The Mao Era in Objects

My companions liked to tell all sorts of stories. Most of the stories coming out from their mouths were boring and vulgar, but every now and then there were refined and very attractive ones. Some of these stories were events that had taken place in society over the past three years [during my term in jail], some they had listened to on foreign broadcasting stations, and some were various sorts of folksongs and doggerels, and [stories] from shouchaoben such as ‘A Pair of Embroidered Shoes’, ‘The Heart of a Young Maiden’ or ‘Manna’s Reminiscences’. I listened to them attentively and found everything new and interesting, because I knew nothing of such matters. With some stories [I realized] instantly that they were fabricated not only quite nonsensically, but also of lousy skill. Such as The Plum Blossom Party which claimed that Li Zongren’s wife Guo Dejie and Liu Shaoqi’s wife Wang Guangmei both were members of the secret service ‘Plum Blossom Party’, [relating] how the two women both wore plum blossom rings, how they would get in contact through secret signals etc., it was virtually nothing but nonsense!

‘In the fall of 1959 in Beijing[…]’, one night, an educated youth surnamed Du started to tell a story. He seemed to only have attended primary school, he was bulky and rough, and had a reputation for his street fights. Once in 1967 he carried a pistol to a fight and suffered serious injury with his intestines coming out. Allegedly, when the doctors performed surgery on him, they found his ‘lean flesh’ was several inches thick at the moment they started to work with the scalpel, which led them cry out in astonishment. After the wound had healed his health was worsened and he never regained his former strength. So he returned to the village, appointed himself as a ‘person wounded at war’, and never went out to work but fooling around every day – What stories could he tell?

‘That afternoon, at dawn, a car drove into a small hutong off Qianmen Avenue. The car stopped. A white-haired professor opened the door of the car, and got off the car with a leather suitcase. His name was Su Guanlan[…]’

As Du who had always had a crude air told this story, he suddenly began to talk in a fine voice. He used vivid tones to depict the role, his facial expressions and movements became very gentle, as though he was this professor himself, who had just stepped off the car and now was looking around him[…]

‘What did you just say?’ I was startled.

Heavens! Su Guanlan was the male protagonist in ‘The Return’ which I had written. And wasn’t this the scene of the beginning of [my] novel that Du was telling in a captivating manner?

‘What ‘what’?’ Du threw a glance at me. He was just entering into the ‘role’ with relish and was displeased with me interrupting his flow of words.

‘You just talked about this professor[…]’, I stammered.

‘Didn’t I say it: his name was Su Guanlan!’

‘Good, good, you go on, you go on, I am listening, listening ---’ I was shaking my head and at the same time nodding my head.

He continued to tell the story, continued until well into the small hours of the night, until he finally reached the end of the story. When he had finished, he held his knees, without a word as though he were still immersed within the atmosphere he had just created and could not liberate himself from it. He wasn’t particularly cultured, nor was he particularly good at telling stories, in particular such a story taking place among a host of scientists; but I could discern clearly, amid all his stammering he suddenly finished the story, and did so without abbreviations or important gaps.

I looked around me, everyone listened steadily, deeply possessed. After it was finished, nobody said anything, as though everyone was still immersed within the aura of the story. The campfire had gone out already[…]

Finally, everyone started talking about it.

‘I have heard this story[…]’, one person said.

‘I haven’t heard it, but have read it, a shouchaoben, entitled ‘The Return[…]’, someone else said.

‘Right, I have also heard about it, it’s entitled ‘The Return’!’

‘I read it when I was doing subsidiary production in Jiangxi, the story was very interesting, but the book’s title was ‘Mother of the Hydrogen Bomb[…]’

‘The one I read was entitled ‘The Pride of the Generation’!’

‘So many people know this story, I have heard that it relates a real story[…]’

‘It was written by an American!’

‘No, by a Hongkongese, he’s over sixty years[…]’

‘No! It is written by neither an American, nor a Hongkongese, but by the son of a high cadre, he is familiar with internal affairs.’

‘It is not a novel, but an autobiography, originating from the pen of a scientist, exactly that Su Guanlan from inside the book!’


Only I remained silent. But, in fact, I was the most ‘immersed’, in a nervous state all along, with my heart beating heavily, breathlessly. I listened carefully, anxious not to miss a single word.

I already realized that everything taking place in front of me had to do with my fate, with my future fate.












我环顾四周,大家都一直在倾听,听得很入神。听完之后,大家也都不说话,好像仍然沉浸在故事的意境中。篝火已经灭了 …