In 1949, the “King of Yunnan” Lu Han announced his surrender and welcomed the Communist takeover without waiting for the soldiers to come to the city. Without firing a single shot, the PLA entered the city, and the U.S. Army during the war against Japan, smiling at children, not handing out chocolates, but equally affable.
The first political gale blew in 1952 with the “Three Anti’s” and “Five Anti’s”. For the first time, the people of the city saw newspapers with large brushstrokes posted in public places, “uncover the big tiger”, “confess and be lenient, resist and be strict”. Children have never seen such a sad face of adults, not saying anything. Who was imprisoned again, who hanged again. The seven or eight year olds were scared to hear, but did not dare to ask. Death and great misfortune, unless it happens to someone close to you, the shock does not hit deep inside, especially for children.
“Three old cousins jumped off a building!” It was as if the first shot was fired among relatives and friends in Kunming after the “peaceful liberation”.
The third oldest cousin was the nephew of Grandma’s later family, and we called him uncle. When mom was not feeling well, she asked uncle to take her pulse and write a medicine list. The brushstrokes were so dazzling that the names of the medicines were first shaken out in Chinese regular script and evenly listed on the paper, and then without thinking, the quantity of each ingredient was marked in lower case at the bottom of the diagonal. Watching him write prescriptions was like watching a little magic show. However, my uncle’s prominent position in my heart has nothing to do with this.
My uncle was the accountant of the Grand Illumination Theater! I was too young to go to the movies, but my seventh aunt, eighth aunt, beautiful aunt and countless other aunts, cousins and uncles, who were all fascinated by foreign male and female stars, relied on this important relative to buy movie tickets the quick way. The curmudgeonly uncle picked a career as a four-way accountant, but landed in such a romantic place as a 1940s movie theater. The young generation at that time, including my parents, who did not frequently shed hot tears in that unreal world? According to my father, Kunming was one of the first cities to introduce Western movies. The cinema was dark, and the first thing that mattered was that the male and female guests were seated separately. When the movie started, the crowd first stood up and sang the national anthem. The Da Guangming cinema was the most popular, thanks to an all-round employee who was also a “translator” and a dubbing artist. He spoke authentic Kunming, and later in a male voice: John asked, “Mary, do you love me?” Then the female voice changed: “I love you to death.” The women in the room, who had never heard the word “love” before in their lives, blushed.
Uncle’s demeanor and speech were not tainted by foreign films at all, and the nearest people around him, such as Auntie, also seemed to keep their distance and proportion due to etiquette, always gentle in manner, not slow in speaking, never excited, never raised his voice. Whenever he came to my house, he would greet “big cousin”, “cousin’s wife”, “sister”, “little sister”, and “little Kazuo Sheng” in that order. He always wore a light brown khaki suit and would not let any of the buttons leave his post, including the four pocket buttons, and his feet wore the same round-toed cloth shoes, all hand-sewn by his aunt.
Many, many years later, I asked him, uncle why did you jump?
“They locked me up and wrote an account, with someone watching. I asked to go to the toilet and was not allowed; I said, ‘No freedom, no death’, so I pushed open the window and jumped.” I don’t understand how such a gentle and respectful old gentleman like uncle could do such a drastic action.
The uncle who was a slap on the wrist had a father who was even more old-fashioned, and we called him “Uncle Grandpa”. He was a very small man, wearing a long shirt and vest, and did not smile. Uncle grandpa was a full-time Chinese medicine doctor, I think the medical skills are not very good, every time I followed my mother to see him, never met other patients to seek medical advice. The family lived in Little Green River Lane at that time, and the small triplex was always wet. In the middle of the courtyard, two or three small fish swam around with their tails in the water tank, as if they were the only thing that was full of life in this gloomy home. The water tank is really big. When I read in language class that Sima Guang broke the water tank as a child to save the children, I naturally associated it with the water tank at my uncle’s grandfather’s house, and in class I thought about my brother falling in and how I could save him. The water was to drink, hired pickers to go to the well to fetch water, pick to fill the tank, these pickers have a bulging veins on their calves, now of course know called varicose veins, but at that time felt a symbol of hard work and strength. In his house, I just refused to drink the water, that is not to drink the fish urine and feces? This question knowingly little girl is not allowed to say out.
Grandmother was father’s stepmother, and father was not close to her. My mother was very close to my niece-in-law, my aunt, and had endless conversations when we met, even though my mother went to college and my aunt only went to elementary school. My aunt could recite the “Three Character Classic” and the “Daughter’s Classic” backwards and forwards. When I started elementary school, I always found that I still had a large portion of my holiday homework left before school started. If I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t register and was punished by repeating the grade, so I cried. Every semester, my aunt had to come to my rescue, and together with my grandmother and mother, they copied my capital and lower case letters for me.
When my mother was bedridden for more than ten years, my aunt came to visit her most often among my family and friends. Every year, when fresh fennel was available, my aunt came to make steamed pork for my mother. The rice was soaked, dried, and fried; the pork was marinated in soy sauce, yellow wine, and fennel powder, with a base of fennel and sweet potatoes. I can still recall the aroma wafting out of the steamer. I learned how to make it too, and my mother said my steamed pork was as good as my aunt’s. Not true, of course. But making a dish so extravagant that it cost the family half a month’s supply of meat would have been mouth-watering no matter how it was made. It was not until the late 1960s when I visited my aunt when she was seriously ill that I began to notice her talent for language. She described things vividly and aptly, without falling into clichés, and each word was like a brush, painting scenes and characters. That day she talked about someone who had been killed in a fight, she went to visit, “Alas, crying ten lines of ten tears, God pity!” “Auntie, Auntie, I’ll take a book to write down your words next time I come.” Unfortunately, I never saw my aunt again. Auntie left before mom, which was unexpected.
Uncle and Auntie had no children, but the second uncle’s family had a string of children, three girls and one boy. The two families agreed that if they had any more sons, they would pass them on to uncle. Fortunately, the son was a male, so the uncle’s family was spared the worry of having no children. The boy knew who his real father was and who his adopted father was since he could understand, but he was very dutiful to both parents. He was born handsome and well-behaved, and under the glass of his uncle’s writing desk, a picture of him at the age of 3 was pressed, holding a beautiful big castrated chicken listlessly. He was a friend of the boy, but he was so sad that his parents took him to the “International Art Portrait Gallery” to have this photo taken with him. “When classes were suspended during the Cultural Revolution, he practiced calligraphy and Chinese painting, and his uncle took out the side room where he had piles of miscellaneous things, saying that now his son had his “little study room”. My son was a good student since kindergarten, but unfortunately, when he reached junior high school, the “Cultural Revolution” smashed the “big study room” of that generation of students. I remember visiting my uncle once and seeing him reading Diderot in his small study, I was already a university student and had never heard of this philosopher.
The family of my uncle ate very simply. That year, I was in the fifth grade and my brother was in the second grade, so my family moved to the east of the city and I couldn’t transfer to another school for a while, so I ate lunch at my aunt’s house near the school. They lived in the same courtyard as my second uncle’s family, and each family was responsible for a month’s worth of food, sharing a common stove and table. A large bowl of cheap and filling pumpkin was proudly placed in the center of the table. I couldn’t help but wonder if they didn’t want to spend money when it was their turn to sit at the table, so why didn’t they separate? Family tradition? Return the gift of a son? Face? (I do not eat pumpkin, but dare not say it. I just quietly poured it into my brother’s bowl. He didn’t denounce me and righteously swallowed those old pumpkins for my sister. (Whenever I think of this scene, I am grateful to my brother).
After my mother’s death in 1973, our relationship with my uncle’s family became lighter. In the 1980s, when I returned to Kunming to visit my relatives, I thought that if my mother were alive, she would have asked me to visit my uncle, and I also remembered him, so I visited my uncle every year. Among the many friends and relatives, uncle’s family was the most contented and happy, and the family was happy for three generations. I am not angry about not joining the ranks of the newly rich. Uncle was delighted with his son’s calligraphy achievements, his daughter-in-law’s filial piety and his granddaughter’s intelligence. He was so “polite” that when I visited, he insisted on bringing gifts back. One year I went back to participate in an international poverty alleviation project and lived very close to my uncle’s house. The two Australian experts who saw us talking in the living room couldn’t understand what we were talking about, but the kind-looking old man gave them an ethereal feeling like a fairy.
Uncle jumped for freedom when he was young, although the cost of the attempt was a lifelong ill health and inability to leave his crutches. He later worked for many years as a resident doctor in a small printing factory, getting a little salary to maintain a minimum living, while volunteering to see friends, relatives and neighbors. In the early 1990s, his family moved to the west of the city. Son of a new house, uncle still year-round, rain or shine, crutches to walk to the Crystal Palace teahouse, the road at the beginning of a journey of less than an hour, year after year, uncle’s waist more and more bent, the longer the road, the last few years, the upper body almost parallel to the ground, walking very hard, walk to rest, more than two hours to move to home. He still persisted in spite of the heavy rain and the hot sun, saying that “life is in motion”. Passersby sometimes stopped and cast strange glances at the old man who was struggling to walk; Uncle smiled in return. Today, when I think of him, I think of his faint, kind smile.
Southern Weekend 2007-12-18