Selected Modern Chinese Essays: My Childhood

By Bing Xin

People are generally inclined to cherish the memory of their childhood.Be it happy or sad, it is always regarded as the most significant part of one’s life. Many early impressions and habits are so deeply etched in one’s character and temperament that they will affect him all through his life.

I have often inadvertently touched upon my childhood life here and there in my previous writings. Now that Man Gui suggested that I write exclusively on the topic of my childhood, I thought it worth a try and hence set pen to paper without reluctance.

As a middle-aged woman, I try to keep from being sentimental again in writing about the old days. Though I often smile with tears in my eyes while reminiscing, I choose only to sketch out my childhood environment and upbringing as well as the hobbies and habits that have since remained with me — things which may perhaps serve as reference for some parents of today.

Let me begin with my family background. My father was a high-ranking naval officer. He was very healthy and strong and I do not remember ever to have found him confined to bed by sickness. My grandfather, also very healthy and strong, died without illness at the age of 86. My mother, however, was very thin and weak, often suffering from headaches and blood-spitting — an illness I was once also liable to. It was caused not by pulmonary tuberculosis, but by the enlarged bronchial tubes or overwork and care. In short, as I remember, my mother was a very gentle and quiet woman. She spent her time either working or reading. She lived a very calm life.

According to my mother, I used to spit blood when I was a suckling baby, but this trouble never recurred in my childhood. Nor do I remember ever to have suffered from any serious illness during those days. On the contrary, I was in perfect condition both mentally and physically. Therefore, during those seven or eight years when moving about with my folks far away from our home town Fuzhou, I was, in terms of physical health, more than 50 per cent like my father and less than 50 per cent like my mother.

I had two elder brothers who died soon after they were born. I had a younger sister who died young. My eldest younger brother is six years my junior. Therefore, before he was born, I was the only child of the family.

Under the circumstances, I became much more like a “naughty little boy” than a young girl. My home was always situated near a naval barracks or naval academy. I found in the neighborhood no female companions of my age group. I never played with a doll, never learned how to do needlework, never used cosmetics, never wore colours or flowers.

What with my mother’s ailing health and what with the loneliness I felt at home, I was compelled to seek the company of my father all day long. I was with him while he was going about his work and various other activities, thus acquiring experience beyond the reach of even an average male adult. I was often dressed, for convenience’ sake, boy-fashion or in military uniform. So my parents would call me “Ah Ge” and my younger brothers would call me “Elder Brother” until I almost forgot what I really was.

Often, while my father was attending to his official duties, somebody would take me out on visits to such places as naval ship bridges, batteries, naval wharves, powder magazines and Temple of the Dragon King. I would chat with workers repairing guns, disabled servicemen looking after powder magazines, sailors and naval officers. Being mostly from Shandong Province, they were very amiable and unsophisticated. From them I heard many a strange story about tragic and stirring incidents at sea. Sometimes farmers and fishermen whom I met would talk about their daily life in the mountains and at sea respectively. In those days, apart from my mother and wives of my father’s colleagues, I seldom met with any womenfolks.

I began to learn to read after I was four years of age. At about seven I took private lessons at home together with some male cousins of mine. Being four or five years older than I, they never became my playmates. So I often went alone to enjoy myself in the mountains or by the seaside. I was very familiar with the surrounding country, and over there I loved every blade of grass, every pebble, every grain of sand and every drop of water. I would stroll along the seashore by myself. When the tide was coming in, I felt as if the whole universe were afloat in the air. When the tide was ebbing, I felt as if I were being carried away by the receding waves along with the seashore. Faced with the endearing grandeur of nature, I often felt my young heart palpitating with awe. At dusk, when the bugle announced the end of the day’s duty, its long-drawn-out sound, at once melancholy and stirring, reverberated throughout the surrounding mountains. And its familiar tunes would inexplicably call forth tears in my eyes. At the moment, instead of ennui, I had the feeling of being so small myself.

For lack of playmates, I often spent my time in learning to read and in time formed the habit of reading avidly without bothering to understand everything thoroughly. My tutor, who was very affectionate towards me, wanted me to learn by heart some poems. I appreciated some of them very much though they were beyond my full comprehension. One of them is as follows:

I fail to see the ancients before my time,

Or after me the generations to come.

Thinking of the eternity of Heaven and Earth,

All alone, sadly I shed tears.

I often recited it silently while standing on top of a mountain.

The town nearest to our home was Yantai. My father sometimes took me there to attend a banquet, visit Tian Hou Palace or see an opera. He was not fond of Beijing opera, but since he knew I was then reading the classical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he took me to a playhouse where he selected for performing some pieces based upon the episodes of the novel, such as “Arrows and the Straw-laden Boat”, “A Meeting of Heroes”, “Hua Rong Path”, etc. Although I couldn’t understand a line of them, I was nevertheless very much amused to see actors on the stage impersonating different characters of the novel. That’s why even to this day I have no aversion at all to Beijing opera.

As I grew older, I upgraded my juvenile pursuits. Crickets and kites took the place of shovels and sand pails as more advanced toys. I collected colourful pebbles and kept them in a porcelain bowl. I tried my hand at writing poems and novels, but always left them unfinished because I was more interested in outdoor activities than sedentary work at home.

My father was fond of planting flowers and keeping a dog, which was his only pastime in his after-office hours. Because of that, I’ve never been afraid of animals and always loved flowers and trees. My mother also loved flowers, but she didn’t like dogs. In summer we often sat under the bean or flower trellises to enjoy the evening cool and drink beer or soda water. My mother kept early hours, so, after she went indoors, my father would take me to the naval ship bridge to watch the stars. He would point out various constellations and tell me their names and positions. He often said, “Look, the numerous stars are far away from us, but we sailors can’t for a single moment go without them. When we get lost a sea, we’ll look to them like they were our dear folks.” Hence my lifelong preference of the stars over the moon.

My father often took me to a naval ship and showed me around. It aroused in me an inexpressible feeling of admiration to see everything on board so spick-and-span, and so glossy and spotlessly white. I also often had the opportunity of meeting many good friends of my father’s, among them Mr. Sa Zhenbing and Mr. Huang Zanhou. They were as grave as kind, self-disciplined, and calm and modest. Sometimes, they also wrote poems, often in response to those by my father, on the same theme and using the same rhyme pattern. They were among those described as “scholar-generals” by the literati of those days. It was my ardent dream then to make a “scholar-general” of myself by following in the footsteps of my father and his friends, unaware that being a female, I was disqualified from becoming their disciple.

All that lasted until I returned with my folks to my home town Fuzhou at the age of eleven. I cannot help feeling grateful now for the drastic change it brought to my life. Had I continued the training I had been undergoing before I was eleven, I might have become very masculine and mentally unhealthy. Thanks to this change, I gradually moved away from my father’s side and back to my mother’s embrace, thus living the life of a young girl.

The experience I gained in childhood has impressed the following on my character:

First, I keep an earnest attitude towards life. I love orderliness, discipline and cleanliness. I hate to see or hear of things absurd, undisciplined or slack.

Secondly, I love an open and high environment. I’m not afraid of loneliness and seclusion. I’m willing often to get myself lost in wide open spaces. Therefore, the moment I’m in an open country, I’ll immediately feel like being back in my old home. I don’t like to live in a city. I’m afraid of socializing. I don’t crave for things urban.

Thirdly, I always prefer to be dressed in black, blue, grey and white rather than gay colours. On a couple of occasions, I did wear bright-coloured dresses at my mother’s insistence, which made me feel so awkward and uncomfortable that I had soon to take them off. However, I think all that is just a matter of habit. In fact, it’s quite all right for young girls to be “decked out” to follow their natural inclination for beauty so long as it is in good taste.

Fourthly, I like to be straightforward, frank and unaffected in associating with other people. I never force myself to do what I’m unwilling to do, meet people I don’t want to meet or eat meals I dislike. Hence my mother said I was sort of a wilful child destined to get nowhere.

Fifthly, I respect soldiers all my life. To me, they are the embodiment of nobility, courage and discipline. I am interested in everything associated with the armed forces.

Talking of my childhood, I’m forever grateful to my good parents. To them I owe my habit of living a quiet and simple life and my “back to nature” propensity. They gave me a happy and clean environment so that I am now able to feel content under any circumstances. I have a deep respect and love for life. I have no grievances against humanity. I think many human failings can be remedied so long as people strive with firm determination.

Not only do I always remember my parents with gratitude, I also always bear in mind how we should behave ourselves as parents.