Today we have a sample from one of Yaxue’s excellent short stories that reflect on her childhood, and what it was like growing up in Northern China during Mao’s reign. It explores Revolutionary Education as well as the “Learn from Lei Feng movement”.
…“A narrative has five elements,” Ms. Duan said, teaching us how to write a story. “Time, Location, Character, Event, and the Subject.” The first four elements were easy to understand, but it was hard for Ms. Duan to get her students to grasp the last one, and still harder for them to write with a subject in mind. The subject, or the main idea, said Ms. Duan, was the heart of a narrative, a point to be demonstrated. With every lesson in our Chinese textbook, Ms. Duan went through the five elements one by one, expounding upon the main idea in particular.
Take the story of “The Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland.” Long Mei and Yu Rong were two young sisters who lived in Inner Mongolia. One day they went out to graze a herd of sheep belonging to the people’s commune. It started out as a beautiful day and the girls took the flock far away from their encampment. Later that day, however, the weather changed suddenly with harsh wind and black clouds gathering force in the sky. Soon a blizzard swept through, and the sisters fought hard to drive the herd back home. An illustration in our textbook depicted the sisters—two slender, blurry figures—struggling under a darkening sky, the snow slashing down in a fierce wind. They lost their way and were in danger of freezing to death. At the bleakest moment, they reminded themselves that the flock belonged to the people’s commune, that, as the people’s livelihood, it was more important than their own lives, and that, if they had to, they would give their own lives to save it. Fortunately the sisters were rescued and safely brought home. And when they woke up later on from a stupor to a crowd of fellow herdsmen, the first thing they asked was “How is the flock?”
The main idea of the story, Ms. Duan explained, was that “the sisters cared about the property of the commune more than their own lives.”
The students caught on quickly. Soon they were able to “draw inferences about other stories from one demonstration” as Ms. Duan hoped. For example, in the story of how the 8th Company, which was quartered at Nanjing Avenue, the most luxurious part of Shanghai, patched their old uniforms and kept wearing them year after year, the main idea was: “The story exemplifies the revolutionary spirit of striving through hardship and warns us against bourgeois corruption.” The main idea of the story of soldier Huang Jiguang, who blocked fire from a machine gun with his own body, was: “The story extols the spirit of the hero sacrificing his own life for the revolutionary cause.”
Ms. Duan was so pleased by her students that she nodded and smiled, baring a row of very small teeth. But to get her fifth graders to write something around a main idea, she had to keep drilling them and yelling at them.
For every composition, Ms. Duan would designate a title, and it would be something like:
“A Good Person”, in which you were to portray someone with unfailing good thoughts and good character;
“A Good Deed”, in which you were to describe a good deed of yours or someone else’s that you had witnessed and the noble thoughts that inspired it;
“One Meaningful Labor Session”, in which you were to recount our latest labor session, be it planting trees on a hill, collecting wheat ears left in the field after harvest, sweeping the school yard, or the like, and find the deep meanings in what we did;
“My Dream”, in which we were to explain what we wanted to be when we grew up, and we all wanted to be workers, farmers or soldiers, the most glorious people.
Having written down the title on the blackboard and explained what she wanted from us, Ms. Duan would sit down behind her desk on the raised platform overlooking us. Amid the rustling of papers and the ensuing silence, the students set out to produce their work in the next 45 minutes…
This complete piece and more is available in Yaxue’s collection – The Subject and Two Other Stories of a Childhood in China (Amazon $2.99).