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By Jeff J. Brown
Pictured above: my fictional horse for the story, “Beige Spirit”.
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Sixteen years with the people on the streets of China, Jeff
Note: this is my first fiction story. I submitted it for publication, they accepted it after I whacked it down to 1,000 words (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/2014/09/30/beige-spirit-revamped/), and then they knocked it down to 840 words, for final publication (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/2014/09/06/beige-spirit/). I still like this 2,340-word version, as it really gets into the history and ambiance of the times.
It was not until many years later that Xiao Ding (Little Ding) understood exactly what happened during his parents’ lives. At the age of twelve-thirteen, all he sensed was that his time on Earth could have been worse, a lot worse.
Xiao Ding’s parents were members of a fateful Chinese generation, the World War II era babies. They took it in the gut during the Great Leap Forward, then managed to survive the soul searing Cultural Revolution. The first tragedy happened when they were adolescents, the mass starvation of 1958-61. Till the day they died, they dreamed darkly of the skeleton racks that their family members and neighbors became, many of whom did not see the Great Leap Forward’s famine end, only its mass hysteria and official governmental delusion. Elders sacrificed their bodies to make sure their younger ones had what was available to eat. Years later, Ding’s parents told him their lack of nutrition during those critical years of teenage growth adversely affected their health later in life.
Then, just as they were entering adulthood, replete with career dreams and marriage to their hometown sweethearts (the father in Hebei and the mother in Shaanxi), their lives were turned inside out a second time. Starting in 1966, they survived that decade of collective madness called the Cultural Revolution. Millions of educated, skilled and academic Chinese were sent hundreds and even thousands of kilometers from home to shangshan xiaxiang (上山下乡= literally, up the mountain and down to the village), to get a peasant education, working with their hands and the toil of their backs. Xiao Ding’s parents met on a land reclamation project, in the middle of nowhere in Northeastern Inner Mongolia. For them, it meant joining several hundred others to clear a vast, desolate scrubland, rock by rock, thistle by thistle, root by root, and transforming it into what is today highly productive corn and soybean cropland.
Out of this crucible of endless public humiliation sessions, beatings, torture, and for some, a premature death from madness, suicide or kangaroo court verdicts that went one kick or strike to the head too far, Ding’s parents found solace and sanity in each other’s companionship. Their ancestral provinces of Hebei and Shaanxi were fading daguerreotypes now. This barren, pioneer land was their home now. At the age of 24, they married on this rolling Mongol plain, in the dead of a very cold winter. According to Chinese astrology, it was the Year of the Rooster – 1969 – definitely not the most auspicious zodiac sign in which to marry. But no matter. Cultural Revolution marriages like the Dings’ happened countless times all over the country, across that long decade of pan-national insanity. Years later, Mr. Ding and his wife, Mrs. Liang would tell their son in hushed whispers, heads down, staring blankly at the floor, that their love for each other probably saved their individual lives during the Cultural Revolution’s terror.
Ding’s parents’ were physically weakened from the Great Leap Famine and mentally scarred from the Cultural Revolution. Now all finally over, it was time to pick back up the pieces. Mrs. Liang took exams at the newly reopened college in nearby Harbin and was impressive enough to get accepted into medical school. She, along with many others, were desperately needed to replenish the millions of skilled workers who lost their talents or lives during their own shangshan xiaxiang. Mr. Ding stayed on the small farm they earned for all their hard work reclaiming that virgin wasteland, while Mrs. Liang went to Harbin Medical University, established in 1926. She was very lucky to go: HMU was ranked as China’s best medical school, along with a proud tradition of supporting the ideals of the Communist revolution. Xiao Ding was born during her first year of study – 1978. Given all the heavy industry and coal mining being developed in the eighties and the huge influx of peasants pouring into Heilongjiang’s capital to make it all work, Dr. Liang was compelled to stay and work at a big public hospital in the city.
Father and son worked the farm and did the best they could, without the ongoing feminine touch of Dr. Liang around their small, Spartan siheyuan, or courtyard house. As Xiao Ding grew from a child into an adolescent, it was clear to him that his mom and dad had less and less of a relationship. His mother was the successful professional and principle breadwinner, while his dad still was and always would be a back breaking peasant farmer. For Mr. Ding, this was privately a huge humiliation, being in China’s very patriarchal, Confucian culture, especially in the countryside.
They say that money cannot buy happiness, but Dr. Liang’s income could afford to buy a horse. After much cajoling, Mr. Ding bought their son one for his 12th birthday, using money saved up by Mom. Twelfth birthdays are special in Chinese culture, since it’s the first time you repeat your zodiac sign. For Xiao Ding, it was the Year of the Horse – 1990 – very auspicious for Mr. Ding’s four legged gift to his son. This was still a time when even canines were considered a decadent, bourgeois luxury. So, other than cats that roamed around the village to control rodents, having a recreational animal was quite a head turner and the talk of the folks who lived there. Not just a dog, but a horse for gosh sake.
Like many immigrants who feel an exaggerated sense of national or local pride, compared to those who have lived there for generations, all of these Cultural Revolution villagers, ever one of them a Han, felt even more “Mongolian” than the natives who lived around them in nomadic yurts. These indigenous, Mongol cowboys moved their herds of horses and grazing livestock north to south, east and west, in search of steppe land pasture grass, which waxed and waned with the seasons. Xiao Ding was no different from his fellow villagers. He was always proud to be a naturalized Mongolian. Even better, now he was of the horse owning class, just like his nomadic brethren on the steppe.
Mongolian horses are by breeding small, stocky and squat, perfectly adapted for the rigors of extreme cold, icy, winter pathways and slippery slopes during the wet monsoon summer months. But as long as Mr. Ding was going to get a horse for his son, he wanted one of a different stripe. So, he bought his boy a much bigger and stronger horse, calculating his wife’s hospital salary could easily pay for its feed.
Xiao Ding was beside himself with ecstasy. He felt like a new young man, beaming with immigrant, Mongolian cowboy pride. Not that he knew anything about horses, but still, just the same. First, he had to give his new horse a name. He called this big, tall gelding Beige Spirit (哔气= Bìqī), in honor of the animal’s straw brown coat color and his energetic friskiness. Secondly, Xiao Ding had to learn how to ride the beast.
The nomadic Mongolian herders would have been the perfect teachers, but would never deign to share their secrets of horseback riding with these Han imports. The few villagers who could help him were not interested, being green with envy that this 12 year old kid had a big, relatively fine horse. Their bow-backed beasts were destined to be strapped to a yolk and plow in the corn and soybean fields. Horseback riding for fun? Get out of here.
Every day after school, Xiao Ding would come sprinting across the fields to be with Beige Spirit. His father gave him as many pointers as he could and excused him to the point of annoyance with the villagers, where everyone bodily able was expected to contribute to the gardens, planting, weeding, harvesting, thrashing, sifting, sun drying, storing and selling of all the corn and soybeans they produced. For months Xiao Ding did his best to exert mastery over Biqi, but this horse was not only big and strong, he was also downright evil and contemptible. Xiao Ding tried everything: food, love, brushings, wash downs and monologue chats up to the big beast’s ears, with his huge, black eyes gazing down menacingly at his unrequited, pint-sized owner. Xiao Ding came to realize over time that their relationship had become a war of dominion. Only one of them could be the boss, the ruler of their couple, and for months now, Beige Spirit was winning hands down.
But Xiao Ding persevered. Biqi bit and kicked him when he was working around the animal. Even as Xiao Ding got better and better at staying in the saddle, when Biqi wanted him off, he would just rear up on his two hind legs, so that Xiao Ding would slide off his back, whereupon the young man had to hurriedly scramble away to keep from getting kicked. Or Biqi would just buck him off his back or stop so suddenly, stiff legged, that Xiao Ding would go tumbling to the ground. He then had to skedaddle away in a flash to keep from getting bitten. The envious villagers just loved to chortle at all these antics. It served Xiao Ding right, they said.
Beige Spirit wasn’t getting any bigger, but Xiao Ding was maturing into a strapping young man, and over the months, grew broad shoulders, more muscles and a taller frame. Biqi may not have noticed, but Xiao Ding sure did. His bigger body size and growing experience around this equine devil incarnate was making Xiao Ding bolder and more confident, but Biqi was still the undisputed master of their relationship.
One afternoon, Xiao Ding managed to ride Beige Spirit pretty hard and actually stayed on, without being thrown or reared off, much to the chagrin of the now challenged horse. After the ride, Xiao Ding was magnanimously celebrating by brushing his beast down. The wounded, malevolent horse decided to get even for his owner’s new found victory. Time to put him back in his proper place. Xiao Ding made the fateful mistake of leaving way too much slack in the horse’s halter lead when he tied him up, giving Biqi plenty of room to manoeuver his head. As Xiao Ding was brushing his withers, his back turned to the animal’s head, Biqi turned around, and with all the energy he could muster, bit Xiao Ding as hard as he could on the top of his shoulder. The vengeful animal dug into his owner with so much force and venom that he actually opened up a fairly sized flesh wound next to Xiao Ding’s neck. Xiao Ding went down, writhing in pain and screaming in agony. Biqi was now relishing bringing their relationship back to its natural order. He was looking down, ears pinned back, foaming with rage, but could do no more damage, as Xiao Ding had rolled far enough from harm’s way. Villagers came out to see what all the fuss was about. His father, hearing the commotion, was walking back from a nearby corn field to lend a hand.
But Xiao Ding did not want his or anybody’s help. He knew this was the moment of truth. Either he was going to be the boss of this infernal animal or he was going to spend the rest of his days afraid to turn his back on the horse, for fear of being kicked or bitten. Xiao Ding could see everybody was watching him and whispering furiously among themselves, as people are wont to do, when a memorable pubic event is unfolding before their eyes.
Rural Chinese houses often have stacks of long wood and branches stacked up flat or straight up in the air, leaning against an outer wall, to be used in household wood stoves for cooking and heat. Without asking, Xiao Ding, silent and red faced, staggered over to a nearby woodpile and picked out a long branch he could hold like a handle. It was about two meters long. With everybody transfixed on what was happening, the gathering crowd fell mute as Xiao Ding, with the fury of the humiliated and tormented, raised up the long stick like a bat and proceeded to beat his horse, over and over,
BAM! BAM! On his haunches.
WHACK! WHACK! Across his body.
THUD! THUD! On his neck and,
CRACK! CRACK! Across the shocked and stunned animal’s head and muzzle.
By now, Xiao Ding’s shirt was blood soaked down his back and chest, and all of his adrenaline charged salvos pumped red ooze out of his bite wound just that much more. Exhausted from all the emotion and physical exertion, Xiao Ding fell to his knees, his lean chest heaving for oxygen, and dropped the wooden weapon to the ground. Beige Spirit’s ears were no longer pinned back on his head; his malicious, dark eyes were flat and emotionless. Biqi knew who the master of their relationship was now. The pendulum of power had swung in the other direction for the last time. The village folk didn’t quite know how to react. A few scattered murmurs telegraphed through the throng. Mr. Ding came forward, helped his son up and beaming with fatherly pride, walked him home to dress his wound. A nearby rural nurse sewed up his bruised, black wound with 13 stitches, the same number as his age. It was the Year of the Sheep now, a Mongolian national icon. Symbols mean much in Chinese society, especially in the countryside.
With great pride, Xiao Ding carried that ragged scar the rest of his life. He came of age that fateful day. His parents seemed to reconcile their differences as the years passed by. In 2002, Xiao Ding lived his second round through the Chinese zodiac – the same age as when his parents got married in that desolate, Mongolian wasteland, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Only then did they begin to tell him their stories in hushed whispers, heads down, staring blankly at the floor.
Why and How China works: With a Mirror to Our Own History
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