Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Loving Memories of Mother

◎ Zhu De

I was deeply grieved to learn of mother’s death. I love my mother. Of her hardworking life, in particular, a great many things will forever be cherished in my memory.

I come from a tenant farmer’s family. My original family home was Shao Guan, Guangdong Province, into which my ancestors had moved from another province as settlers. During the mass migration of peasants from Huguang to Sichuan Province, my ancestors moved to Ma An Chang, Yi Long County, Sichuan. From generation to generation, they tilled land for landlords only to eke out a bare subsistence. People who associated with them as friends were likewise honest impoverished peasants.

Mother gave birth to thirteen children in all. But only the first eight of them survived while the next five were drowned at birth by my parents against their will because they were too poor to raise them all. How anguished, sad and helpless mother must have felt! She did manage, however, to have the eight children brought up all by herself. But she was too busily occupied with household chores and farming to look after the kids so that they were left alone crawling about in the fields.

Mother was a hardworking woman. As far as I can remember, she would always get up before daybreak. In our household of more than twenty members, all women would take turns to do cooking for one year. Apart from cooking, mother did farming, planted vegetables, fed pigs, raised silkworms and spinned cotton into yarn. Tall and of strong build, she could carry two buckets of water or manure on a shoulder pole.

Mother worked hard from dawn till dusk. When we kids were four or five years old, we found ourselves automatically helping her with farm work. At the age of eight or nine, I could not only carry heavy loads on a shoulder pole or on my back, but also knew how to farm the land. I remember whenever I came back from school and saw mother busy cooking in the kitchen with sweat streaming down her face, I would immediately lay down my books and sneak out to carry water on a shoulder pole or graze the cattle. In some seasons, I would study in the morning and work in the fields in the afternoon. During the busy season, I would spend all day working by the side of mother. It was then that she taught me a lot about the knack of farming.

The life of a tenant farmer’s family was of course hard, but we somehow managed to scrape along because mother was a clever and able woman. We used oil squeezed from seeds of tung trees to light our lamps. We ate rice cooked with peas, vegetables, sweet potatoes or coarse grain, and all seasoned with rapeseed oil — food which landlords and rich people would scorn to eat. Nevertheless, mother’s cooking was done so well that everybody ate with gusto. Only in a good year, could we afford to have some homemade new clothes to wear. Mother would spin cotton into yarn and then asked somebody to have it woven into fabric and dyed. We called it “home-spun fabric”. It was as thick as a copper coin and was so durable that after the eldest brother had grown out of the home-spun garment, it could still be used by the second and third brothers in turn without being worn out.

It was characteristic of an industrious household to be well-regulated and well-organized. My grandfather was a typical Chinese farmer. He went on doing farm work even when he was an octogenarian. He would feel unwell without doing farm labour. He was found still working on the farm even shortly before his death. Grandmother was the organizer of the household. She was in charge of all the farm affairs, assigning tasks to each member of the household. On each New Year’s Eve, she would work out all job assignments for the coming new year. Mother would be the first to get up before daybreak. Soon grandfather would be heard to rise from his bed, followed by the rest of the household. Some went about feeding pigs, some cutting firewood, and some carrying water on a shoulder pole. Mother always worked without complaint despite hardships. Amiable by nature, she never beat or scolded us, let alone quarreled with anybody. Consequently, large as it was, the whole household, old and young, uncles and sisters-in-law, lived in perfect harmony. Out of her naive class consciousness, she showed sympathy for the poor. Despite her own straitened circumstances, she often went out of her way to help out those relatives who were even more needy than herself. She lived a very frugal life. Father would occasionally smoke a long-stemmed Chinese pipe or drink some wine. To prevent us from falling into the same habit, mother kept us children under strict control. Her diligence and frugality, her generosity and kindheartedness — all have left a lasting impression on my mind.

Chinese peasants were honest and peaceable, but disaster befell them just the same. Around 1900, when Sichuan Province was hit by successive years of drought, numerous poverty-stricken peasants went hungry and had to go out in crowds to seize food from the homes of landlords. Thereupon I saw with my own eyes how a group of shabbily-dressed peasants and their families were savagely beaten up or slain by government troops, the road stained with their blood for some 40 li and their cries rending the air. In those days, my family also met with increasing difficulties. All the year round, we went without rice to eat, and simply lived on edible wild herbs and kaoliang. In 1904, especially, when landlords, riding rough shod over tenants, pressed for higher rents on the let-out pieces of land, we, unable to meet their demands, had our tenancy cancelled by them and were forced to move house on New Year’s Eve. On that miserable night, my family tearfully separated and thenceforth had to live in two different places. Shorthandedness and crop failure due to the natural calamity brought misfortune on my family. Mother, however, did not lose heart. Adversity had deepened her sympathy for the poor and needy as well as her aversion to the heartless rich. The painful complaint she had uttered in one or two words and the innumerable injustices I had witnessed aroused in me a spirit of revolt and a desire for a bright future. I made up my mind to seek a new life.

Not long afterwards, I had to tear myself away from mother when I began my schooling. As the son of a tenant, I of course could not afford to go to school. My parents, however, faced with the bullying and oppression of the local evil gentry, landlords and yamen bailiffs, decided to scrape up enough money by living a very frugal life to pay for my education so that they could make a scholar of me for the family to keep up appearances. At first I was sent to an old-style private school and in 1905 I took the imperial examination. Later, I went farther away from home to study in Shunqing and Chengdu, both in Sichuan Province. All the tuition fees were paid with borrowed money, totalling more than 200 silver dollars. The debt was not repaid until later I became a brigade commander of the Hu Guo Army.

In 1908, I came back from Chengdu to set up a higher primary school in Yi Long County. While teaching school, I went home to see mother two or three times a year. In those days, there was a sharp conflict between old and new ideologies. Due to our leaning towards science and democracy, we met with opposition from the local conservative influential gentry in whatever we attempted for the benefit of our home town. So I decided to leave, without my mother’s knowledge, for the faraway province of Yunnan, where I joined the New Army and Tongmenhui. On my arrival in Yunnan, I learned from my home letters that mother, instead of frowning upon my new move, gave me a lot of encouragement and comfort.

From 1909 up to now, I have never paid a visit to my home town. In 1921, however, I had my parents come out to live with me. But, as confirmed farm laborers, they felt unwell without land to till and subsequently had to return home. Father died on the way back, and mother continued to do farm work at home to the very last.

As the Chinese revolution continued to develop, I became more and more politically aware. I joined the Chinese Communist Party as soon as I discovered the correct orientation of the Chinese revolution. When the Great Revolution of 1924-1927 failed in China, I completely lost contact with

my family. Mother alone supported the whole family by working on the 30 mu of land. I did not hear from her until the outbreak of the War of Resistance to Japan. When she was informed of the great cause in which I was engaged, she eagerly looked forward to the success of China’s national liberation. While living the hard life of a peasant woman at home, she was aware of the difficulties and hardships that our Party was then undergoing. During the seven years after the outbreak of the War, I managed to send her several hundred yuan and some photos of myself. Mother was getting old. She was always thinking of me as I was of her. Last year, a letter from my nephew says, “Grandma is 85. She’s no longer as vigorous and healthy as before. She’s eager to see you and chat about things that have happened since you left home…” But I never lived up to her expectations because of my dedication to the cause of the War of Resistance Against Japan.

The most prominent characteristic of mother was her lifelong participation in physical labour. She did cooking in the kitchen just one minute before giving birth to me. Her ardent love for agricultural production remained undiminished even in her old age. My nephew says in another letter to me last year, “Because of old age, grandma is no longer in good health, but she still does manual labour, and is particularly fond of spinning cotton into yarn…”

I owe mother a debt of gratitude because she taught me how to cope with the numerous difficulties that I ran into at home so that later during my over 30 years of military and revolutionary life I have never bowed down to any difficulty. She also bequeathed me a strong constitution as well as a strong inclination for labour so that I have been able to work untiringly.

I owe mother a debt of gratitude because she imparted to me knowledge of productive labour and a revolutionary will, thus enabling me to take to the revolutionary path. By keeping to this path, I have come to realize more and more clearly that this knowledge of productive labour and this revolutionary will are the most valuable assets in the world.

Mother is gone and I shall never see her again. This is an everlasting sorrow. Mother is an “ordinary” person and one of the millions of labouring people who have made and are still making Chinese history. What can I do to repay her my debt of deep gratitude? I swear to remain ever loyal to our nation and the people, ever loyal to the Chinese Communist Party — the hope of our nation and the people, so that all those who share the same lot with my mother may live a happier life. That is what I can do and what I am certainly able to do.

May mother rest in peace!