If you are based in one of the big cities you’ll find that they will have come from all over the country to further their education, each bringing their own very different stories. You may get someone who is from Xinjiang way up in North Western China whose classmate is from Guangdong, a province far away in the South.
Occasionally someone shows up in class who really grabs your attention. Amongst the usual people taking their university degree or masters, Suyun stands out as one of the few mature students in class. The most noticeable thing about Professor Su though, is that far from being the odd one out, she has a natural charm that endears her to nearly everyone she meets. Within minutes of saying hello you immediately feel warmth and a sense of ease in her presence, indeed everyone in class are more that happy sitting next to her despite the age gap. She has been a lecturer of Marxism at the Agricultural University in Beijing for thirty years with between one hundred and two hundred and fifty students attending each class.
“Actually the smallest classes are one hundred and twenty two” she informs me.
Professor Su is by far one of the most interesting people you will ever meet. Class after class she will unexpectedly come out with some mind blowing fact that I will try and get down on paper as soon as possible. It therefore seems only logical to have arranged this interview with her and get some form of order and understanding to her layered experience and personality.
When Suyun was born in Hand Dan City, Hebei Province in 1945 Mao Zedong was 52 years old and already the party leader.
“My father was called Yu Chun Ming and my mother Geng Lin Zhi. ‘Yu’ means river, ‘Chun’ springtime and ‘Ming’ means light or sunshine. ‘Lin’ means forest and ‘Zhi’ is a plant medicine from the mountains which gives your strength. We lived in a village of three hundred people. We were all farmers though the land belonged to the government. This meant we had to give thirty percent of everything we grew as a form of tax as we didn’t really have any money”.
“There is only one thing I am afraid of now and that is being hungry. From the age of three I lived during the (civil) war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. All I remember was being poor and it was like this until 1976. We only had a few animals to eat; a few pigs, chickens, dogs and ten cows for the whole village. Sometimes we had corn, some green vegetables and fruit. We lived on the plains so there were no mountains and we were always in drought so plants were hard to grow. This also meant that there was never any rice to eat though we did have some noodles.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad” I inject optimistically.
“Yes, every year one person would receive ten grams of wheat noodles. We would eat meat one time in one year during the Spring Festival. Sometimes if a cow died we may have had some beef, but remember it was for the whole village. I remember my family would get some plums or peaches one time in one year. Because my mother was so old, the village saved flour for her so that was good”.
Again I repeated my optimism “That must have been very important for your family.”
“Yes, we would get flour one time one year.”
“So generally what did you eat?” I ask in amazement.
“Every day we ate sweet potatoes. That’s all we had”
“How about breakfast then?” I quizzed, expecting to catch her out.
“We had ‘wu tou’ a kind of cake made from sweet potatoes. We would dry them out and they would go black. We would add water and another root vegetable called ‘ye cai’. The wu tou was dark and very hard to eat. We would also have it for lunch and dinner. For seven months from March to October we would eat wu tou every day”.
“So you are telling me that you only ever had wu tou to eat?”
“Well we always liked the autumn because that time we wouldn’t have to eat wu tou. Instead we could eat fresh sweet potatoes. They were very delicious!” she exclaims enthusiastically with a hearty grin on her face. “You know these days there is no food I don’t like. I will eat anything” she adds with a chuckle. “This is why it is a Chinese tradition never to waste any food.”
Sometime ago I heard that during these times people could not buy clothes. Instead you had to get a ticket from the local government and use it to buy cloth. Changing tact, I ask the professor if this was true.
“Yes, you had to get a ‘bu piao’ for cloth (‘piao’ meaning ‘ticket’), ‘liang piao’ for grain provisions, ‘fei zao piao’ for soap and a ‘wei sheng zhi piao’ for toilet paper. For these things we would walk into town from the village about 4km. You would get enough cloth to make one shirt and some trousers”.
“How often did you do that then?”
“One year, one time!” is the now almost predictable reply, while Suyun is finding it funnier the more she repeats it. “We would have to spend a lot of time fixing our clothes and would pass them down to younger people in the family. When I left home, I went to Shanghai to study in University. Students had to have a ticket then and the cloth would be army green. Everyone had the same clothes; all army green. Adults all wore dark blue”
I ask if they had leather shoes.
“Oh no” she laughed. “Leather shoes were very expensive. We would make cloth shoes”.
“Can you describe where you lived?”
“Oh, Chinese people didn’t own any property. Our house was very old and very bad. The rain would come through the roof everywhere. I remember strongly that the metal was not good. It was very poor quality. The lock on my sister’s door broke and she couldn’t fix it. Then her cooking pot broke and she cried. We didn’t have a real bed. Instead we would make one from bricks. The bricks would be made from water mixed with clay. It was very hard and uncomfortable. We had a small pillow and a thin quilt. It was very cold in the winter. My family would lie closely together so we could keep warm. I think I am very lucky because I didn’t die. We were just so hungry every day.”
“So you are alive, but I heard many people lost their lives during those years. Is that correct?”
“Yes, but the summer was the worst time. The summer was cruel. There were many flies and mosquitoes that would bite you all over. You would get a fever and be hot and cold. Maybe thirty people in the village would die every summer. There was also no water anywhere. It was so dry. It meant that there would be more food for the others. We had to survive.”
With Suyun painting such a bleak picture of life back then, I ask if they had anything ‘modern’ like something powered by electricity in their village at all.
“No nothing, but there was a time when the town had a television. That was in…..1974, so I would have been…..29 at that time. I remember it strongly because everyone heard about it and we walked to the government county yard. There was a small TV and three thousand people had come to have a look because we were all curious. No one had seen a television before”.
“So what was your first TV programme?” I smiled.
“It was Mao Zedong. He was sitting and talking and giving a speech about the country. We watched it for one hour and I cried the whole time. I will always remember that moment vividly”
“Why did you cry? Because it was such an amazing invention?”
“Oh no, It was because we had only ever seen pictures of our leader and it was like he was talking to us. We loved Mao Zedong. I still love him now.”
Scratching my head, I ask a typically Western question. “I heard that the Cultural Revolution was a really terrible time and during the Great Leap Forward over ten million people died. Didn’t you hate him for this?” with an air of disbelief.
“Well because we grew up with him, there was no comparison with any other leader. We thought he was really caring. We worshipped him. To us being hungry was a way of life. It would have been strange not to have been hungry. We were never used to anything else.
You know everyone remembers when he died. It was in 1976 on September 9th. It was on the first day of the Mid-Autumn Festival. I remember so clearly. We heard about it so we went by bicycle to my grandmother’s home to listen to it on her radio. They repeated it three times. It said that there was important news and some funeral music. As we went home, my mother stopped the bike and we got off in the middle of the countryside. We cried and cried for a long time. We held each other tightly. I thought that I didn’t want to live if he didn’t live. Chinese people depended on him. We had no independent thought and behaviour. I think this is classical agricultural behaviour.”
Taken aback by this unexpected perspective, I ask about what happened in Mao Zedong’s memorial service.
“It was very painful. The country had no music, dancing or shows for nine days. There were one hundred thousand in the county square and the crying was so loud, the sound of people mourning was overwhelming. We thought without Mao Zedong we will not live. Let me show you something” the professor takes a pen and paper and starts writing some dates down with a serious look on her face.
“1893 – 1921: From when he was born until he started the Chinese Communist Party = 28 years! 1921 – 1949: He started the National Congress of China, we called it ‘New China’ (Communist party of China CPC) = 28 years! 1949 – 1976 was when Mao was our greatest leader = 28 years! You see? We thought he was a deity”.
By this time I am seriously lost for words having never been on the other end of a Mao way of thinking like this.
“You know 1976 was a terrible year for China. Not only did Mao Zedong die, but also Zhou En Lai. He was our…..how to say…Our number two leader. Zhu De also died. He was a famous general who fought against the Japanese. Then there was a huge….meteor. It opened in the sky and came down like rain. Then there was the Tangshan Earthquake.”
“Can you remember anything about the Earthquake?”
“Of course, I was in Beijing at the time, but even my family in my hometown in Hebei felt the shaking strongly. Everyone was told to go outside. Tangshan was ruined. Maybe three hundred thousand people died. You know there were no telephones, so a man in a truck drove from Tangshan to Beijing’s Zhong Nan Hai Gate to give the news. He was injured and bleeding. You know the earthquake was at night and before it happened they say the night sky had a blue light over the whole city. We had to live for three months in big….tents outside in Beijing because all of the houses were damaged and dangerous.”
With our time drawing to a close I ask the professor about her outlook on life and what she hopes to do in the future.
“You must always make sure your mind is good. You know I never get tired. Sometimes I think I am a spirit. I can never stop learning. I like learning about things very much. One day I hope to go abroad and study then I would be even more happy.”
“What subject would you most like to study?” by now I’m smiling in amazement and appreciation at the professor, envious of her joy of life; uncluttered and full of freedom.
“I would like to do a PHD in philosophy. I really like Rousseau and Voltaire. They were great thinkers. My passion is German philosophy.”