Father * A Little Chair
by Tang Xiaodu, May 1996
(trans. by Michael M. Day)
In my memory, it was nearly dusk. My elder brother -- a year older than myself -- and I were playing in the open area in front of the gate when, suddenly, we heard someone yell: "For sale -- little chairs." We looked up and saw a middle-aged man; loaded down with little chairs for children on both ends of a pole across his shoulders, he was walking in his own long shadow as he passed by in front of us. Father came out at the sound and called him to a halt from behind. My brother and I went up and gathered around too. The middle-aged man turned his head and with a solicitous look hailed us: "Want to buy? Mulberry wood, very sturdy." At the time I had just turned three and didn't know anything about mulberry wood, I only remember the freshly made chairs gave off a faint,
pleasant odor, and that the grain of the shiny, planed surfaces caught my eye. Father carefully selected two chairs, paid the money, turned, went into the house, and took out ink and brush. In the afterglow of the evening sun, he wrote, in turn, the names of my brother and me on the backs of the little chairs, marking down the date as well.
That was in April 1957. To this day, I still keep the magical feeling that father's deft brush strokes stirred in my heart. My name did not seem to be written out, but to be eerily summoned forth by a magic wand from the depths of the ivory-color wood. Moreover, if it hadn't been for the continued prompting of those two little chairs, I'm afraid that my related memories would long ago have disappeared in the oblivion of the deep abyss of forgetfulness.
It seems a very small miracle to say it, but over the decades of our family's frustrating experience, our numerous moves, and who knows how much disposal of junk, these two little chairs followed us intact from start to finish, like two faithful puppies that can not grow up and do not want to. This is not to say that they were treasured – they were simply too durable. My mother gave birth to five of us brothers, and citing big brother and me as models, every time a brother was added, so was a little chair. The daily treatment of the chairs can be imagined: when happy they served as toys (especially as weapons in war games), when things were going badly, they were something to let one's steam out on; I can't imagine how many times they were thrown or kicked. With the passage of time, my three younger brother's chairs all grew dilapidated and disappeared who knows where, only my big brother's and mine remained -- even though they were long ago reddened by sweat stains and the backs of them had gone a grey-black color due to mildew. Yet they remained sturdy through it all. They seemed to get stronger with age. Even minor operations, such as driving in wedges or soldering tenons, were never necessary. The South -- were we lived -- is wet, wooden things are often bored through by bugs; but, strange to relate, the borers never patronized these two little chairs, as if they somehow held them in awful respect.
I first observed this tiny everyday miracle when I first studied poetry. Every time I sat alone staring at the two chairs I would think how nice it would be if I could write poems just like them: compact and solid, able to withstand the ravages of time. Sometimes I would deliberately pick them up in turn and then throw them down again, listening to the solid clattering sound they made, and feel a nameless comfort and wistfulness. I have always had an absurd thought: I should go and find the carpenter who made them. As far as I'm concerned – no matter whether it is the past, present, or future we talk of -- he is an amazing carpenter.
However, these past few years when I see these two little chairs, my feelings are entirely different. No! First off, their significance has completely altered. First, my elder brother could not bear the pain of his illness and washed his hands of this world; soon after, my father who had seemingly easily broken free from the grip of his ailment also suddenly passed away -- between them there was less than a year! My relatives and I were consumed by grief, indignation, and feelings of helplessness at being thus twice ambushed by fate. We wept and wept; and in the misty view of my teary eyes those two little chairs quietly lost the poetry they had once possessed, instead turning into bitter proof of the changeable nature of' life, the truths of material objects, and the weaknesses of man.
Father departed so suddenly there was no time to leave behind even one sentence of a will or testament. When I am at peace, I can't help thinking about what he might have said if time had allowed it. You can be sure he would not have had a lot to say, but I still am unable to speak in his stead. Each time I think of this, those little chairs somehow materialize before my eyes, and a vision of father writing the names of my brother and me on them in the light of the setting sun so many years ago wells up: his brisk brush-strokes rap1dly move over the ivory-color backs of the chairs. Soundlessly the ink seeps into the depths.....
Until one day when I had a dream….. The little chair in the dream became a living thing. First, it rose high up into the air, then, imitating the familiar brush-strokes of my father, it began to write something in the sky. I cannot clearly see what it writes, but it seems to be my name; just as I strain to make it out, the chair raises itself up and crashes down like a bolt of lightning, screeching all the way until it crashes into my chest.
I awoke with a shout, sensing nothing but the cold sweat streaming down my back, still feeling the remnant of a pain in my heart. Suddenly, I came upon a still somewhat obscure realization: I thought that this was my father's will. It was more powerful than thousands of words could ever be. And if my elder brother were still alive, he would surely have agreed with me.
I began to think of my little chair as if it had a life of its own (even though it was not with me), and tried to speak with it. For the most part our conversation consisted of staring at each other in silence, and in our stares approaching the other's soul. Slowly, in stages, the form of the chair and that of my father began to come together as one. I don't mean this as a mere figure of speech -- as a metaphor it is obviously dubious; I am talking about certain shared inner qualities: simplicity, modesty, upright clarity, and rigor, a certain air about them, and the firmness and tenacity that welded all these qualities together. In China, to be a father, or more broadly speaking, to be a person, I cannot think of any more important qualities than these. At the same time, I do not want to keep back the bitter pain that all this made me feel, a pain that had its source in lofty, unapproachable fate.
A common saying has it that 'no one knows the son as well as the father,' but to have a son honestly discuss his father is more difficult by far. To a child's eyes, the father is the major figure in his life, the nearby model of authority and the object of unconscious imitation; in adolescence the father is his private object of rebellion, the referent of a nameless hostility, and the mirror in which he can study his own independence; by the time he is sufficiently mature, when he can sit down and talk with his father like two men, a blind sort of self-respect has been produced as a result of discovered difference and experience that is neither profound nor shallow, and all this is combined with caution due to an unwillingness on the part of either party to hurt the other. This situation continues until the father is already quite old, before there is any change; but by this time the thirst to understand has long since given way to affection filtered down through the years -- the child would rather more scrupulously abide by a voiceless respect for his father.
My father rarely talked about the events of his youth, we could only indirectly learn little tidbits here and there. According to grandmother, father was precocious: as a student in an old-style private school he was quite famous in the area where he lived. "He was a good artist too. When he was 8 or 9 he was always on the Yangtze River banks making drawings of Lu Two-guns. Really lifelike. An old gentleman saw him painting and said 'when this kid grows up he's going to be something special.'" But I was the only one to see any trace of my father's art.
During the Cultural Revolution, I was traveling on foot, 'establishing revolutionary ties' in the countryside, and had reached my uncle's house (the husband of my mother's sister). One day while we were eating, uncle suddenly and mysteriously said: "Quick, when you finish eating I'll show you something good." I gulped down my food and followed him into the bedroom to the front of an old-style canopy bed. At the time, the face-board into which paintings had originally been inset was -- as was then the rule -- plastered over with quotations of Chairman Mao. Carefully, my uncle extracted the thumbtacks and pulled away a quotation, revealing the painting that was hidden underneath. "Your dad painted this and gave it to your aunt and me when we were married, three paintings in all. He was only 18 then.” As my uncle spoke he removed the two other quotations. I hurried forward and took a close look in the dim light -- all of them were traditional Chinese-style paintings, my impression is that they were all green mountains and blue rivers, brilliantly stylized. Unfortunately several years later when I wanted to see them again, those three paintings along with that old-style bed had been 'disposed of' [by 'revolutionary' forces].
At the age of 10, father had gone to Nanjing to attend fourth year at a primary school while living at the house of his father's sister, that is to say, my grand-aunt's family. After graduation from elementary school, because of the poor economic situation at home, he was forced to discontinue his studies. Who would have thought that while he was teaching at a primary school in order to get by, he was also making a determined effort to complete the high school courses on his own! And the next year he went straight on to take the admission exam and enter the political science and Law Faculty at Jinling University in Nanjing. My grand-aunt is particularly proud of him when she speaks of this, saying that although father was young at the time, and had less than three years schooling, yet his grades in every class were always among the very best. Two years later father transferred to the State University in Anhui province; there his classmates playfully referred to him as 'the little Prime Minister,' from which you can see that he had a step up on people when it came to talent, courage, studies and knowledge; in addition to this, he probably also liked to discuss politics, and was more that a little full of himself. I once tried to ask father to talk about this, but he only made a few evasive comments and obviously did not want to say more about it; yet it is perhaps true that the proof of it can be seen in the university graduation photograph that has been preserved at home. In the photo he is wearing a Bachelor's cap and a magistrate's robes with quite an imposing stature and air about him. And as a child I often heard a favorite phrase of father's: "All the difficulties of life are not worth mentioning.”
On the night of father's wake, with elegiac couplets and large scrolls hanging down all around me, I was looking sadly at father's portrait. This photograph was taken following his release from hospital after his second sudden heart attack in 1986. Then he had jokingly said it was "a memento of his nine deaths in one lifetime." In the photo, father is solemn and proper, on his brow is a look of being at peace with the world. I don't know why, but in my mind that university graduation picture suddenly imposed itself over the top of this one, my tears welled up and once again flooded down over my face.....
Father never complained about his unjust fate in front of us. A few years ago, when I was concentrating my thoughts on the process of development in the train of thought of poets of the previous generation, I once asked him a purely hypothetical question: if at the start it had been such-and-such a way, how might it have turned out. Father gently wagged his hand and had only one thing to say: "This is not the concern of anyone person.” I don't think that my question was entirely without meaning to him: history having already been forged and thus beyond speculation is one thing, but closely questioning that history is another matter entirely; just as historical choices are one matter, but to use these as an excuse to rationalize and legitimize everything that follows is something else entirely. The powerlessness of the individual in the face of history should not at any time become a legitimate reason to practice evil in the name of history. I believe it is quite possible that father privately considered these matters. So, had I inadvertently touched on a matter that was a source of hidden pain to him?
No abstract 'historical choice' exists. Those matters that are considered after-the-fact to be 'historical choices', actually are merely a general trend of events formed when a large number of living choices combine together at one time; and to an honest scholar, such as my father was, so-called history is, for the most part, related to morals, conscience, righteousness, and that distant vista on the horizon of human life. On several occasions father spoke to us of the vastly contrasting changes of heart he experienced while at university. In 1945 when Japan was defeated, he was in his first year at university, the
Nationalist government victoriously returned to the capital [Nanjing] and he was one of the frenzied crowd which welcomed them during the grand ceremony held when the government entered the city. Then his breast was bursting with national pride, thinking that now the nation had real hope. But by 1948 when he graduated from university, he had long since despaired of Nationalist party rule.
By that time he had already secretly read several Marxist books, including Mao Zedong's “On New Democracy,” and frequently cherished the memory of a Communist party member called Wang Ya-ping. This man was a platoon leader in a section of the New Fourth Route Army active in the region of our family's hometown. My great-grandfather had been considered a member of the rural gentry class there, and in his time he had twice served as the protector of government power in the area. When Wang lead his platoon into the area, most of them stayed at our house, platoon headquarters were established in great-grandfather's study. Father returned home during winter vacation and was often able to see Wang. "Then Wang was not yet 30, he was dashing, well-mannered and scholarly. He had a great influence on me." Many years later when father reminisced about Wang, he was still very admiring of him: "Before he joined the revolution he was a student. He also enjoyed associating with learned people.” Wang called father a 'great friend,' and for no other reason he often called father into the library for long discussions. On occasion, they would even talk straight through the night. He obviously thought much of father. The last time father saw Wang was a year before the end of the war against Japan. He incessantly exhorted father to go to the National Resistance University in Yan’an, saying he would be father's guarantor, and made semi-formal representations to my grandparents about the matter. However, not long after, Wang was killed in a
Japanese surprise attack.
I asked father, if Wang had not died, would he have gone to Yan’an? He laughed and said he didn't know. This was not in the least bit strange: from the start father had received what was called an 'orthodox' education, and at the time not to waver and have doubts would have been highly unusual. Nevertheless, when in the midwinter of 1948 he rushed down to the docks alone with a leather suitcase in hand, he had steeled his heart [against the Nationalist regime].
At the time, Nanjing was already awash with rumors and despair. Not only was the Yangtze blockaded, but father was questioned much more closely than usual, at the slightest suspicion one could be accused of being a 'spy for the bandits' or a 'communist sympathizer.' So as to avoid unnecessary bother, my father had sought out his father's uncle-in-law, a clerk in the Ministry of Defense, and borrowed a military uniform. Halfway [to his ticketed destination] he slipped off the boat, returning to our family home late one starry night.
In his hometown, father gathered funds and opened the first locally-run primary school in the area with himself as principal. On the eve of the Red Army's crossing of the Yangtze, he finally realized his long-cherished wish and joined the revolution. At the time the newly established local administration suffered from a severe lack of administrative talent: a graduate of a famous university, like my father, was even more a 'darling child' as a result. From the commissioner's office in Yangzhou to that in Taizhou, wherever father worked he was always highly regarded. He threw body and soul into his work, in today's parlance he was a real 'workaholic.' when mother gave birth to the first four boys, he was not only never by mother's side, but would always postpone his trips home to see his family, up to the point where even today when mother speaks of this there is still a rankling tone of resentment in her voice.
But this 'darling child' very soon was no darling any longer. In 1953 father answered the call to go down to the grassroots, to the place I was born and grew up, Yizheng in Jiangsu province, and opened the Yizheng Teacher's School, first acting as the directing head of instruction, the next year becoming the vice-principal, and after that he spent the next 35 years in similar positions.
This has nothing to do with what is frequently termed being 'disappointed in a career as an official.' If it must be said that something was lost, it would do better to say what was first lost was that most fundamental of life values -- natural justice. By its very nature, whether one is promoted or not within the system is an institutionalized method of reward or punishment; and what caused father to suffer this unspoken penalty was neither his work abilities nor his degree of loyalty, but an entirely unwarranted 'crisis of trust' that haunted him like some unshakable ghost.
One day during the campaign to eliminate counter-revolutionary elements, a party-member colleague suddenly moved into the courtyard our family rented, saying he wasn't getting along with his wife and needed a place to stay while he dodged her temper. As he was also only a temporary resident in the house, father thought nothing of it, rather he often went over to conciliate with his colleague, and looked after all his living arrangements as well. The colleague was excessively moved and, ignoring 'organizational principles,' on the quiet searched out my mother and revealed the truth of the matter to her: he and his wife had no marriage difficulties whatsoever; he had come at the behest of the 'organization' to monitor father's day-to-day actions and words.
My open and upright father was stunned to learn this. To requite the organization's concerns, he could do nothing other than work more diligently and live more carefully. The ironic aspect of all this was that at the time he was the assistant chief of the working group leading 'the elimination of counter-revolutionary elements' campaign in his work place. Many years later I finally learned that the cause of all this had been my two uncles. This was yet another shockingly absurd, unjust case of 'a family of secret agents' that concluded with the statement that 'the details of this case are serious, but there is no evidence.' I'm afraid the younger generation will find it very hard to understand the mysterious principles behind this kind of abstruse verdict, at most they will see it as yet another dull fact of political-anthropology; but to those of my father's generation this verdict had the real living power to control one's destiny, and you had no hope during your lifetime of walking out from under its ubiquitous evil shadow. When father heard of it, he had thought of going to the organization and having it out with them; but who should one talk to, and what could one say? He could only 'digest' it all and 'take a correct approach' to the matter.
I also have experienced several occasions when I have been asked to 'take a correct approach.' Although I can't say that I have any profound grasp of the secret to the political science and psychology of this sort of jargon, I do have some understanding of it. To merely say that this is a Kafkaesque absurdity is far from enough, because the victim still must go the further step of transforming this sort of absurdity into an internalized, moral precept. Just as if it were metaphorical rhetoric, it suggests an unchangeable relationship to reality of the one-way street variety; as a moral precept, by providing a sublimation of self-deception, it conceals a two-fold inhibiting mechanism. Today it does not hurt to speculate how strong a stomach you would have to have had to 'digest' that piece of our history; or what kind of ability of continuous self-revision you would require to 'take a correct approach' to a personal fate forged by that particular historical era.
This so-called 'personal fate forged by that particular historical era' is not what it appears to be on the surface: it is a manner of speaking that takes on meaning in relation to the past. Here, the word 'forged' carries all of logic's a priori nature and brutal significance. It turns a person's past, present and future into a developing syllogistic process, and thus directly equates 'fate' with 'predestination.' If one believes that the sensual comprehension of every word is a form of enlightenment, then, most unfortunately, my understanding of fate was arrived at precisely as a result of this kind of comprehension.
This happened in the winter of 1968, on the eve of the departure of my big brother and me for the countryside where we were to work and live. Two days earlier father had told us that before we left he wanted to have a talk with us. His stern countenance and grave tone of voice when he said this had previously never been seen or heard by either of us. And this gave rise to a strong sense of imminent adulthood in us. Looking back on it, you could say that that talk amounted to our coming-of-age rite.
"As of tomorrow you will live independent lives. From now on you will have to rely on yourselves as you travel the road of life. As your father, I feel there is a need to fully explain my historical problem to you. Of course you have certainly already heard some things said about it, and precisely because of this I have an even greater need to clarify the matter."
We were under a dim 25-watt bulb. We heard outside the window the piercing whistle of the wind from the northwest. Inside, a profound apology was submerged in father's dull, heavy flow of words. And all of this knitted together to create a highly stifling atmosphere.....
Twenty-eight years later, I still remember almost every detail of that talk. Father and sons, two generations oppressed to the point of finding it difficult to breathe by a 'historical problem,' that 'great term' of those times.
When father was in his first year at university in Nanjing, the pro-Japanese puppet government of Wang Jing-wei was near collapse. In order to boost its courage and also so as to create the greatest possible counter force, the puppet government carried out a series of despicable measures; one of which was to rape people's opinion and force all university students to collectively enter the puppet government's political party. Early that summer, a classmate of my father's delivered a 'party card' to my father's aunt's house where he had been staying. At the time father had gone to our family home in northern Jiangsu province, my grand-aunt didn't understand what was happening and accepted the card for my father. When my father returned and was told, he felt it was laughable since his opinion had never been asked and no formalities of any kind had been carried out, so he simply acknowledged it and immediately forgot about it. Who could have known that after the campaign to 'eradicate counter-revolutionary elements' had passed that in order to 'win glory and atone for crimes,' that classmate would write a letter to my father's work place exposing him? At the time, father had just entered the communist Party, the responsible authorities had read his curriculum vitae and there had been no mention of this in it, something that was enough to raise the suspicion that father had 'deceived the organization.' Immediately investigations inside and outside the party were set in motion; evidence was searched for everywhere, and although nothing new was discovered, 'the organization' could not rest at ease. After father's one year probationary period had ended, it was extended for a further year, and when that year was up the 'Campaign against Rightist Deviation' had descended on China.
During this period, father worked very diligently. Needless to say he felt as if he were skating on thin ice, but there was no way to prevent the sword of Damocles that hung over his head from finally falling. After father passed away, I looked through his diary of those days; each word can be said to have been written out of sorrow and bitterness, the pages are suffused with pain. I saw that in the entry about the party's disciplinary action, he had written:
XX passed me the document, the words "elimination of probationary
party-member status" glared viciously out at me.....
There was another entry that related to me:
…..when the movie ended and we had returned home, Xiaodu suddenly asked:
"Papa, are you a communist party member?" After I questioned him I learned that
during the day, he and one of his friends had had a dispute over this. I felt a
Although I had absolutely no recollection of this, when I read it I couldn't help feeling a similar piercing pain, too. I thought that while it was true that part of father's 'pain' was self-inflicted, to an even greater degree was it not because he could not endure the hurt suffered by his innocent child? But I was very young then, I had no idea I had hurt father. In the final analysis I simply didn't yet understand the ways of the world; now when I feel the pain, it is already too late.
The punishment father received as a result of his 'historical problem' was rectified a full twenty years later, his party membership was restored and his party standing was calculated from the start of his initial probationary period. I was on campus [at Nanjing
University] leaning against a bamboo fence reading a letter from home when I learned of this. When father wrote of it his words were much moderated, and he left it to the end of the letter, something like merely 'informing me in passing'; but in my heart it was clear to me that he was actually very excited. People are forever in need of some feeling of having a home to return to, and for the majority of the people of my father's generation this feeling was located in the political; although father had always made an effort to maintain his distinctive scholarly character and from early on was fazed by neither honor nor disgrace, yet in this matter he could not act otherwise, it was simply that he was just as he had been at the start, he came to terms with politics from the perspectives of morality, justice and conscience. Now that the political injustice had been cleared up, the moral error had been corrected, the regret of his conscience had been patched over, and history could be seen as just, how could he help but be excited?
But I couldn't get excited about this, or I could -- but only from another perspective. That evening I paced back and forth along that bamboo fence for a long time. I walked up and down with one particular question in my head: can this type of 'justice' be considered justice? If it could be, then what of the more than 20 years of twists and bumps in my father's road, and his inner hardships? -- this included the prejudice, the suppression and attacks family members suffered because of his political difficulties, and the time itself, those 20-odd years, what of all this? Do these constitute' the necessary statistical material of the self-evidentiary deductive process for this type of 'justice,' or is all this a part of the monstrous 'tuition' that must be paid in order to recognize this 'justice'? Or else, perhaps, it is simply a duty that some political taxpayers must fulfill with regard to this form of 'justice'? What is truly terrifying to consider is that all of this appears to have been interposed in advance on a day in the early summer of 1945 by a certain person by way of a 'party card' neither of which had any rhyme or reason at the time.
This purely fortuitous incident, like a seed containing its future fruit, transformed the rich possibilities of a human life into a one-track cause-and-effect relationship, and, based on this so-called justice, revealed itself as a mysterious, irresistible ironclad certainty.
This kind of 'justice' is a justice that thoroughly expropriates free will. The destiny governed by this justice is nothing but a fate that is both schematic and formulaic. It is more appropriate to say it is a incessant curse on life and not the mere operation of life; furthermore, even the incantation itself is forcibly imposed from outside. Nothing could be more barbaric that this type of 'justice.'
We must forever bid adieu to this barbaric form of justice!
But that which I first have permanently parted company with is my father, and when I think of this I can not help becoming sad and dispirited. Just as all fathers hope to have out-of-the-ordinary sons, like all sons since childhood I had hoped for an out-of-the-ordinary father, the possible father of my imagination. If today I still have this hope, I think it is not due to childishness on my part -- experience and maturity are not the reasons why this kind of wish dies away. This wish is rooted in the depths of humanity. It may be forgotten or distorted, but it cannot be destroyed. It is mightier than death. In fact, this was the original motive force behind my writing this essay.
However, in this essay I am faced with an ordinary, everyday father, just as if his life were only the epitome of millions of fathers as ordinary and everyday as himself. I have no way of clearly describing the possible father of my imagination, even if it were certain he exists, because I am as ordinary and everyday as my real father was. Mencius said: "Before Heaven bequeaths great tasks upon the refined man, it will first make him suffer for his beliefs, belabor his bones and muscles, cause his body to hunger, and leave him empty." The first time I heard this out of my father's mouth I was no more than 10, then I only felt a rush of hot blood; in a flash now I am over 40, my blood's boiling point is naturally much higher, I know that these sorts of words ultimately can only be uttered by a person of the stature of Mencius; an ordinary person can still draw on them to embolden his or herself, but should not take them seriously. I believe that the soul of my father in Heaven would not object to what I say, or at least he will not reproach me as being 'without promise' for this.
Even if you are not a "refined man," as an ordinary person can you only act as the saying has it and "accept your fate," only go along with current custom unable to perceive its 'core beliefs' and spirit? Not necessarily. An ordinary person has the beliefs and spirit of an ordinary person, and he or she can even exhibit uncommon beliefs and spirit in uncommon instances.
I will never forget an experience father had during the Cultural Revolution. It occurred during a criticism and struggle session. After father and another man in the school leadership had completed their self-examinations, as was the rule, they were declared to be "persevering in a reactionary stance" and "absolutely refusing to repent." At that moment, in order to clearly demonstrate proper 'revolutionary rage,' a leader of the Red Guard rebel faction devised a grotesque strategy: he ordered the two representatives of the 'power-holders faction' to slap each other so as to make an object lesson of their punishment.
As soon as the order was uttered, it immediately garnered the loud support of all present. The other school leader was the top man, so, of course, he should strike the first blow. His face was the color of dead ashes as he staggered over to my father. His right hand trembling like a leaf, he hesitated, unable to raise the hand. It was now so quiet that one could hear the two of them breathe. The rebel faction leader shrieked: "Quickly, what are you dawdling over!"
The two old partners now finally, and almost simultaneously, raised their heads and their eyes met. But only for an instant, and then father calmly closed his eyes. The school leader softly said: "Old Tang, I'm sorry," and then gently slapped my father's face.
There was a great roar; some yelled that it was good, some shouted: "It was too soft, do it again." The leader of the rebel faction turned with a contented smile to my father: "Now it's your turn to slap him."
Father did not move. The rebel leader repeated it in a graver voice, and still father did not move. The rebel faction leader tried to incite him: "He has already hit you, why not hit him back?"
Father blinked at him and then calmly and firmly, in a soft voice, replied: "No. I won't hit him. I can't hit him!"
Irked and shamed, the enraged rebel faction leader viciously dashed at my father, grabbed hold of father's hair and began punching and kicking him as he bellowed: "You dare to resist the orders of the rebel faction! Hit him! Hit him!" In a trice he brought over two wooden chairs, hooked them together, hung them off my father's neck, and then snarled: "You are not to raise your head! When you feel like slapping him, we'll take the chairs off!"
The two chairs together weighed over 30 kilograms, and hung on father's neck off a square-edged pole. You can imagine what it must have felt like. In a short time, drops of sweat as big as beans began to role down father's face, but through it all he gritted his teeth and didn't make a sound up until he passed out.
When I heard tell of this savage act of violence, on the one hand I ground my teeth in hate, and on the other, in my heart, I was proud of my father. Of course, you could say that he merely acted as one should, but I'm afraid that the vast majority of people, including myself, under similar circumstances would not find it an easy thing to do. The problem does not rest in whether you are oblivious to unreasoning brutality, nor in whether you hold fast to a universally accepted moral conscience in adversity, but in whether you are fully aware that you can balance your morals and conscience and still not alter your original desires, establishing within yourself your own respect for human dignity. That old partner of father's had been a guerrilla, had once risked his life before the rifles of the enemy, to say that he was afraid of the punches and kicks of the rebel faction is a joke; what he was really afraid of, and in the end was unable to conquer, was the timidity and perplexity that arises in a helpless situation. From another perspective, his first speaking to my father before gently slapping him can be understood as a sort of signal, signaling father that he was just playing along, and asking father to go along with his game. It doesn't matter which of these was the case, both provided sufficient reason for my father to forgive him, and I believe that father had forgiven him right from the start; but on the other hand, if father had also gently slapped him, the above would also have been sufficient reason to allow father to forgive himself and, at the same time, allow the other to forgive as well. I don't believe that, with my father's intelligence, he did not think of these things at that time, just as I don't believe that he was not just as timid and perplexed as his old partner at the time. However, in the end he conquered himself, was neither used by unreasonable brutality nor was he used by himself. In my heart I know that the latter course of action is far more difficult to carry out that the former; as a son, can I help but feel a deep sense of pride in a father who can physically withstand the pressures and devastation of violence to act is this way?
Having written this much, father and the little chair's forms suddenly come together again, but my feelings have undergone a profound change; the feeling of bitter sorrow due to the unapproachable nature of fate has dulled a great deal, although it hasn't entirely vanished. Ultimately, the blind nature of experience is one of the essential traits of all stages of life. According to Milan Kundera, not only people but even this planet we live on is like this. Speaking only of this, there is no great error in the common saying "Fate is mightier than man." Those like Beethoven who are able to 'take hold of their own fate' are, after all, an extremely small minority (and even those like Beethoven were not entirely capable of doing so). In a broad sense, the crux of a human being as a human being is not a matter of being mightier than fate, but in not surrendering to fate from start to finish; it is not in standing aloof from the sculpting done by the hands of fate, but when under the most difficult circumstances to promptly set about molding oneself according to its nature, at the same time also not to go so far as to lose sight of that nature during the process of molding oneself. And this compares well to that little chair of mine: before it was made by that amazing carpenter, it couldn't have known what it would be, just as no one could have stated that the mulberry tree grew so that it could be made into little chairs. However, the reason why it remains coiled around my heart and I see it as the manifestation of a poem and a testament of my father is because all along over the years it has been a resoundingly durable, sturdy little chair. But this metaphor's shortcomings call for a further supplement -- this being that man is, simultaneously, his own carpenter and a little chair.
Looking at it in this way, there is absolutely no need for recourse to the imagination in the search for that unusual, possible father. In fact, he has always lived in the body of that average, everyday father who has never been far from me.
While father was alive, I took my leave of him on several occasions, but the time that left the deepest impression on me occurred in the early autumn of 1967, an occasion on which I brought him his autumn clothes. It was during the violent stage of the Cultural Revolution. Road transportation was interrupted, so I walked the thirty-odd kilometers to the mountain district middle school where he was. There he and I lived together as if imprisoned for three days, sharing the one moon cake my mother had sent along with me. When I returned to the city, father had to plead again and again with the Red Guard rebel faction to allow him to accompany me part of the way. On the crest of a hill the Red Guard who was escorting my father shouted the order for him to halt, and for the first time my father shook my hand as if I were an adult before watching me depart.
The long ribbon of the road through the hills was deserted as far as the eye could see. I had not yet walked but a few steps when hot tears gushed from my eyes; a few more steps and I could not bear it -- I began bawling loudly. I cried, lowered my head and ran as fast as I could. In a flash I was at the bottom of the hill, frequently turning my head to look back as I ran. Through the mist of my tears I saw the ram-rod straight form of my father still standing where I had left him, continuously waving after me.
When I had climbed to the top of the opposite hill, I looked back for the last time. Father's figure had already become nothing more than a tiny black dot, slightly swaying in the eddying air of the blazing autumn sun at noontime. A hazy hot day, silence all around me, I slowly came to a halt, took a deep breath and, knowing full well that father couldn't hear me, I cut loose with the loudest yell I could muster:
Now our final parting is already a thing of the past, but in my heart I often still yell:
I am sure my father can hear me.