Chinas son, p.1
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       China's Son, p.1

           Da Chen
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China's Son



  Lensey Namioka


  Lensey Namioka


  Adeline Yen Mah


  Suzanne Fisher Staples

  THE LETTERS, Kazumi Yumoto

  FORGOTTEN FIRE, Adam Bagdasarian


  Edited by Jennifer Armstrong


  Victoria and Michael


  I thank the following people for being there for me as I was in the process of bringing this memoir to life:

  My beautiful wife, Sunni, who told me to write this book, taught me how to write it, and worked tirelessly as a brilliant first editor for it, our third child. This is our book!

  Victoria, our daughter, for letting me grow with you. Michael, our son, for your great-grandpa's smiling eyes.

  My literary agent, Elaine Koster. You are a superagent.

  Ann Godoff, editor-in-chief, publisher, and president of Random House: never a day goes by without my thanking God for you.

  Marissa Walsh and Fiona Simpson for your editorial and artistic vision.

  And lastly, Beverly Horowitz of Random House Children's Books. Thank you for loving this book and making it into a gift to all the children of the world.


  Volumes have been written about China's Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, the time of my childhood. Each account is a horrifying testimony to a time gone bad at the hand of a demonic leader. During Mao Tse-tung's crazy drive to purge all his political enemies, millions died bloodily and many more were wrongly imprisoned. Factories were closed as workers rushed into the streets to shout “Long live Chairman Mao,” and schools were shut as Mao stirred youngsters to beat up their teachers, burn down the temples and destroy the ancient arts, and even turn against their own parents in the devilish hunt for more victims.

  Books were trashed and classrooms ruined. Factories stood eerily quiet, weeds growing out of cracks in the walls. School campuses became brutal battlefields. Young students, armed with rifles, became roamers jumping on trains, traveling all over the country, toppling buses that would not take them, storming food stores that would not serve them. Fear and hopelessness gripped us all.

  The Chinese say curses always come in pairs. During that time, China was also plagued by a desperate famine, and people were dying. Hungry people ate anything—weeds, grass, tree bark, shoe soles, snakes, rats, dogs, cats, other people.

  Children crawled naked in the dirt, grabbing anything they could lay their hands on—rotten worms, dead insects, bad fruit, and decayed vegetables.

  But the fire of revolution burned on relentlessly. And in the dark shadows of ghostly ashes lived a boy who survived to write this book, a book about love in the face of hate, a book of hope for the hopeless.

  Da Chen


  I was born in southern China in 1962, in the tiny town of Yellow Stone. They called it the Year of Great Starvation. Chairman Mao had had a parting of the ways with the Soviets, and now they wanted all their loans repaid or there would be blood, a lot of it.

  Mao panicked. He ordered his citizens to cut down on meals and be hungry heroes so he could repay the loans. The superstitious citizens of Yellow Stone still saw the starving ghosts of those who had died during that year chasing around and sobbing for food on the eve of the spring TombSweeping Festival.

  That year also saw a forbidding drought that made fields throughout China crack like wax. For the first time, the folks of Yellow Stone saw the bottom of the Dong Jing River. Rice plants turned yellow and withered young.

  Dad wanted to give me the name Han, which means “drought.” But that would have been like naming a boy in Hiroshima Atom Bomb. And since the Chinese believe that their names dictate their fate, I would have probably ended up digging ditches, searching for water in some wasteland. So Dad named me Da, which means “prosperity.”

  The unfortunate year of my birth left a permanent flaw in my character: I was always hungry. I yearned for food. I could talk, think, and dream about it forever. As an infant, I ate with a large, adult spoon. I would open wide while they shoveled in the porridge. My grandmother said she had never seen an easier baby to feed.

  Ours was a big family, and I was at the bottom. There were a great many people above me, with, at the top, my bald, long-bearded grandpa and my square-faced, largeboned grandma. Dad looked mostly like Grandma, but he had Grandpa's smiling eyes. Mom seemed very tiny next to my broad-chested dad. Sister Si was the eldest of my siblings, a big girl who took after Dad in personality and physique. Jin, my brother, had Mom's elegant features; we still haven't figured out just who my middle sister, Ke, looks like. Huang, who is a year older than me, grew up to be a tall, thin girl, a beauty with enormous eyes.

  We lived in an old house that faced the only street in Yellow Stone. Our backyard led to the clear Dong Jing River, zigzagging like a dragon on land. The lush, odd-shaped Ching Mountain stood beyond the endless rice paddies like an ancient giant with a pointed hat, round shoulders, and head bent in gentle slumber.

  We rarely left our house to play because Mom said there were many bad people waiting to hurt us. When I did go out to buy food in the commune's grocery store a few blocks away, I always walked in the middle, safely flanked by my three sisters as we hurried in and out. Neighborhood boys sometimes threw stones at us, made ugly faces, and called us names. I always wondered why they did that. It was obviously not for fun. My sisters often cried as we ran and dodged and slammed our door shut behind us.

  I once tried to sneak through our side door and join the kids in the street, but Si caught me by the arm and snatched me back, screaming and kicking. She gave me quite a spanking for breaking the do-not-go-out order. When I asked Mom why we had to hide in our dark house all the time, she said that we were landlords, and that the people outside were poor peasants who had taken our house, lands, and stores.

  They were making us suffer because the leaders were all bad. There was no fairness, no justice for us. We had to be quiet, stay out of trouble, and wait for better days to come.

  When? I would ask. Someday, when you grow up, she'd answer. That will be a long time from now, I'd say. Mom would nod, her eyes gently studying my face as if looking for an answer herself. Then she'd take me in her arms and hum her favorite tune—a simple melody urging a boy to eat more and grow up faster so that he could help plow the land with his dad and harvest the grain.

  Restricted to the house, I would silently wander into Grandpa's smoky room and practice calligraphy with him. Some days, when my sisters were in school and Mom was busy and not watching me, I would wander out and wrestle with the neighborhood boys. This was a lot of fun, and I would come back all dusty and tell Mom I had fallen, and she would make me change my clothes.

  One day when I was about six I stood on the pavement watching a parade of Red Guards carrying their rifles and red flags and shouting slogans, when a kid from next door, for no obvious reason, smacked me right on the face and kicked me when I fell. I picked myself up and charged like a bull into my smiling attacker. When he went down, I straddled him and hit him hard on the face and neck. Within half an hour, the Communist party secretary, a thin little man, stormed into our house with the kid's mother. He started shouting at my mom, demanding to see my father, who was away at labor camp. I hid behind a big chair.

  “What have you been teaching your kids, to fight the world? To fight Communism?” He shook his fist at my tiny mom. “I could put you in a labor camp too, if you let one of your kids do this again. Do you hear me?” Mom was too busy cr
ying and being nervous. She didn't answer him right away and the secretary took this as an insult. He slapped her across the face, sending her whirling into a corner. I wanted to jump out from behind the chair and hit him with my fists, but fear held me back. I couldn't afford to bring any more trouble to our family. After spitting his dark phlegm on our spotless floor, the man stormed out. Mom sat there, crying. I spent the rest of the day watching her hold a wet towel to her face, where the humiliating imprint of his hand remained. She was quiet. She had nothing more to teach me about the cruelty outside.

  Grandpa, who liked to drink a little—to calm his bones, as he put it—saw no future for us. In school, my sisters sat in the back, although, given their height, they should have been in the middle. They couldn't sing in the choir. They couldn't perform in the school plays. The kids could beat them, spit on them, and the teachers would not say a thing.

  Grandpa wished he would die soon in the hope that they might treat us better. Dad said that was nonsense. We were fine the way we were.

  But everything wasn't fine. We had been stripped of all our property.

  Dad was fired from his teaching job, leaving a family of nine with no income. We relied entirely on a small food ration that went up and down with the harvest each year. A drought could wipe out half a year's ration, and a wet season would rot the young rice in the fields.

  For months we would have nothing to eat but tree bark and the roots of wild plants. Even a good harvest would only get us through eight to nine months of the year. The remaining months were called “the season where the green and yellow did not meet.” During those months, Dad would be out imploring for a longer grace period on an old loan, and begging to try to borrow more money in order to pay back the debt so that they wouldn't take away the table and chairs. He had already sold the wooden doors and doorframes inside our house to pay for food. Each door was replaced with makeshift planks of rotten wood. But never a day went by without Mom teaching us that we should have dignity in the face of hardship. She would point out to us which land and storefronts used to be ours, and we would feel quietly proud.

  For those long months when there was no food, we ate anything that came to our table. One year, we ate moldy yams three times a day for four months. Brother Jin summed it up well when he said, “I'm sick of the yams, but I'm afraid they'll run out.” We learned to live with little and be content with what we had. Even the soupy yams brought laughter to our dining table when everyone was there. But most of the time Dad was away at labor camp, or Grandpa was being detained in the commune jail, waiting for another public humiliation meeting to be held in the market square, where he would be beaten badly.

  Mom taught us to beg Buddha for his protection and help. This was easier than potty training. All you needed to do was wash yourself really clean, button your buttons, get on your knees, and bang your head on the floor before the hidden shrine of the big, fat, smiling Buddha. Ask all you want to ask and you will be answered, Mom told us.

  I followed her to the shrine every day—the shrine that was hidden behind a window curtain in the attic, because religion was not allowed in Communist China. I knelt behind Mom and banged my head on the floor noisily, whispering my small requests. My list grew from two items to many. I asked for Dad not to get beaten by the Red Guards, for Grandpa to be well, for Mom not to cry as much. My last request was always for food—more of it, please.


  Yellow Stone Elementary School sat a mile away down the street. It was an old Confucian temple with tilted roofs and lots of wood carvings on the walls. Ancient trees shielded the buildings from the sun, and there was a pond full of lotus blossoms.

  When registration day came for the new school year, I got up early and studied my appearance in front of a piece of mirror, broken off from my brother's bigger one. I was as dark as charcoal and as thin as sugarcane. My crew cut, Mom's handiwork, had uneven furrows left behind by rusty scissors and a not-too-experienced hand, as though a clumsy farmer had plowed the fields. I didn't mind it too much. The hair would grow again and the pain of having your hair yanked out by blunt scissors was soon forgotten. My sisters cut each other's hair and Mom took care of the four men in the family. We saved a lot of money that way.

  The skin on my forehead was peeling like a snake casting its skin in the springtime. I rubbed hard and pulled off the larger pieces, but I finally gave up. I would grow out of this terrible tan when the scorching summer changed to a mild, breezy autumn, with deep blue skies and thin white clouds that chased each other like lovers.

  I put on a white shirt—a hand-me-down from Jin—and ran to school. The red poster in the schoolyard said that Mr. Sun was to be our new teacher. The tuition was three yuan, a staggering amount on the Chen economic scale. I checked the information twice, wrote it down for Mom to read, and parked myself by the window, watching parents take their kids by the hand and march happily to the teachers to register. It was an all-cash deal. They came out laughing, the kids jumping up and down with a bunch of new books in their hands. It was all cozy for them, but I had to find some resources for my education. I knew well enough that we would be out of rice and yams in a matter of weeks. Dad was away at camp and the food ration kept going down each day. Mom was saving every fen for food. There was no money for tuition. The three yuan I needed would buy us ten pounds of rice, or a hundred pounds of yams. How much knowledge could it buy? I went home with a lump in my throat. I knew the routine well. I would go to Mom and tell her about the tuition. She would tell me how much money she had left for the whole family, a few yuan at most. She would say to go ask for an extension or a waiver of tuition.

  Then I would have to go meet my new teacher, begging on my knees.

  Even if an extension were granted, the teacher would mention the tuition fees every day in class until everyone would know how poor I was. He might even keep me after school, lecturing. It had happened to my siblings, and all the while they would be going to school without textbooks. Kind students would let them copy from their books. Now it was happening to me.

  I went home, feeling defeated, poor, and pathetic. Mom knew why.

  She wiped her wet hands on her apron and gave me fifty fen and told me it was a stretch for the family already. I didn't need to be told. A poor child knew what it meant to be poor. We didn't ask for much, and sometimes we didn't even ask.

  She said that I should beg for an extension. I asked her just how long would the delay be. She said until the piglets were grown and sold to the buyer from the south. That was something to hope for, but the mother pig was still pregnant. I took the money with a heavy heart. It was a pound of flesh off the family fortune, but only a small piece of the tuition.

  I pinned the fifty fen to the inside of my pocket lest I lose them, and ran back to school. I parked myself below the window again and had a good look at the teacher. He was a thin man with short, curly hair like feathers. He seemed your regular, boring, stiff-necked young educator who had read some books. He was shaking hands with the parents of my classmates, smiling and smoking.

  I slumped against the wall, feeling depressed. The world was unfair.

  Everyone in my class seemed to have young parents with money. They chatted, laughed, and socialized with the new teacher. Their manners were smooth, their clothes were nice. It was a very special occasion for them and a milestone for the kids. Some of the parents were so influential in the little, deprived town of Yellow Stone that being the teacher for those kids could mean a lot of backdoor favors.

  And what did I have to offer? Nothing. Grandpa was dying, sick in bed. The doctor said he might live a few months with the proper medication. Tough luck. Medicine was expensive. No money, no life. Dad was digging in the mountains somewhere, camped in an old, windy temple. And I had only fifty fen in small coins. My personal appearance was shocking—a pumpkin head and a ten-year-old patched shirt.

  And I personally hadn't eaten any meat since New Year's Day.

  The thoughts tortured me and I s
quirmed in shame and humiliation, but I had to face reality. The teacher could throw me out with a sneer on his face. That was fine, I had thick skin. A poor child couldn't afford to have thin skin. Only rich boys and well-to-do girls with cute little butterflies in their hair could afford to have thin skin.

  I adjusted my belt, made sure my fly wasn't open, and gingerly stepped into the teacher's office. I would go there and beg, though I was prepared for the worst. The window looked reasonably large and there was a patch of soft grass for landing.

  “So you are Chen Da,” he said, to my surprise.

  “Yes, sir. I have a problem.”

  “Don't we all.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “I meant, we all have problems.” He was smiling.

  “Yes, well, you see, I only have fifty fen for the tuition …”

  “And you want to register?”

  “If I could.”

  “What's your story?”

  “We're waiting for the piglets to grow.”

  “How big are the pigs?”


  “How young?”

  “Not born yet.” I waited for him to grab my neck and toss me out.

  “Okay, write a note down here about the pigs and I will register you.” I looked at him in disbelief. A wave of gratitude swept through my heart. I wanted to kneel down and kiss his toes. There was a Buddha somewhere up there in the fuzzy sky. I took his pen and wrote the promise on a piece of paper.

  “But I cannot give you the textbooks now. It's a school rule.”

  “That's fine. I can copy them from others.”

  “Well, if you don't mind, I was thinking maybe you could use my last year's copy, but it's messy, it has my handwriting all over the pages.” If I didn't mind? Who was this guy? A saint from Buddha's heaven? I was overwhelmed and didn't know what to say. I kept looking at my feet. I had rehearsed being thrown out the window, being slighted or laughed at, but kindness? … I wasn't prepared for kindness. I nodded quickly and ran off after saying a very heartfelt thank-you and bowing so deep that I almost rubbed my nose on my knees.

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