Authors: Gloria Whelan
To Jeanine and Peter
It was the fifth day of the fourth moon, Tombâ¦
When I returned with Auntie Tai and Ba Ba, Iâ¦
I waited until everyone was asleep. When all was silentâ¦
One place was as dark as another. After many stumblesâ¦
I don't know how long I would have stayed amongâ¦
Han Na went about with red eyes and so sadâ¦
It was time to plant the winter cropâradishes, cabbage, sweetâ¦
To make myself look as much as possible like aâ¦
As miserable as I was on the train, I didâ¦
Still I put off my return, for April came andâ¦
Once more Ling plowed the paddy and the rice wasâ¦
Each day I thought of my promise to Han Naâ¦
It was the fifth day of the fourth moon, Tomb Sweeping Day, which some call the Day of Pure Brightness. It was just such a day, for the spring sky was bright blue and the fields of ripened winter wheat shone gold in the sun. All across the hills you could see villagers like ourselves making their way to their ancestors' graves.
I ran ahead on the goat path, happy to leave the village where it was all houses and people. The sweet smell of wild roses followed us up and down the hills. I loved the upness and downness of the hills. On this day I thought hills were the best idea of all.
“Chu Ju,” my grandmother called, “you are like a wild dog let loose. Have a little dignity.”
Nothing I did pleased my nai nai. I slowed my steps, as was proper for so solemn an occasion. We would ask of our ancestors the thing we had asked in the village of the palm reader and of the astrologer. It was the thing that was talked of in our home day and night, sometimes in whispers, sometimes in angry shouts. Often Nai Nai would look sharply at me as if it were all my fault, and often I felt it was.
We passed a small house where azalea bushes grew beside a pigpen. I took Ma Ma's hand and pointed out the pink piglets rooting among the pink blossoms. Ma Ma stood beside me smiling. The baby was due any time, and I guessed she was happy to rest for a moment.
Ba Ba paused to admire some rows of new corn. My father was a doctor, but his parents had
been farmers and he had been a farmer until the government had taken their land and joined it with other farms to make a big farm. When his parents protested, they were punished and sent away to this place where we now live. Ba Ba had only been a small child then, but he remembered the farm and took great pleasure in anything that grew. That is a thing I have from Ba Ba.
“It is a good year for the corn,” he said. He grinned at me. “Your little pigs will grow fat.”
Below us the houses became small. The river, the Gan Jiang, curled around the village like a silver ribbon. Overhead soared a great
, with its dark wings and white breast.
At last we came to the place where our ancestors were buried. The graveyard was small, with only three tombs. Ba Ba had planted a pear tree beside each tomb. The white pear blossoms drifted down like snowflakes, covering the graves. A little
bird with an orange head peered at us from the top of one of the trees. Its song was like the
, the lyre, with its sweet sound.
During the years of war and revolution the people of China had been blown about like autumn leaves, settling now here, now there. With many tears they had left the graves of their ancestors. Few people could afford a trip of a thousand kilometers to return to those tombs. Nai Nai said it was the disgrace of all those untended graves that caused our country so much sorrow.
I had come to this resting place of our ancestors many times and knew the names on the stones by heart. I had seen the places set aside for my nai nai and my ma ma and ba ba and for a son if there should be one. I was saddened that there was no place for me. One day I would marry, and when I died I would lie with my husband in some distant place.
I was seven when Ye Ye died. I came with Ba Ba to find a suitable location for my grandfather's grave. Ba Ba brought with him his bamboo divination blocks, which would help him discover the most auspicious place, the place with the best
. If your ancestors were displeased with their burial place, they could be mischievous and cause you trouble. Nai Nai had been unhappy with the site Ba Ba had chosen for her husband, but then Nai Nai was unhappy about everything.
Unlike Nai Nai, who could only see that I was not a son, Ye Ye had been kind to me and would pick the bits of meat from his rice and put them in my dish. When Ye Ye became sick, my ba ba prescribed a certain kind of snake for him and Ye Ye gave me bits of that cooked snake. For days I thought I felt it slithering about in my stomach.
As a special treat Ye Ye would take me with him to fish in the river. First we would catch grasshoppers
for bait. Once I caught a cricket, but Ye Ye shook his head.
“Not a cricket,” he said. “At night the crickets sing away the darkness.” He wove a small bamboo cage for the cricket and put it beside my bed. “Now you will have only pleasant dreams,” he promised.
We sat by the river, Ye Ye with his long bamboo pole and I with my small one. Together we would watch the barges make their way down the river. “There is no end to where the river can take you and no end to the wonders it can show you,” Ye Ye said. “The river is not like a road that comes to an end. It goes to the great river, the Chang Jiang, and from there to the sea, the
, and from there to another
Ye Ye became silent, and I saw that he was on the river and floating toward the
and from one
to the next and from one wonder to an even greater wonder.
Once we saw a dead man strapped onto a raft floating down the river. I cried out, but Ye Ye said, “It is nothing more than a death custom that some practice. It is not for me, for I must be buried in the place my son will choose, but I would not think it a bad thing to travel forever on the river.”
Often we talked with the fishermen who lived on the fishing boats with their families. A part of each boat was open. The other part had walls of bamboo mats and a roof of thatched paddy straw to make a small house. A stove for cooking stood in the open part of the boat. Tied to one side of the fishing boat was a smaller boat that held the nets for fishing. Each morning the fishermen would pole their small boats to favorable parts of the river for fishing. In the afternoon the whole family, even the young children, would carry the fish to the market. When the fish were sold, the family would pull up their anchor and move on. Like Ye Ye I dreamed of
what it would be like to live on the river with no school and every day another village.
We mourned for many days after Ye Ye died, with much crying and wailing as was proper. I had not seen the death of someone I loved before, and all the time Ye Ye lay in his closed coffin, I worried about his being hungry. Finally the diviner gave us an auspicious day for the burial. There was a procession to the grave and Ye Ye was buried. Ma Ma assured me that he was now in a lovely country where he could fish as much as he liked, and that he would watch over us.
On this Tomb Sweeping Day, when we finally reached the graveyard, Nai Nai went at once to Ye Ye's grave and kowtowed, bowing her head to the ground and speaking words of greeting to her husband. She placed red candles by all the tombs, carefully lighting each candle, sheltering the matches from the spring breeze with her hand.
Ba Ba took a packet of gilt paper money and,
making a small golden pile, burned it. It was not real money but ghost money, money for our ancestors' use. Each piece of paper said
THE BANK OF HEAVEN
A school friend of mine once showed me bowls of noodles, a golden fish, and even an automobile, all made of paper. When I asked Ba Ba why we did not send food and automobiles to our ancestors, he shook his head and said, as he said to many things I suggested, “Not traditional.” So all our ancestors got was money. I comforted myself with the thought that with so much money, they could buy whatever they wished.
As the money burned, we knelt down and kowtowed, asking of the ancestors the favor that was in all our hearts.
Ma Ma whispered, “Let the child be a healthy boy.”
I echoed Ma Ma's wish: “Make the baby be a little brother.”
In a solemn voice Ba Ba said, “Give us a son to
bring honor to our family.”
In so loud a voice I was sure her words carried over the hills, Nai Nai said, “Send us a boy to care for us in our old age and not another worthless girl.”
I, Chu Ju, was that worthless girl. Nai Nai's harsh words made my eyes sting with tears. All my joy in the hills and the spring day disappeared. I told myself that this asking favors of our ancestors was foolish superstition. In school we learned praying to our ancestors was old world. When we wished for something, we must look to the Communist Party, not to our ancestors. There was a poster in our schoolroom that said:
THE PARTY IS YOUR BA BA AND YOUR MA MA
. Even so I did not see how the Communist Party could give my parents a son.
The government said our country had too many mouths to feed. It was the patriotic duty of a family to have no more than one child if the family
lived in a city, and no more than two children if the family lived in the country, where workers were needed in the fields and the rice paddies. Once their second baby was born, my parents would never be able to have another child. That meant that if the baby was a girl, there would be no further chance for a son.
If you were very rich, you might be able to have a third child by paying a huge fine, but our family had no money. My ba ba was only a barefoot doctor. During the Cultural Revolution anyone with an education was denounced and punished as an enemy of the people. All the teachers and doctors were sent to work as peasants in the fields. Many of them starved and perished. After the Cultural Revolution was over, there were not enough doctors to care for sick people.
Poor farmers like my ba ba were taken from the fields, and after six months' education in
medicine they were sent into villages to become doctors. Such doctors were called barefoot doctors because they were supposed to be like the peasants, who went out barefoot into their fields to preserve their shoes.
While my ba ba was not a learned man, he was a kindly man. He could perform acupuncture so gently, you did not feel the needles being stuck into you and wiggled around. He wore a white coat, and in his shop he had glass jars with snakes and toads and a chart of a man showing all the three hundred and sixty-five sensitive points for the needles.
My nai nai knew where to gather healing herbs and how to use them. She had taught my ba ba these skills, so if you were sick he could do both needles and herbs. For his work my ba ba was often paid with a bag of rice or a hen or not paid at all. Certainly there was no money for fines for an extra child.
All that could be done to ensure a son had been done. Nai Nai gathered favorable herbs and made special teas for Ma Ma. Ma Ma had taken her own birth date to the astrologer in the village. He was a very old man who seemed reluctant to answer questions, as if his knowledge were money he had no wish to give away. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head and only mumbled a few words, so there was no knowing for sure what would happen.
The palm reader was very different, exclaiming loudly over Ma Ma's hand and assuring her that she would indeed have a son. The palm reader had so much to say, and said it so loudly, that when she had finished, we could not believe her. While the astrologer gave away very little, the palm reader gave so much away that it seemed of little value. Our last hope lay in these prayers to our ancestors.
As we returned to the village from the graves, I lagged behind. My nai nai's words had spoiled the
journey home, which now seemed to take forever. The sun was hot, and I had already drunk the jar of boiled water Ma Ma had brought for me. The hills were only wearying. Ma Ma stopped often to rest, and I sat beside her while Ba Ba and Nai Nai went on walking slowly so that we could catch up to them.
“Do not take Nai Nai's words to heart,” Ma Ma said. “You are precious to me. If there should be a son, you will still be precious.”
“Ma Ma, what will happen if the baby is a girl?”
Ma Ma's face clouded over. She looked to be sure that Nai Nai and Ba Ba were far enough ahead so that they could not hear. When she saw that Nai Nai was busy picking mushrooms, Ma Ma whispered, “I hope that we may keep the baby.”
“Keep the baby?” I said, shocked. “What do you mean?”
As if she had eyes in the back of her head and could see us whispering together, Nai Nai called to us to join them. Ma Ma did not answer my question but only motioned me to help her up.
When we returned to the village, we found it crowded with people celebrating the festival day. In the Pleasant Hours Teahouse the men, seated in bamboo chairs, were busy with their games of
. I loved to peer over their shoulders at the tiles with their pictures of flowers. The tiles for the four winds had no pictures, only characters, which was suitable, for you cannot see the winds. There were no pictures for the red and white dragons either, so in my mind the dragons were always more frightening than any picture could make them.
One of the men at the teahouse had a birdcage with a mynah bird. The man had placed the cage on the table beside him so that the bird might enjoy the spring day. Every few minutes the bird squawked a
bit and then said,
Go home, go home
, at which all the men would laugh.
Carts humped along over the cobbled streets. The market stalls were doing a good business. One shop sold slippers, another noodles, still another secondhand blue jeans. I looked hungrily at the jeans, but I was not allowed to have a pair. “Too costly,” Nai Nai said. “Not traditional,” Ba Ba said. Strung across the butcher's stall was a dripping necklace of roasted ducks. At the fishmonger's a red carp, newly caught, beat its tail against the counter. At one of the shop windows you could watch opera or soccer on the screen of a
We left Ba Ba at his stall, where there were patients waiting for him. I squinched my eyes shut as we passed the dentist who had the stall next to Ba Ba's shop. The dentist was trying to pull an old woman's tooth, but the woman kept instructing the dentist on how to do his job, refusing to be silent
long enough to allow him to pull it out.
Our house at the edge of the village was made of stone. The stone made the house cool in the summer, but it was always damp, so bits of moss clung to the walls and the floors were cold on bare feet. There were two rooms, the room my parents slept in and the large room where we lived and where Nai Nai and I slept. There was a small ancestral altar, where Nai Nai burned an incense that stung my nose and made me sneeze. Next to the altar was a calendar given out by the state. There was a slogan for each month. This month the slogan was
HELP CHINA TO BECOME EVER GREATER
. Outside in our courtyard were a table and chairs, a stove for cooking, and the threshing stone.