“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Letter to My Mother, by Ou Ning

Ou Ning on childhood poverty and the mother he left behind is the third in a series of four creative non-fiction essays, first published in Chinese in OWMagazine (单读) and presented in English in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.

I am in Baan Mae village, Sanpatong County, Chiangmai, Thailand. The sun has just gone down and night is drawing in. Darkness seeps across the rice fields, the bamboo forests, the banana palms and rape flowers, and as my friends light the lanterns, I feel a light breeze. I’m thinking of you, Mum, in the bitter cold of a Beijing winter, and thinking too, of our home. Xialiu, the village in Guangdong, where, just like here, smoke from kitchen fires fills the air. When I was a kid, you’d work all day in the field before rushing home to make dinner. We were all so poor back then, we could barely afford rice. Meals were mostly sweet potatoes stewed to a porridge with a little rice. Lately, I’ve been getting nostalgic for that porridge, so sweet, so perfectly thirst-slaking. I miss my life there and as the years go by, my memories grow more and more melancholy. But that is why I decided to bring you to Beijing.

You were getting older, stuck in a place you had never left in your whole life, looking after an empty house, coping with the increasingly worrisome complications of village life all on your own... I couldn’t help worrying about you. Even though I despair at what it has turned into, I love my hometown. But what I really miss are our memories – memories that are brought to life when I see you and hear you talk, memories of a time in our lives that will never return. Although of course the most important thing is that we should be able to take care of you, a part of me wanted to bring you to Beijing so that we could be surrounded by the memories that you carry. Xialiu is as poor and unwelcoming as ever, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go back on regular visits. After all our family graves are there, and so it is to Xialiu that our spirits will eventually return. I am glad that we have a place to return to, a point on the map, our spiritual home. No matter what, I will never turn my back on it.

I still remember a couple of months ago, trying to talk you into coming to Beijing. We spent more than two hours on the phone but you were still unhappy, you kept saying that it would be too much trouble for us. When I finally put down the phone, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wept because of your obstinacy, because I felt like a failure. All these years, you put your children first, refusing to consider your own needs. You’re used to being poor and frugal, on your own in the countryside. You’re afraid of the city, and you weren’t going to budge no matter what I said. I hated myself for not being able to persuade you, I hated having been away from home for so long, constantly on the move, getting further and further away from you, seeing you less, having less to say to you. You must find it very confusing and wonder what kind of person your son has turned into, what he is doing, and what he is thinking about. Since you came Beijing, we’ve talked a lot, far into the night, but the years have created an unbridgeable gulf between us, and it grieves me.

When did I begin to leave you? By my count, it’s twenty-eight years, starting with when I got into the county lower middle school as a boarder. The county town was more than sixty kilometres from our home, and every winter and summer I made the long journey along the country road with its surface of red earth, or mud, fringed with eucalyptus and sugar cane. I wasn’t homesick on that first trip away from home but, all the same, when winter approached, and I huddled under the thin, worn quilt that you had given me, too short for my growing body, I was unable to sleep from the cold. All I could do was weep. During my three years of middle school, with only five yuan a month from home to cover my expenses, I got used to poverty. I grew thin and sallow, a weedy youth. Summers, I went home to help with the farm work. I once spent so long in the fields transplanting rice seedlings that I got sunstroke. When it came time to pack up at dusk, I couldn’t see where I was going, and you let me hang onto the hem of your jacket so that you could lead me home. Another time, I was cycling home from the fields loaded down with two heavy bags of just-harvested rice and got jumped by some of the village hooligans. All of this left me determined to change my life by studying as hard as I could.

I did well enough during those three years of middle school to get accepted to the best high school in the city. They even waived the entrance exams. That was 1985. Like many children from dirt-poor families, I used to climb to the rooftop of our hostel and look out over the bright city lights, swearing I was going to be head and shoulders above everyone else and was going to turn my family’s fortunes around. I had read and re-read Lu Yao’s novel Life in middle school and seen the film adaptation countless times. I was determined not to go back to a hardscrabble rural life – the same life that Gao Jialin (in the novel) had endured. But I soon left these kinds of ambitions behind, and began to go my own way. My new north star was a collection of ‘New Wave Poetry’ edited by someone who went by the name of ‘Old Wood’ (Lao Mu). One day in a maths lesson I wrote my first poem in imitation of Bei Dao’s ‘Dreams’ – and that was when my spirit left home, Mum, and acquired a life that you would never understand. My politics teacher lent me the book. The same teacher also got me reading the journal People’s Literature with its stories by Liu Suola, Xu Xing, Ma Jian and Sun Ganlu; he got me listening to the latest music cassettes by Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Ye Xiaogang and Guo Wenjing; and he introduced me to discussions on ‘new wave art’ in the journal Art, and on ‘traditional culture and modernization’ in the journal Reading (Dushu). In school, I set up an ‘Exploration Society’, publishing a stencilled newspaper with my own poems, and comments on all these new cultural phenomena.

My first trip out of the province was to Shanghai, in 1987. Instead of going home for the summer holidays that year, I borrowed some money from a classmate, first going to Shenzhen to see a poet friend of mine, Meng Lang (Meng Junliang, you’ve seen his photo, he’s Shanghainese, the one with the bushy beard). Then I got on a train in Guangzhou and headed north, my head was full of the works of Republican-era writers like Mu Shiying, Liu Na’ou and Shi Zhecun, as I imagined what Shanghai, the city of my dreams, would be like. As soon as I arrived, I dropped in on the poet Momo (Zhu Weiguo). His younger brother Shang Feng (Zhu Weifeng) was also a poet. He was about the same age as me, and we wrote to each other often. Zhu Weifeng took me to the Bund. When I saw the vast expanse of the Huangpu River, and heard the chimes from the Customs House tower, I stood rooted to the spot, overwhelmed by the city’s history, my eyes welling with tears, feeling all of a sudden connected with the writers and intellectuals I worshipped, and who had fought their way through life’s battles. In that moment, I swore a new oath: that I would become like them, no matter how many obstacles might be standing in my way.

It was on that trip that I met a Shanghainese girl who had just taken her university entrance exams (gaokao). That meant she was a year ahead of me. She wrote poetry too.  Although I never told her how I felt about her, in my mind she and the city merged into one. I loved Shanghai in the 1980s. It had the largest concentration of industrial workers in China, and was still permeated with the atmosphere of left-wing art and literature from the early days. Back then, all my poet friends lived on the outskirts, though these areas have now been swallowed up by the city. One day, I went to pay my respects at the grave of the revolutionary martyr Zou Rong, then in the evening I went to Bao Gang’s house to talk poetry, and got drunk for the first time, on rice wine. My feelings for the Shanghainese girl flared up twice more in the next decade, until they finally petered out unrequited. Over those ten years, I graduated from Shenzhen University and got a job; got married and got divorced; my younger sister, meanwhile finished middle school and found work in a factory, before marrying and having a child; my next younger brother finished high school and joined the ranks of factory workers too; my second younger brother graduated from the same university as me, and was the first of us to move to Beijing; while the third, the youngest, overcame teenage depression to test into Shenzhen University with flying colours. As we grew up into adults, you got older. While your face became thin and gaunt, I began to put on weight. It seemed like a sign of the ever widening gulf between us. Even though the love was still there, it was harder and harder for you to understand me.

I rarely went to lectures in my four years at university. There were no teachers that I liked. The only exception was Liu Xiaofeng, whose works I had read, but he went to Basel to study theology the same year I arrived at the university. Instead, I spent my time exchanging letters with poets from all over, or chatting with artists in Shenzhen. I fell in love with Cui Jian’s music, and his music in turn led me to other musicians. I wrote more poetry than I had in high school, but most of it I could not get published through regular outlets, only in mimeographed pamphlets produced by my friends from around the country. After I was accepted into university, I failed the physical – they discovered tuberculosis, so I had to defer for a year. During the months I spent recuperating at home, I was dogged once more by the despair I had felt towards rural life that started when I was a boy. We couldn’t afford a TV, and we didn’t have a radio, either. We couldn’t even get newspapers in the village, so I didn’t hear much about what was happening in Beijing in 1989. In fact I only caught the tail end of it when I joined the pre-term sessions, in the summer before the start of the academic year. There were hardly any students on campus, but they had set up a huge memorial in front of the library entrance, and in the evenings the distant shouts of the demonstrators floated across to our dormitory. History had woken up and yawned, but by the time I knew what was going on, it was already long way off. You might say that was lucky for me. Otherwise, I don’t know where I’d be now.

I heard through the grapevine that a number of student leaders from Shenzhen had gone abroad, and the university chancellor, Luo Zhengqi, lost his job because he had supported the students. He had personally interviewed me in high school and offered me an unconditional place, so I felt his loss keenly. We laboured under an atmosphere of extreme repression for the next three years. Writing poetry was the only escape. Then in 1992, Deng Xiaoping arrived on his Southern Tour, kick-starting the Reforms and Opening-Up, and the atmosphere relaxed. Shenzhen became one great building site as buildings were thrown up everywhere, and the economic boom took off. Yet the growth and spread of commercialization represented a serious blow not only to poetry, but also to the morale of poets. Many became extremely depressed. Even Xu Jingya (who had organized ‘The great exhibition of Chinese modern poetry’ for the magazine Shenzhen Youth in 1986) skulked around at home, growing more demoralized by the day. Poetry no longer occupied the place in our culture that it once had, it was in full retreat. In 1991, I set up a poetry magazine called Voice, with a Hongkonger by the name of Huang Canran, and in 1992, along with Xu Jingya and others, took over the running of the Mang Ke’s Beijing magazine Modern Chinese Poetry. But it was difficult to sustain independent literary activity in the China of those days. My spirit, you could say, was looking for a way out.

Around then, a label in Taiwan called Rock Records started releasing music by the three famous singers, Dou Wei, Zhang Chu and He Yong. You could pick them up easily from any street vendor and I was very struck by their music, especially the lyrics of Zhang Chu.I felt his lyrics were more powerful than a lot of poetry I’d read. Thanks to the record companies’ distribution channels the music could reach many more people, too, so I decided to throw my hat into the ring. Shenzhen had just opened what was probably China’s first bar, selling hugely popular Mexican beers like Sol and Corona (which arrived illicitly on Shekou Wharf), and people soon gave up Hong Kong-style nightspots for bars like this, where they could chat over a beer. Just like that, a new form of entertainment and social space were born. Music was more in demand than ever. I formed an organization called The New Masses, which was really an extension of the way we got our poetry out there in the past. We were still talking about the same things as in our writing, still desperate to educate and inspire the ‘masses’, just in a new space. I began to produce shows, but I had no interest in competing with the local showbiz impresarios. Instead, we brought in Beijing rock groups and alternative musicians from overseas. At every performance, we had hand-printed zines to give out for free to the audience – you could call that a development of the old tradition of printing poetry chapbooks. We promoted independent and alternative music, covering as wide a range as we could. We wanted people who listened to our music to use their heads, and judge for themselves. Only then could they truly become the ‘new masses.’

When it came to my final year at university, those classmates who knew me well and shared my interests joked that a person like me would never find a job. They said more likely than not I’d end up back home, working on the farm. It was true that I knew nothing about careers, and what they said made me very anxious. As a result, after dashing off my dissertation on Baudelaire, I went out job-hunting before anyone else did. The latest craze was for graphic design and it had just reached Shenzhen. I happened to come across the brochure from an exhibition called ‘Graphic Design in China’, and it introduced me to the burgeoning advertising industry. I decided that with my writing skills, I could become an advertising copywriter. Having indulged my passions for poetry and literature both on and off campus for years, I was under tremendous pressure to find paid work. I knew what you expected of me, and what the family expected of me. As it turned out, though, the world outside wasn’t as cruel and unfeeling as I had imagined. I quickly found a job in an advertising agency, continuing to make music and pursue other activities after office hours.

It was an emotional moment when my first pay packet arrived. The family had lent me money to cover my four years of university fees. For food and other expenses I had largely relied on support from my sister, who was earning a pittance in a factory, and my girlfriend (who became your daughter-in-law for a time). Little by little, I paid back my debts, but I always lacked the motivation to make money. I just wanted to pursue my own interests. I freely admit this was selfish of me. Luckily, China was going through a decade of great progress, and engaging in my preferred cultural activities no longer meant condemning myself to a life of poverty and rejection. As the economy has developed, people have realised the importance of spending money on culture, and by the same token, culture has begun to acquire economic value. Finally, I can do the kind of work I am interested in and earn a decent income.

Having you come to Beijing is really another way of paying you back, not only giving you better food to eat and clothes to wear, but also making more time for us, making up for the years when I was away and couldn’t spend time with you, allowing affection between us to grow again. But you are so used to being poor that the money for an air ticket seems like an astronomical sum, and it’s hard for you to comprehend the living costs in Beijing compared to Xialiu. Your stubbornness has caused me endless pain.

I know you can’t get past the fact that I’m on my own in Beijing after my divorce and living in a rented apartment. To you, someone who doesn’t have a house or a family of their own cannot get on in life, let alone be happy. I know you thought I couldn’t afford a house or a wife because I am supporting my brothers and sisters and not putting myself first, and by coming to Beijing you would only make things more difficult for me. But I’m on my own now not because I’m poor, but because personal experience has made me wary. Your unhappy life with my father, who you were forced to stay together with in spite of constant fights, has made me skeptical of marriage. It is nothing to do with whether I own my own home or not. Additionally, there is another reason: Beijing houses prices have gone through the roof, for reasons I despise. With the growth of China’s cities, there’s been a boom in property development. Selling land into has become the government’s chief source of wealth and benchmark for success. Once a piece of land comes on the market, everything on it gets pulled down and the newly barren piece of land becomes hot property. In theory, the government should do the demolition themselves, but they contract it out to commercial demolition companies and charge the cost of the demolition to the developers., This pushes up the price of the new buildings, which in turn is passed on to the buyers. The demolition companies want to make money so they pay out as little as they can get away with, keeping the evicted families from getting decent compensation. When they resist, the demolition companies call in the police, or resort to violence. You must have heard of cases in recent years when evicted people have set themselves on fire in protest, or were killed. New houses then go up on the snatched land; when we buy them, we are colluding with these injustices.

After writing poetry and making music, and doing graphic design, I also started organizing film screenings; eventually, I even made my own documentary films, and got involved in a number of art exhibitions. In 2005, I made a documentary called Meishi Street, in which I filmed the demolition of a street in Beijing’s Dashilar district, telling the stories of three of the affected families. This gave me an in-depth understanding of how these demolitions happen, how they start, and how they end. Mum, I don’t believe that you will continue to pressure me to buy a house if you can understand what I have said above. You once told me that the only reason you can read a little now is because you were put in a Mao Zedong study group in the village before getting married, which also helped you understand what it meant to be poor. Because of where you came from, you know better than most what class means, and you have an innate sympathy for the weakest members of society. These evicted families are the most vulnerable people in China today. That’s why I think that my concern for them is something you taught me.

When I was at university in Shenzhen, I went to my sister’s factory one day, and she poured out her heart to me, about how hard she found the endless assembly line work, and how homesick she was. I wrote a poem for her, and for the countless thousands of young women who are forced to drop out of school to scrape a living in the city. My sister sacrificed her youth to enable me to go to university and become an ‘educated man’. Every time I think of how much I owe her, my eyes fill with tears. I made another film, Sanyuanli, about the large numbers of country people, mostly from impoverished inland provinces, who scrape a living in the shantytowns and factories of Guangzhou. Since I once lived in a Shenzhen shantytown myself, I could identify with them. Every time I looked through the camera lens at the arduous jobs they were doing, the cramped rooms they rented and the cheap nasty food they were eating, all the while with a satisfied smile on their faces, it reminded me that I came from Xialiu, that I was born and brought up in a dirt-poor place too. That is where my life began. They work their fingers to the bone scraping a living in the city, just as I once did, and what keeps them going are thoughts of the home and family that they live so far away from. They are the humblest people in China, forgotten by the rest of us; their contribution to our society is enormous and yet they are unable to enjoy it. My reason for putting them in front of the camera is that I can see my past in them, and I see their sorrow.

Sometimes when I show my films, and explain the thinking behind them, people take me for a leftist. But I am like you, in that I feel for the vulnerable, and want to bear witness to injustice. Isn’t that the same as what you learned in your Mao Zedong study group? I doubt you will ever understand that shocking thing I once said about Mao Zedong to you, but it is because I have read some books and know a bit of history that my ideas about Mao conflict with yours. It’s complicated matter, but I am going to put it in simple terms: there have been people who believe in social justice since time immemorial, Mao did not invent it. A person can be on the left without being a Maoist. There are many people today who are confused by the world around them, not just you. I am currently involved in planning a number of arts and design exhibitions, I am also chief editor of a new literary magazine, and I have a few creative projects of my own underway. All of these projects bring me face-to-face with difficult social questions that I can’t avoid addressing. It takes all of my wisdom and strength to find solutions, to form and express my opinions. By reducing the chaos in the world around us, I hope we can create a bit more clarity.

You’ve spent nearly four months with us in Beijing, and you haven’t put a foot out of doors, no matter how hard we try. You criticise me for wasting good money on a housekeeper and want me to get rid of her so you can do the work in her place. You don’t like frozen food, because you say it’s not as fresh as farm food. You don’t like going to restaurants with us because you think it’s an extravagance. You don’t like taking taxis because you say all the stopping and starting at traffic lights makes you carsick. You don’t like watching TV because none of the programmes are in Cantonese. And now you’ve got it into your head that you want to go home. I don’t know how to make you to stay. I have my misgivings about city life too. The air pollution index in Beijing keeps going up, the city is too big, and the public transport system is intimidating. Setting aside job opportunities and the cultural life, a big city like Beijing is really not a good place to live. I have been mulling over moving to a village for the last few years, partly because I have developed an interest in farming, farmers and villages, but also because I want to find a way of living that is different from the city. This is not a retreat from the world, but way of embracing a new reality.

Now I am in Thailand, looking at how artists can work in rural areas. I have already been to a number of villages in China: in Anhui, Yunnan, Jiangsu, Hebei and Henan. I have been to Taiwan, where I visited friends who are living and working in the countryside. Most Chinese villages are like Xialiu, depopulated and economically unviable. Some have given their land to the cities, others have given their workers, but they all have one thing in common: none of them can sustain their life and the livelihoods of their people. Moving to a village right now might seem like a huge step backwards, choosing a way of life that most people can’t wait to leave behind. Even so, the idea has been growing on me. I still haven’t decided which village I will choose, and anyway the work I have in hand will take a while to complete. Maybe one day I will return to my beginnings in Xialiu, and it will give you and me a chance of going back to how we were when I was a child. No more distance between us, and no more arguing. And it will be wonderful, Mum, to be able to keep you company in your final years.

LARB + Dandu

This piece first appeared in Chinese in Dandu (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.

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