newcomers to everyone: they are cadres of the production brigade in which they are going to live-the brigade chief and the platoon leader of the people's militia.
The whole family gets up and prepares to leave the bus. On the one hand they have to greet representatives from the rural population-the brigade chief, the platoon leader-and, on the other hand, they also want to say good-bye to the families who have yet to arrive at their destinations. They must also thank the driver. Picking up their things, attending to the young and the old, the whole family finally gets out of the bus to discover that maternal grandfather has already disappeared.
Grandpa has to go to the residence committee every few days to give an account of his political shortcomings. When he comes back he says, Goddammit, goddammit, and also throws things. Grandpa stamps his foot and sighs. Later he sits at the table and reads the paper. I pay attention to everything that grandpa does; this is the task Auntie Wu gave me. She says grandpa probably has secret records of the former lands and the debts owed him and is awaiting the day he can get back his own. She asks if there are any jars in the house, round black jars. I find one and give it to her. It's a pickling jar, says Auntie Wu. It looks something like a pickling jar, but it's not a pickling jar, grandpa will use it to keep his old property records, or a Mauser pistol, or, otherwise, to store gold bars. I say, I don't know what a gold bar looks like. Auntie Wu wants me to bring her all the things I don't recognize.
Face plastered up against the window, Xiaobo peers out at the black multitude of people. (Unless one's face is against the window, once the lights in the bus are turned on, one can't see.) While the crowd may be black, the earth is white.
He sees father walk into the crowd; his coat becomes the same white as the earth, his head and both legs stay black.
After father gets out of the bus, maternal grandfather also gets off. He goes over to the other side of the bus, into its shadow. Xiaobo can't see him from where he's sitting. His maternal grandfather got out of the bus to relieve himself; he didn't know that the moonlight would be that bright.
Xiaobo walks out of the area in which the vehicles are parked, comparing all the different shades of white as he goes. There is a particularly white strip running out far into the distance. Maternal grandfather thinks it's asphalt and walks along it. This is how he falls into the water.
The road's surface isn't flat, in the moonlight the contrasts between black and white stretches are enormous. When Xiaobo gets out, he can't put his feet precisely on the white patches of roadway with each step. His maternal grandmother walks in front supported by two country girls. Very possibly her feet never touch the ground and she is carried ahead between them instead. Maternal grandfather's shoes are filled with water so he makes the most noise as we walk. He doesn't want anyone to help him along, he insists on walking on his own all the way.
On the other side of the bridge ahead lies the village where they are headed.
Someone at our school wrote a counter-revolutionary slogan: it was written in the dirt beside the exercise ground with a stick. Teacher Lin writes a paragraph on the blackboard and makes us copy it out. Teacher Lin says that she wants to compare handwriting. Teacher Lin says that this paragraph contains all the characters used in the counter-revolutionary slogan, but these are revolutionary, from a quotation of Chairman Mao's. Teacher Lin says, whoever wrote the counter-revolutionary poster had better own up to it now, and, most importantly, if the people behind the scenes who put that person up to it are turned in, that person will be freed. While she speaks, Teacher Lin is looking at me. Teacher Lin says, even if you write with your left hand, we'll find you out. She makes us copy down the quotation from Chairman Mao with our right hands, and then again with our left hands. I didn't write the counter-revolutionary slogan, but I'm frightened. I'd learned to write the quote from Chairman Mao which Teacher Lin copied out long ago, therefore I certainly could have written all the counter-revolutionary slogan's characters, too. I could have written it, but I didn't write it. I want to tell Teacher Lin, My grandfather taught me how to write this Chairman Mao quotation, and he's an historical counter-revolutionary. Which characters from Chairman Mao's quotation were used to write the counter-revolutionary slogan in the dirt beside the playground? I think about it for a while before I figure it out. I think up five counter-revolutionary slogans, and I am even more frightened. I don't know which of the five is the one in the dirt next to the playground. I want to ask Teacher Lin, but I don't dare.
About two feet wide, the bridge has no railing; it is strung from the trunks of three or four trees, and below, of course, is a river. They have been walking alongside this river for a while. Now they want to cross it because they can't just keep walking along the embankment of the river forever.
All this is explained to maternal grandmother, but she doesn't listen; no matter what's said she won't move.
Now there are two more girls. Four girls attempt to get maternal grandmother across the bridge: her face is covered by a kerchief, she says she can't breathe, just as she begins to fear that she will die from suffocation, they get her across. Before she has time to even think about falling into the river and drowning, she is on the other side. The family stands on this side and sees that maternal grandmother is on the far side. Xiaobo and his elder brother shout — Grandma; their maternal grandmother answers them and wants to cross over again because her whole family is on this side. This time she's not at all afraid, she walks up onto the bridge by herself. The four country girls rush to grab hold of her.
Mummy complains that grandpa glued the poster down too well, now it'll take a lot of effort to remove it. Grandpa says: Let me do it. They're fighting over who will scrub the door. Mummy makes me bring soap and laundry detergent, also spot remover and rice water. She has grandpa heat the water on the stove. Mummy stands on a stool and refuses to come down; she makes me bring her a broom, a rag, a brush, a feather duster and a fruit knife. I watch her scrape off the dry glue bit by bit. Mummy says that she was liberated today, that ripping down the poster was approved by the party organization.
The oil lamp illuminates a circle on the table. In the center of the circle underneath the oil lamp is the shadow of the lamp itself. The shadow's movements follow the movements of the flame. Xiaobo sees that the shadow at the center is small and black. But the shadows on the walls and the ceiling are big and blurry.
Four bowls are placed on the table. The oil lamp is raised up higher; the shadows of the four bowls sway.
Lots of people are in the room watching them eat.
Xiaobo and mother sit on the edge of the bed; behind them is a high pile of quilts. From beneath the quilts a man speaks. He is speaking, so Xiaobo knows that someone's lying down and those aren't just quilts there. The woman introduced as their host tells them that it is her husband. He's had a stomach illness for over twenty years and has been lying in bed all this time.
Xiaobo is especially interested in getting a good look at the sick man's face, but the man keeps the quilts pulled up to his nose. His hair hangs down so long over his face that he looks like a woman. He crooks one of his legs under the quilts, which allows Xiaobo to lean back more comfortably against him.
A big dog comes out from under the table; its head comes up as high as the table top, and under the light it is yellowish-brown in colour. It pushes at a plate of food with its mouth and all the people in the room shoo it away. The dog hesitates; it looks at Xiaobo. Xiaobo places his hand on the dog's head; he feels that its fur is a little damp, but very soft.
"And what's your name?" asks Xiaobo. All the children in the room answer for it: "It's called Dog."
"And what do you eat?"
"It eats shit." <
Once again people come from where mummy works. And, again, on the door to daddy and mummy's room they stick a poster. This time I know it is a good one. They shake hands with grandpa and grandma. They shake hands with me. They make the door that mummy had scrubbed clean dirty once more. At the door to our home they set off firecrackers, beat drums, and put on political skits. They get their dirty footprints over everything. After they leave, grandpa starts to mop the floor and scrub the door again. He teaches me to read the slogan on the poster on the door: Comrade Lu Hongying's entire family has been given the honour of receiving approval to be transferred to the countryside.
Something Xiaobo ate has given him a stomachache. The children lead him out to find the toilet. All the children come out with him. They surround Xiaobo and reach out to touch his city clothing.
It's much brighter outside the house than in it. In the moonlight Xiaobo sees that the head of one child is extremely large. Xiaobo calls him Datou (Big Head); this Datou's head is bigger than his elder brother's classmate Datou's. Beside the bamboo grove in back of the house is a vat buried up to its rim in corn stalks. Datou tells him that this is the toilet: Here's where you shit.
"Watch me," Datou says, and he squats in the bamboo grove. Xiaobo hears him fart, he also sees a buttock illuminated by the moonlight. "Okay," Datou says. Dog, dog, dog, dog, he calls the dog and the yellow dog comes running. Slurp slurp slurp slurp. It really does eat shit. Datou raises his ass and lets the dog lick it clean. "Can you do it?" Datou asks Xiaobo.
When Xiaobo squats by the shit vat, all the other children lower their pants and squat. They shit together with him. Xiaobo doesn't feel embarrassed anymore. His ass is cold; it hurts a bit because of the chill wind. Above the corn stalks the moon is big and round; Xiaobo thinks it looks like a bright buttock.
In our courtyard I'm the only child being transferred to the countryside. There are a dozen or so in our school; there's nothing unusual about it. There are two in our class, I am one, and one is being sent forcibly. His family are bad elements; they haven't been rehabilitated. Teacher Lin asks, are there students who are being transferred to the countryside in our class? Raise your hands. I raise my hand; the student who is being forced to go raises his, but he's different from me. My mummy and daddy have been rehabilitated; their transfer is voluntary, a kind of honour. Later when the school has a send-off assembly, that student isn't up on stage. I sit on stage, and over a dozen other students sit with me, none of whom are in my class. We wear big red paper flowers and each of us is issued a set of the collected writings of Mao Zedong. The other students are all down below in front of the rostrum applauding. Teacher Lin is also sitting out front.
“This is Xiaobo's new home,” mother says. They walk through the village toward it. The building is at something of an angle; Xiaobo thinks this is an illusion caused by the moonlight. The shadow cast behind the building is long and dark, like a great pit.
The people of the village had tried to build a brick stove. When an oil lamp is placed on the stovetop, Xiaobo sees several adobe bricks scattered about on the ground. Probably they hadn't had time to finish building it before their arrival. One can't see clearly inside the house; the brigade chief says there are three rooms in total.
They want to dry their maternal grandfather's wet pants on the stove. Wheat stalks are gathered together as kindling. Everybody sits on the pile of wheat stalks and the fire is lit. As it burns, stalks are taken from underneath them and added to the flames. The brigade chief pokes at the fire with a branch. The fire burns very brightly. Xiaobo has never seen flames this high. The bottoms of his maternal grandfather's cotton pants begin to steam, the interior of the room begins to brighten.
Father asks the brigade chief: "What was this building used for before?"
"Public building," the brigade chief says. "Raised cattle in here for awhile."
"How many cattle does the brigade chief have?" father asks.
"Six head." Exactly the number of people in Xiaobo's family.
Now they can dearly see a myriad of cracks in the earth walls and a great many things hanging down from the roof.
"Ash hanging there," the brigade chief says. "In the winter, fires are set to keep the cattle warm, after a period of time the ash hangs down from the roof."
The suspended ash dangles down in coils, looking like the droopy, hairy tail of some animal. There's a heavy concentration above the flames on the ceiling of the room.
Maternal grandfather is constantly adding kindling to the fire. The flames rise higher and higher.
Maternal grandmother says, “The old man's trying to kill us.” No one pays any attention to her. Then she says, "What good can possibly come of this."
She says it over and over and over.