The main reason for my mother’s lowly status in the family, and for her poor relationship with my grandmother, was that my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, and my mother herself, had always wanted a boy. My family was not unique; this was what everyone wanted. Unfortunately, I turned out to be a girl. My grandmother doted on me, but the situation was far from ideal: my father had been the only son in the family, and there was the question of how to continue the Lu family name. My mother decided to risk having a second child, which meant going against the new national policy that “one child was best”.
The year was 1980, and the family planning policy had just started. In rural towns, women (and the men behind them) were not really on board yet. They expected they’d be fined and that would be it, right? If a baby boy was born, then it would be worth it. What’s more, my grandmothers’ generation had all had five or six children each, and knew from experience all the “secret signs” that predicted the sex of a child: what it meant when the foetus moved at night or during the day, when the mother’s belly was round or oval, when the mother could or couldn’t bend forward, when the mother did or didn’t get freckles, when the belly button did or didn’t pop out, when the mother stepped over the threshold with her right or left leg first. If these “male” parameters indicated a seventy to eighty percent chance, then the family would quietly prepare to pay the fine, and take their chances on having a son and grandson.
My mother scored highly all round, particularly the criterion “unable to bend forward because she’s carrying a boy”. She was a typical case, even down to washing clothes at the table. The chances looked good. But for her, the consequence would not be a simple fine: she was a people’s teacher, a civil servant, and for civil servants, the killer move was suspension from work. And it happened for real, not after the birth, but brought forward to before the birth. Almost as soon as the pregnancy was visible, she went to class one day and discovered another teacher standing on the podium. She was given orders to stop teaching.
Actually, at the time the branch secretary of the production brigade was my grandmother’s nephew, but family planning was such a high-voltage wire that he couldn’t touch it. If anything were to happen, he’d have to step down. So he put on a smile, and came to pay his respects to my grandmother, and to press cigarettes, Da Qian Men cigarettes, a good brand, into her hands, all the while calling her Niangniang (an affectionate version of Auntie). My grandmother accepted the cigarettes, and put them to one side, while she picked up her water-pipe, which gurgled as she inhaled.
And then the director of the local committee of the Women’s Federation came, and the head of the school, and the head of the production brigade. We had a stream of visitors wearing down the threshold. Our home had never been so crowded. Each visitor would weigh in with a new argument. My mother’s teaching position could not be guaranteed – that was clear. Then there was my grandfather, the brigade’s accountant, known as Accountant Lu, who spent every day on his abacus, doing the brigade’s accounts, and often helping local people balance their books too. He was well-respected, and this work was an important part of his later life. But he would be dismissed as well, by association. “If you want a grandson, then you can’t be Accountant Lu.” The next step, they said gravely, would be to go to Nanjing, the provincial capital, and find my university-educated father, who was working as an engineer, a highly respected position…
And so it went on, with one step leading to the next, and the situation growing more and more serious. As in war, it was building up to a climax, and the more dangerous the situation looked, the clearer things became. In reality, fighting for oneself or one’s family against a production brigade and higher authorities means there can be no reprieve. Defeat was inevitable ... the only question was what steps were to be taken? All those home visits, all the “ideological work” was about marking out the steps. My family’s honour, which they praised repeatedly and effusively, was for the large part exaggerated, and at the end of day it boiled down to this: “Neither the Lu side or the Wang side of your family is a simple, straightforward family. Both sides have family members in high places, university students, members living off the public purse. In terms of awareness and outlook, there has to be a different expectation of you. Etcetera. Etcetera. The whole family listened and worried, at first shaking their heads, and then nodding. The initial excitement gradually gave way to the feeling that their honour was being seriously compromised, and quietly they acquiesced.
The defeat was not without honour: they could get through this, and it was something that all the neighbours could understand. They would not think the family had capitulated too soon, nor would they think that the brigade secretary had been unduly harsh towards his Niangniang. My mother’s pregnancy was now at an advanced stage, and both sides discussed the details amicably. She would be treated well – at eight o’clock the next morning the production brigade’s tractor would come to collect my mother and take her to the town hospital to be induced. Another couple of pregnant women from a neighbouring village would also get the tractor treatment. It was not easy for a production brigade to send a tractor like that, and there were women were at different stages of pregnancy, but all of them had agreed to take the “public transport” on the same day, in order to comply with and implement the “family planning.”
In fact, the real reason why my family was willing to give in was not just because of the so-called “family honour” and the pressure of dismissal from public office. There was another reason, but the family was keeping it secret.
A few days earlier, my mother, now over eight months pregnant, was crossing the bridge, when a midwife spotted her from the distance. The midwife went white with shock, then caught up with her and gripped her arm: “Mrs Wang! It’s incredible! The baby’s turned round, and it was so clear, I saw it for myself, it’s a girl! These midwives have a wealth of experience, and have pulled countless babies from the birth canal. They know all the secret codes and logical expectations relating to babies - you could say they have all the authority of ultrasound. And that being the case, it was be better to back down.
Everything pointed to one inescapable conclusion: that this “second pregnancy” would soon be over. But as dusk approached, a drama unfolded...
That evening, after seven and before it got dark, for some reason - perhaps because she was able to relax after all those days of stress, or because she was tired and upset about the imminent loss of the baby, or maybe because the Old Man in Sky decided to have some fun - whatever it was, my mother suddenly felt a pain in her belly, and soon after that, she began to bleed and her waters broke. The baby came early. My feisty little sister, adamantly refusing to become a lump of flesh in the surgery of a rural hospital, had diced with death, and come leaping and bounding into this world, a perfect, healthy baby.
But what a bittersweet world it was, and what a half-hearted welcome she received. If only she’d been a he! The atmosphere in the room was as cold as ice, my mother said she hadn’t asked about the baby, but she knew from the deathly silence, from the way no one made a sound. The midwives were always right! Then she fainted. I was seven at the time, clinging to someone’s leg, not understanding what was happening, and asking over and over again if it was a boy or a girl?
At eight o’clock the next morning, when the roosters and hens were up, and the early-rising farmers were out on the land, the tractor came sputtering round the corner. With the engine still running, the driver craned his neck and yelled, “Mrs Wang.” The neighboring women at the side of the road all laughed out loud, “Save your breath! Mrs Wang doesn’t need to go any more! She’s had the baby already!”
“What did she have?” the other women on the tractor asked in chorus, as though anxious about their own babies. The voices of the pregnant women trembled in the thin early morning mist.
As my mother had already given her word and had agreed to be induced the next day, it was decided the baby’s early arrival was a case of force majeur. The authorities eventually issued their verdict on how the matter should be dealt with: the teaching position will remain yours, and you can continue as before as a people's teacher, but there is no denying that this second pregnancy has added a ‘heavy burden’ to the nation, and therefore a fine must still be paid. How much? 56 yuan. That year my mother earned 14 yuan a month, so it was four months’ wages, probably equivalent to over 10,000 yuan today. The fine was considered fair. To this day we still tease my little sister: 56 yuan, that’s what you’re worth! When I think about it now, I can see that the matter was handled with a great deal of sympathy. The family was so unlucky, there’d been so much anguish before finally agreeing to the induction the following morning! And after all that, it was a baby girl!
If my mother had given birth to a boy, the situation might have been completely different. About four or five years later, one of our neighbours, a stubborn character, resistant to the end, was determined to have a second child, and his family’s gamble paid off: they had a big fat baby boy. That year the family planning policy was at its strictest, and everywhere people were being hauled in to make examples of them. The authorities threatened them with a fine of 2000 yuan, a terrifying amount of money, but the family held its nerve, and decided to name the child Shuangqian (Double Thousand)! There was no end of pressure to remove this little emperor, but in the end all their haggling was successful, and we heard that they were eventually fined a few hundred yuan.
Some people doubted that the Lu family’s second child was really a girl. In those days the local custom was to ask a nursing mother from another family to give a newborn its first sip of milk. It was called “turning on the milk”. A mother nursing a baby boy would be asked to “turn on the milk” for a newborn girl, and vice versa. But there wasn’t anyone nearby who was nursing a baby boy, so my family asked a mother who was nursing a baby girl. The woman was puzzled, and, while feeding my little sister, would slip her hand inside her clothes to try and establish the facts. My poor mother watched from the side, sadness welling up inside her. She wished she was lying.
My mother is a strong-minded person, but this whole business, this whole process, made her feel utterly useless, utterly desperate. Her eyes were red from crying every day, and she wanted to die. At the time, I was in second grade in the same primary school where my mother taught, and her colleagues, my teachers, would tell me to run straight home after school and look after her, help her to recover so she could come back to school as quickly as possible, as it was quite difficult to keep her position open. And so I raced home every day, my book bag banging against my bottom. It was not long before my little sister started smiling at my mother. Eventually her tears dried, and her mother’s smile returned. When her 56 days of maternity leave were over, my mother took the cradle with her to class. She didn’t dare take another minute, in case there had been a mistake and she was not to be allowed to continue as a “people’s teacher”.
But the story doesn’t end there. About seven years later, in 1987, my mother unexpectedly found herself pregnant again. By this time the rural family planning policy had reached a more established “mass base”, and people did not hesitate, resist or torment themselves over it. The whole family, young and old, was in agreement: they would not keep the child. My mother was very busy during that time with her pupils’ graduation exams, and then with things at home. She put the induction off until she was over seven months’ pregnant. By then certain details revealed quite clearly that this time she was having a boy!
The following year, my grandfather fell ill and died. The year after that my father fell ill and died. When my grandmother wept for her dead son, she said the same thing over and over: three men of the family lost in three years. It took me a while to realise that she was also grieving for my little brother who never came into this world. To her dying day, she wanted that grandson.
Lu Min (left) with her mother and sister