Growing up during the Cultural Revolution means that you celebrate the birth of Mao Zedong every day, but you don’t ever celebrate your own birthdays. So on the day I turned twelve, I was expecting it to be just another day.
At one minute to six in the morning, I was wandering deep in Monkey King’s Flower Fruit Mountain, inhaling the fragrance of ripe peaches all around me, when the thundering intro to “The East is Red” flooded my ear. Within seconds, my heart beat went from 60 to 120 as I fully awoke to a dark, cold early spring morning. The brutal loudspeaker was right outside my window. The exuberant ode to the rise of Mao Zedong blasted through the thin brick wall as if it didn’t exit. I forced my eyes open but allowed myself the brief luxury to remain in bed until I heard the end of the first section:
The east is red; the sun has risen.
Mao Zedong has appeared in China.
He is devoted to the people’s welfare,
He is the people's great savior!
. . .
“1, 2, 3!” I jumped out of bed, searched and found my shoes, slipped them on and buttoned the straps. Opening the door I plunged into the darkness along a narrow tiled walkway, rubbing my eyes and shaking my fuzzy head. This was my morning routine:
6:00 a.m.: Run 3 kilometers
6:30 a.m.: Fetch breakfast from the canteen
6:45 a.m.: Eat breakfast
7:00 a.m.: Take a cold shower
7:15 a.m.: Do laundry
7:30 a.m.: Go to school
Chairman Mao had instructed the whole country to become healthier: A strong nation required a healthy people. And who knew when the American Imperialists would invade China and we would all be called upon to fight for our country? Liu Hulan, a heroine and my role model, was only sixteen when she died in the hands of the Japanese Imperialist soldiers, fighting for the future of China, which we now enjoyed. Sixteen – that is only five years, no, four years from now. I sure hope that the American Imperialists won’t come too soon because I want to be old enough to fight them, I thought to myself.
Jogging was part of the daily rituals to prepare myself. In addition, our class was in competition with the other classes to be the first to “run to Beijing to see Chairman Mao”. And every day we tried to outrun the other kids. Five kilometers was my minimum but ten was my goal.
A year ago my grandma passed away leaving our household unattended. My brother left home like millions of other young intellectuals to serve the country where they were needed the most: the remotest, poorest countryside. My mother was hardly home; she had night shifts in the hospital every few days and was often sent out of the area to help the barefoot doctors. My father was going through criticisms and investigations so his schedule and mood were unpredictable. So I tried to be the woman of the household - fetching meals from the canteen, doing laundries, cleaning, and occasionally cooking. The three-month junior military boot camp in my first middle school year made my self-imposed discipline a piece of cake.
Well, at least it seemed easy enough once I got over the nausea of being rudely shaken awake by loud music every morning. On this particular morning though, I had no idea what was waiting for me in the dark.
Once out of the community courtyard, I took a sharp turn at the big tree and ran along a thin brick road into the high carders’ residential section – my favorite part of the run. Single-story duplexes were surrounded by well-groomed gardens. Unlike our three-story red-brick apartment where two families were crammed into a single unit, they had two bedrooms for each family, with their own kitchens, bathrooms, and private vegetable patches. If you were born into the right family you were automatically trusted by the Party. Then you had the chance to be assigned one of those nice homes. My grandpa’s father was a landlord and landlords were class enemies, so it was out of the question for us to ever qualify to live there.
Passing the high carder’s residents was a path with bamboos on the left and a sugar cane field on the right. Then there were the canteen’s pig pens. Behind the pens was a fish pond where all sorts of wastes were dumped. As a result, the whole area always stank. I tried to breathe in the contaminated air bravely though because revolting to the smell of animal or human wastes was an expression of bourgeoisie thoughts, which obviously was rooted in me because I didn’t come from a poor peasant’s family. I would have to spend my whole life eradicating the remnants of my bad heritage and reform myself. Might as well start early . . .
After the pig pens the road started to get a bit scary as it cut through a wild field with a ruin in the middle. That was the remains of a snake farm. They used to grow all kinds of poisonous snakes for research. Five years ago, Wudou, a.k.a. armed conflicts, broke out among several factions, all claiming to be the most loyal to Chairman Mao. There were gun fights, grenade explosions and riots. Then some Red Guards decided that the snake farm should not be exempt from class struggles. They raided the snake farm and forced the farm chief to make self-criticisms. He refused and they beat him. All was well until a Red Guard was bitten by a poisonous snake. By then the farm chief was unconscious and nobody was able to save the poisoned Red Guard. He died in agony, and the others shot the farm chief. They left the farm unlocked and all the snakes escaped. Over the years they had reproduced and grown in numbers. Snakes were a common occurrence in our life. Once we were stopped on our way to school by a large many-banded krait; another time we found a nest of baby snakes right in our cupboard . . . .
I began to sing loudly to myself to cover my fear. As I ran I kicked the small pebbles from the road into the knee-high weeds. Snakes didn’t like sudden loud noises, (understandably as I didn’t either,) so I hoped to make enough of those to chase them away.
Fortunately it took just a few minutes to dash past the snake field. But now the challenge really began: Up a small slope on the left of the road was the Water Tower. Here I had to do just the opposite: I had to be perfectly quiet. The Water Tower was haunted by a ghost from the faction wars. I controlled my breathing so it was even and silent but I could hear my violent heartbeats.
The tower was a round structure wider at the bottom and tapering towards the top. It looked like about eighty-meters tall. It was solid concrete up to about two-meters-high and then red-bricks all the way to the top. Broken concretes and rotten planks littered around the bottom covering up a few small ventilation holes of the basement. The basement was the engine room but since the water tower had not been used for years the engines were all rusting away. During the faction war, it became a prison. Many were jailed in it and some were killed.
The last man who got thrown into the basement was forgotten. Nobody knew who jailed him so nobody dared to let him out. People said they heard him beg for food when they walked by and some kind-hearted people threw some food in. Then later they said all they heard were crazy howls. I was in elementary school then and a few of us decided to check it out one day. We brought some plain white-flour buns with us and approached the tower. We brushed the dead weed and dry leaves away on a part of the ground and revealed a ventilation hole the size of a plate with three metal bars across the narrow opening. One could fit just a few fingers through the space between the bars. We took turns to peek into the hole but it was so dark that we couldn’t see anything. Then we started to yell into the hole, “Hey you! You want food?”
We decided to just throw the buns in. And it was then when we heard rattling and scratchy sounds coming from the bottom as though someone was clawing the concrete walls with their sharp nails. We screamed and ran away.
“Fools,” some older kid said. The man had stayed in there so long that he had turned into a ghost, they said. He only came out in the dark.
“Nonsense,” another even older kid said. The man got let out but he had gone mad. He went up to the top of the tower and jumped down. He killed himself. His ghost was still roaming around the area though.
Either way, this place was haunted by this ghost.
It was still pitch-dark except for a sliver of white along the edge of the sky. I could see the shape of the tower and the junk along its bottom in grotesque forms. I hastened my steps while keeping my breath slow.
As I got to the foot of the tower, my birthday curse caught up to me . . .
I knew I was in trouble when my left foot stepped on something hard protruding out of the ground. Momentum threw my body forward as the rhythmic movement of my legs was interrupted. I flew up and then landed flat on my stomach.
“Aiyou!” I cried out as I spread on all fours on the road. So many parts of my body hurt but the first thought that went through my mind was “oh no, I hope nobody saw that!” Get up first, and then cry. I pushed my body up with both arms, bent my knees and jumped to my feet. An excruciating pain coming from the back of my left foot almost knocked me out. I landed back on my butt, my head reeling and my tears rushing out. I grabbed my ankle hard with both hands as loud sobs escaped my mouth.
Then with my side vision, I saw something white flash near the foot of the tower. Instantly my need to cry vanished. As I swallowed my sobs I heard footsteps on gravel approaching. I felt hair stand up on the back of my neck and I began to crawl away on my knees and palms.
But it was too late.
“Hey!” A voice said. I couldn’t determine where it came from but I knew it was time to run. I got back on my feet and broke into a limping trot, grunting every time my left foot touched the ground.
“Hey you! Stop for a sec!” The voice followed.
Oh no way I was stopping. I let myself cry though, half from the pain and half from a horror that I had never felt in my life. I looked ahead and frantically searched for anyone who could save me. The road was empty but faint yellow street lights blinked in and out of some bushes ahead. Behind the bushes there was a shadow of a large building. It was the library. I ran towards it. The library was on a main road. There had to be other people out on the main road by this hour.
I felt as though I was in a nightmare. And in nightmares, I could never outrun my chaser. Either there was no place to run to or my feet would get stuck. Oh gosh! This couldn’t be happening to me!
“Hey little girl! Don’t run!” The voice was now right behind me. So close that I felt he could almost grab me. My knees gave and I fell. But this time I just closed my eyes and told myself to wake up.
“Are you hurt? Why were you running?” The voice was now in front of me. It was the voice of an adult male, clear and resonant. His Mandarin was pure, with no local accents, like in the movies.
I opened my eyes and froze. In the silver starlight, a face with two distinctively different sides appeared in front of me. One side had a deep dark-brown eye, a sharp eyebrow, a straight nose and thin lips. The other side was covered in hideous scars. His eyeball was hidden behind a thin white membrane so only the dark pupil was showing. Where his ear should be there was just a hole. The corner of his lips was permanently pulled down making him look angry. And he had no hair.
The good news was: I knew this face. I had seen him around. My friends and I called him “the scarred-face.” But that did little to alleviate my fear. My mind was foggy and I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing. The scarred-face is the ghost?! I stared at him as despair gripped my throat: Whatever he is, there’s no escape now. I couldn’t run because my left foot was hurting like hell. Even if I could run, I was too scared to feel my limbs, let alone operate them.
A sudden burst of strength, or bravery, or whatever, came from nowhere, causing me to raise my hand and pushed his face away. “Stay away from me!” I screamed on the top of my lungs but only managed a weak shallow whisper.
It took him by surprise. He staggered back but quickly found his balance. I expected him to come back at me; I’d scratch his other eyeball out if he did.
But he just stood there and held up both hands. “Oh! I’m sorry! I always forget I look scary. Here,” he said as he knelt down on one knee and turned his good side to me. “Don’t look at the other side, okay? Is this better?”
I didn’t know what to say. His profile was perfectly fine, even handsome. He wore a white shirt, blue pants and black plastic sandals.
He looked at me from the corners of his eyes. “I saw you fall. I think you sprained your foot. Running will make it even worse. Do you need me to help you get home?”
I shook my head. He almost seemed human. In fact, he seemed completely normal. But I still couldn’t trust him, or my own eyes.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me. Your mother knows me.”
“My mother knows you?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Yes. Your mother is Dr. Zhu, right? She teaches in the college doesn’t she? I have been to her lectures. My surname is Chen. You can call me Uncle Chen. Let me take you home, okay?”
I blurted, “What are you doing at the foot of the tower?”
He turned around to face me. “The foot of the tower? I was just going to get breakfast in the canteen. I was walking down the road. I wasn’t at the foot of the tower.”
I looked towards the tower. Daylight had just hit its top. I could see the concrete slaps, the wood planks, and the bushes. And I could even see the seams of the bricks. How could I have mistaken? I saw the white shirt flash and then he was there. I looked at him again and he was smiling.
He stood up, bent down and extended a hand. “Come on, get up and get on my back!”
I hesitated for a short moment before I let him grab my hand. He pulled me up. I stood on one foot while he turned around. I climbed up on his back. The scars on the back of his head were lighter but still they looked like pink worms crisscrossing all over his bare head. I looked away.
“How did you get those scars?” I asked as he began to walk back down the road.
“I am a fire rescue hero. I saw some public properties on fire and I single-handedly put it out.”
“Wow! Really?” I had heard stories of heroes like that, but I had never met one.
“No, that was a lie.” He laughed out loud. “I got them during Wudou.”
“How?” The pre-teen in me didn’t know when to stop.
He was silent for a while. “Don’t be afraid if I tell you okay?”
“I’m very brave. Well, I try to be brave,” I said wanting to hear the story.
“I was classified as ‘demons and monsters’ because I acted in some old Beijing Operas. I am, well, was a Beijing Opera singer. Now I’m a lab technician. I’m completely rehabilitated now. So don’t worry about being seen with me. . . . Anyway, when Wudou started some Red Guards took me out of the labor camp and criticized me in public. They tried to give me a yin-yang face.” Giving someone a yin-yang face was a humiliating way to punish them in public. There were several ways to achieve that. I had seen some with their faces painted black on one side or with one side of their head shaved clean. But that wouldn’t leave such terrible scars.
He continued. “They were not much older than you so I don’t blame them. But in any event, they couldn’t find any black paint and there was a pool of hot tar nearby. . . .”
I knew what tar was like. We tried not to get too close to pools of tar when we played around construction sites. I looked up then and I realized that we had passed the tower. I wanted to hear more of his stories.
“You were in the Wudou. Then you must have heard of the ghost under the water tower,” I said.
“The ghost under the tower? “ He suddenly chuckled. “You mean Liu Banli?”
“You know his name?!” I was overcome with excitement at the thought that that I would have something new to tell my friends.
“Not only do I know his name. I’ve met him.”
“He’s alive?!” Now my ears really perked.
“Oh yes. Well and alive.”
“They said he has gone crazy. Some say he jumped down from the top of the tower and killed himself. He has turned into a ghost and haunts the foot of the towers at night . . .” I told him about my adventure with “the ghost” in elementary school.
He laughed again. “Oh I see! You thought I was the ghost didn’t you? Hahaha! You know as one of the revolutionary youngsters, you should not believe in superstitious things like ghosts! Actually if I remember right, he was out long before you went to visit him.”
“But we heard noises!” I insisted.
“Those were just his friends, or food . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“Rats. There were lots of rats down there.”
“Oh.” I was disappointed in myself. “Well, did he go crazy?”
He adjusted his arms holding my legs before he answered. “He would have gone crazy. He was in the basement jail for almost a year, eating scraps and food that people dropped in. They would bring the food, throw it in, and when he came over to pick it up, they would pee on it. But enough people gave him food to keep him alive. Once they poured oil in and set it on fire. He caught a rat and threw it in the fire so he got a good meal out of it. He shared his food with the rats because they slept with him and kept him warm. Those were not the hardest things.”
“What was the hardest thing?” I couldn’t imagine sleeping with rats.
“The hardest thing was there was not an effective way to commit suicide. The space was too small. There were no sharp enough objects around. They didn’t let him wear any clothes. . . . He planned it many times in many ways and finally decided to just starve to death.”
The high carder’s residence was ahead. I was eager to hear the end of the story. “But he didn’t. What happened?”
Uncle Chen continued. “What happened was that one day somebody dropped a paper bag into the hole. He opened it and it had a light bulb in it. He was puzzled. He couldn’t figure out why someone would give him something neither useful nor harmful.”
“A light bulb and a bag? Could it be a message?”
“Smart girl. That’s what he thought too. So he stopped starving himself and tried to crack the code day and night.”
“Did he?” I asked.
“Yep. He finally got it. Do you want to give it a try?”
“A light bulb in a bag . . .”
“Let me give you a hint. What do you make out of a light bulb?”
“Yes. Now try to say the word ‘lamp’ and ‘bag’ together.”
“Deng. Dai.” I pronounced the two characters in Mandarin.
“Change the tone a little bit.” he prompted.
“Deng Dai. Deng Dai, . . .” I still didn’t get it.
“Change the first word to the third tone. Now what does it sound like?”
“Deng Dai – To wait!” It was like a light bulb turning on. “To wait! That was the message!”
“Yes, to wait.” He put me down on our door steps. I didn’t even notice we were here. “Somebody was telling him to wait. That gave him hope. So whenever he was on the verge of losing it, he told himself to wait. It worked. Finally they let him out.”
“Wow,” I gasped, still having a little trouble comprehending the power of such a simple and passive action. “To wait. That was all he had to do.” I looked him in his one eye for the first time and I didn’t feel he was scary-looking any more.
“Yes. When you are stuck in a bad situation as though it will never get better, you just tell yourself to wait. If you can wait it out, you win.” He smiled. I nodded and smiled back.
He looked down at my foot.
“Your foot needs to be treated,” he said, examining my foot. It was badly swollen with big bump on top and it was very tender. “Will somebody take you to the clinic?”
“There’s nobody home. My mother won’t be back until later.” I frowned. I didn’t want this to end. “I have to get ready to go to school.”
“You are not going to school. Your foot needs to be elevated.” He stood up. “Listen. Just sit here. I’ll bring Coach Zhong over. He lives nearby.”
“Coach Zhong? The gymnastic coach?” I knew his daughter. She was a friend of mine.
“Yes, he knows how to treat this kind of things. Maybe he can make it so that you can go to school.” I knew he was just saying it so I wouldn’t sneak away. I was planning on sneaking away. I could hop along on one foot. I hated missing school.
He seemed to have seen through me. “Don’t try to sneak away. I’m bringing food back too. You must be hungry.” He hit my weak point. I was hungry. And I had planned to leave food on the table for mom because she was always starved and exhausted.
He smiled before he walked away. “Wait. Remember? Wait.”
So I waited.
. . .
The story of Liu Banli, the ghost at the foot of the Water Tower, has stayed with me since my twelfth birthday – a day when the power of “to wait” was revealed to me. A day that remains special in my memory even though I didn’t have a birthday cake or a birthday song sung to me.
(My birthplace Guangxi, where this story took place, was one of the provinces that had the most violence and the only province where cannibalism was openly practiced during Cultural Revolution. In 1967 fights between two major factions broke out - The Zaofan Pai (The Rebels) and the Baohuang Pai (The Loyal). They both pleaded to be recognized by the Central Government as "revolutionary", but the latter flip-flopped on its statements three times, causing even more violent conflicts. Finally in 1968, the Central Government ordered both factions to surrender to the People's Liberation Army. The Rebels built a stronghold in the provincial exhibition hall and came into direct fire with the PLA. They were all killed and some were stuck in the basement and drowned in an unprecedented flood that set in that year. Wudou ended but the Cultural Revolution continued until 1976.)